Discovering the Decades: 1790s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1790s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Nov 5, 2020 at 3:07 PM

Points in Time

  • 1790: The first U.S. census taken; Alexandria's population is 2748, and nearly 22% are African Americans; Congress passes a naturalization act; first successful water-powered cotton mill erected; first patent granted
  • 1790-1795: Warfare between the U.S. Army and the Indians of the old Northwest
  • 1791: First Bank of the United States founded; Bill of Rights  is ratified; first internal revenue tax; Vermont becomes a state
  • 1792: Construction of the White House begins; U.S. mint established at Philadelphia; Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin
  • 1793: First federal fugitive slave law; Neutrality Act; Thomas Jefferson invents the moldboard plow
  • 1794: Whisky Rebellion 
  • 1795: First practical industrial steam engine in the U.S.
  • 1797: First U.S. medical journal published
  • 1798-1800: The Quasi-War with France  
  • 1799: George Washington dies

At the dawn of a new decade Alexandrians were delighted to fete Ambassador Thomas Jefferson at Wise's Tavern (201 North Fairfax Street) upon his return from France in March 1790. During the ceremony Mayor William Hunter delivered these welcoming remarks: "As a commercial town, we feel ourselves particularly indebted to you for the indulgences which your enlightened representations to the Court of France have secured to our trade. You have freed commerce from its shackles..." Jefferson's reply acknowledged his guests' hospitality: "Accept my sincere thanks for yourself and the worthy citizens of Alexandria, for their kind congratulations on my return to my native country. I am happy to learn that they have felt benefit from the encouragements to our commerce which have been given by an allied nation...."

Jefferson's sentiments presaged the economic revitalization of the 1790s. This surge was fueled in part by the lucrative grain trade as thousands of wagons wended their way to the port of Alexandria from Fauquier, Loudoun, Prince William Counties to off-load their cargoes of wheat, flour, rye and corn. Enormous quantities of grain were transshipped to the Caribbean, Iberian Peninsula and Europe. The total exports from Alexandria amounted to $381,000 in 1791 and to $948,000 in 1795.

By 1790, Alexandria had become the principal port on the Potomac. In 1796, it ranked as the third largest exporter of flour and the seventh largest port in the United States. This growth is suggested by the myriad goods and services available in town. No more was the town a provincial depot. Alexandria in the 1790s was a grand cornucopia from which almost any item from ostrich feathers to pianofortes could be acquired. The town's streets and byways were dotted with silversmiths, saddlers, blacksmiths, furniture makers, bakers, whitesmiths, tanners, brewers, seamstresses and tobacconists to name a few.

The town's bustling "wharves could accommodate the storage of large quantities of materials and the erection of large structures." Ships from Spain, Britain, Portugal, the West Indies and the Caribbean unloaded their precious cargoes of imported china, rum and molasses. On April 28, 1792, Lund Washington, in a letter to George Washington wrote that the port of Alexandria "has seldom less than twenty square-rigged vessels in it and often more. The streets are crowded with wagons and the people all seem to be busy." Indeed by 1795, "Alexandria's exports placed it second behind Norfolk among Virginia's custom houses... Alexandria's share of Virginia's exports rose from 12% of the total value in 1791 to 29% in 1795." By the end of the decade nearly 1,000 vessels docked annually at the city wharves. And, by annexation, the town had been increased in size to incorporate all of the area we know today as "Old Town."

In November 1792, the General Assembly incorporated the first bank established in Virginia. Known as the Bank of Alexandria, it was first situated at 305 Cameron Street until a new structure (133 North Fairfax Street) was erected for its headquarters. It provided needed capital for investment and regional development.

Visitors were generally very positive about Alexandria's progress. According to Thomas Twinning, "What most struck me was the vast number of houses which I saw building... The hammer and the trowel were at work every where, a cheering sight." The Duc de la Rochefoucault noted: "Alexandria is beyond all comparison the handsomest town in Virginia and indeed is among the finest in the United States.

Some were more ambivalent: "[T]he situation of the town will soon make it a very important post... there are about 3,200 inhabitants; the houses are principally brick; the streets are not paved and being of clay, after rain they are slippery, it is almost impossible to walk in them." But the City Council was actively trying to remedy such problems. In 1794 Council passed an act to pave the principal streets with cobbles. But there was no pleasing everyone. A European emigrant wrote to his friend in London, rather unappreciative of Virginia culture. "Alexandria is one of the most wicked places I ever beheld in my life; cockfighting, horse racing, with every species of gambling and cheating, being apparently the principal business going forward. As a proof of this you may judge of the extent of this dissipation when I inform you, this little place contains no less than between forty and fifty billiard tables...."

In truth, many Alexandrians favored more refined pursuits. In 1799, impresario Thomas Wade West built the town's first permanent theater at 406 Cameron Street. It was a "large three-story structure decorated with handsome pediments and deep cornices, the window frames, tresses and rustic work of stone." For many years it was the scene of plays by Shakespeare, Moliere and other notable bards. To promote literary and cultural awareness, a Society for the Promotion of Useful Knowledge was formed in 1790. It served as a precursor to the private organization which, in 1794, established the Alexandria Subscription Library, the first private library company in Virginia.

As a seaport town Alexandria was vulnerable to epidemics including yellow fever and malaria. To contain these contagions, in 1793 Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick  was appointed health office with authority to set up a quarantine station at Jones Point for the inspection of ships. "By January 1, 1794, Dick had entered a total of 55 vessels in quarantine and the contagion did not reach Alexandria." [Shomette, Maritime Alexandria]

The year 1790 was the time of the first national census, a time when the town's demographics were changing rapidly. The population was growing very quickly in this prosperous era; between 1790 and 1798, the town's population grew by about 2000 individuals or 41%. Some of these new residents were members of the Society of Friends, who increasingly migrated here from Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the 1780s. Many Quakers became prominent businessmen and civic leaders. As early as 1796, Quakers had founded an early abolition organization in Alexandria known as the "Society for the Relief and Protection of Persons Illegally Held in Bondage."

Alexandria's African American population was also increasing, particularly in the numbers of free blacks or former slaves. These people had been manumitted by their masters or had purchased their freedom through hard work and careful savings. Many of the artisans who built Alexandria were skilled African Americans, including free blacks. Skilled laborers were in a better position to earn a little money toward the purchase of their freedom. Being more valuable to their owners, however, the price of their freedom was usually dear. One noteworthy individual who never gained his freedom was "Negro Tom," a slave of Elizabeth Cox of Fairfax County. A true prodigy, Tom was referred to in a newspaper obituary as a "human calculator" for his prodigious mathematical abilities. Illiterate from the denial of education, he nonetheless could perform amazing feats of memory and calculation. An undeniable although qualified admiration is apparent in the account despite the pervasive racism of the time.

National and international events

In 1789, Virginia and Maryland had joined in donating territory to establish a new federal capital city on the banks of the Potomac River. Expecting a bright future as part of a booming metropolis, Alexandrians rejoiced when surveyor Andrew Ellicott and his assistant, African American Benjamin Banneker, arrived in town in the spring of 1791 to lay out the new district. In a public display, Mayor Philip Marsteller, the Commonality and free masons marched to Jones Point on April 15, 1791 to lay the first cornerstone of the District.

The Federal government's internal revenue legislation of 1791 instituted an excise tax on whiskey-the only form in which grain grown west of the Allegheny Mountains could be transported and sold in the east. The western settlers, otherwise largely ignored by the Federal and state governments, irately and not unjustifiably charged the government with enforcing "taxation without representation," the rallying cry of the patriots of a generation earlier. With mob violence directed against Federal officials in western Pennsylvania, the government concluded that the insurrection was a real threat to the nation's security. President Washington took personal command of an army mustered by the states to pacify the affected area by force. Like forty years earlier, hundreds of Virginia militia marched toward the Monongahela to secure the frontier. This time, however, with the approach of the army, the "enemy" melted away into the countryside, and only a handful were arrested and tried.

Franco-American cooperation dissolved after Louis XVI was deposed. True, many Americans were still strongly pro-French, but others were just as staunchly mistrustful of the radical Jacobins and the consulate and the empire which followed. The rivalry between Britain and France continued unabated. The French were highly critical and suspicious of the Jay Treaty which was concluded between England and the U.S. in 1794. Congress passed an Act of Neutrality with respect to these great powers- over the objections of the French and a minority of Americans who considered it a violation of the Franco-American military alliance that had been signed in 1778 and which was largely responsible for winning the Revolution. Relations deteriorated rapidly with a series of high-handed French diplomatic moves. Soon the French began to intercept American shipping and, in the fall of 1798, the United States found itself in an undeclared naval war. U.S. Naval personnel were recruited at Alexandria and soon the town's shipyards were bustling as privateers were being constructed for service against the enemy. The fledgling American Navy acquitted itself well, but many commercial vessels were seized. At least twenty Alexandria registered ships were captured; the National Archives has several boxes of invoices of cargoes seized. American ground forces (including the "Alexandria Blues") and military installations (including the earth fort constructed at Jones Point by French engineer Jean de Vermonnet) saw no action. The Adams administration finally smoothed over differences with the French and signed a new commercial treaty.

The century ended on a sad note with the death of George Washington December 14, 1799. His funeral was virtually an Alexandria affair; perhaps a quarter of the townspeople participated in some fashion, and many streamed to Mount Vernon to pay homage their hero and beloved friend and neighbor. Washington's death appropriately marked the end of the Revolutionary era and the beginning of the passing of the generation which had triumphed in that struggle.

DC Mile Marker image
Map of mile markers for the Federal City. The southernmost marker is located at Jones Point. Alexandria was part of the Federal District from 1791 until 1847, when it retroceded to Virginia.
DC Corner Stone image
The cornerstone at Jones Point. Erected in 1793, this stone is visible in the seawall below the Lighthouse.

Place in Time

We walk through Jones Point Park today enjoying the pastoral scene within the city and under the shadow of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. As dogs romp and children play soccer, it is incredible to imagine how this boot of land became the starting point for America's capital, the District of Columbia. The Residence Act was passed on July 15, 1790, authorizing President Washington to locate the ten-mile-square capital on the Potomac River between the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River) and the Connogochegue, near Williamsport, Maryland. On the advice of Andrew Ellicott, the director of the D.C. survey, Washington altered his initial plan to include the thriving port of Alexandria the southeastern and southwestern sides of the District would " Jones Point, being the upper cape of Hunting Creek."

The survey team crossed the marshy western end of Jones Point and set up camp near shore. Mathematician Benjamin Banneker maintained the high-tech astronomical and surveying instruments and did the calculations to assure proper alignment of the boundaries. The team indicated the precise spot where the first of forty stones would be put to demarcate the boundaries of the District.

The stones marking the boundary are unbelievably still extant in today's urban environment. Walk to the seawall near the lighthouse and look down into the opening to see what remains of the southern cornerstone. Although the original stone was erected with grand ceremony on April 15, 1791, it is possible that it was replaced in 1794. Other boundary markers can be viewed along the southwestern line of the District of Columbia that cuts across Alexandria: Southwest Mile Marker 1 at the southeast corner of Wilkes and Payne streets; Southwest Mile Marker 2 at the east side of Russell Road north of King Street; Southwest Mile Marker 3 at the north end of the First Baptist Church parking lot, 2900 King Street. They are protected by fences placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Southwest Mile Marker is just north of Alexandria near Fairlington Village at Wakefield and King streets, but is broken and partly covered by the pavement.

Artifacts: Piercy Pottery

In 1974, a five-foot deep privy was excavated at 406 King Street. In 1795-1796, this was the rear of Piercy and Graham's china and glass shop. The privy produced more than 80 vessels of Piercy's coarse red earthenware, including several large dishes and pans decorated yellow slip. Also found were a large assortment of English ceramics and glass, lead bale seals, a watch fob, buttons, eyeglass frames, and a folding rule.

Henry Piercy, Alexandria's best known earthenware potter, came to Alexandria from Philadelphia in 1792. His pottery was located on South Washington Street, beneath what is now Lloyd's Row. He advertised his redware pottery as "equal to any work in Philadelphia or elsewhere." It is indeed very similar to forms and styles produced in Philadelphia.


Gadsby's Tavern image
Gadsby’s Tavern Museum. The Georgian style 1785 building is to the left of the Federal style 1792 City Hotel.

With the close of the Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution, Americans sought to establish their own national identity apart from their primarily British roots. As in politics, architectural taste at once reflected both English precedents and an independent streak. The "Federal period" called for a new, "Federal style" of architecture.  

Sharing many of the elements of its predecessor, the Georgian style, Federal architecture was more chaste, refined and attenuated. The two buildings of Gadsby's Tavern, 134 North Royal Street, provide a side-by-side comparison of the styles (see below). The smaller, south building, built ca. 1785 is clearly Georgian, with its center hall, horizontality, heavy cornice, prominent jack arches and water table. The large 1792 building has a much plainer (and more "planar") facade; it too has jack arches, but of rubbed, gauged brick and not Renaissance-inspired stone voussoirs. There is no stone belt course between stories. While symmetry is still very important, it is not as rigid as the Georgian; the entry has now been put off-center in a four-bay facade. The cornice and door surround are somewhat simpler and lighter. The door is flanked by fluted neoclassical columns.

Travelers Accounts of the Alexandria Waterfront provides additional information on Alexandria’s early history.

Discovering the Decades was created as a series in Alexandria Archaeology's newsletter, in honor of the City's 250th Birthday in 1999. A number of City staff contributed to this project, including Al Cox, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy J. Dennee,T. Michael Miller, and Peter Smith. Some of the original articles have been updated based on new research.