Discovering the Decades: 1800s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1800s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Nov 5, 2020 at 3:09 PM

Points in Time

The Eighteen-Oughts: Alexandria, District of Columbia

The Alexandria of 1800 basked in the sunshine of economic prosperity as the premier port on the Potomac River. Its harbor bristled with activity as ships unloaded their cargoes of Antigua rum, Puerto Rico coffee and Lisbon wines, as well as an assortment of manufactured goods from Great Britain. The population was said to be 4,971 in 1800, but grew to 6,543 by 1808 and to 7,143 in 1810.

Included within the boundaries of the District of Columbia in 1791, Alexandria did not legally become a component of the federal district until 1801. The Fairfax County Court, which had met on Market Square since 1752, relocated to the town of Providence, now Fairfax City, in April 1800.

By June 1800, the federal government began its move from Philadelphia to the planned Washington City, where Congress convened its first session on November 17. Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott suggested in a letter that Alexandria would have been established as the seat of the government, if George Washington had not been confined to a choice on the east side of the Potomac. Washington, sensitive to charges of financial impropriety, had been reluctant to openly lobby for his hometown since he was the owner of adjacent real estate. [Stoessel, The Port of Alexandria in the Eighteenth Century]

Commerce and trade

Although Alexandria's shipping interests had been harmed by the undeclared naval war with France, trade soon rebounded. The Alexandria Advertiser editorialized in 1802, that "Not more than two years since it was a rare thing to see a square rigged vessel in our harbour; we now have our wharves lined with vessels destined for foreign ports. Our merchants have generally received their fall goods, and we sincerely hope they will reap the reward of their labors..." From 1801 to 1810, Alexandria shipped to foreign countries 613,895 barrels of flour and 233,139 bushels of wheat. The town's major markets were Portugal and Spain. The West Indies remained the best market for flour, taking nearly one- third of Alexandria's exports in addition to 35% of its corn. A large percentage of Alexandria's commerce also centered around its coastwise trade with New England. Tobacco, preserved meats, grain and forest products account for the majority of commodities exchanged. [Peterson, "The Alexandria Market Prior to the Civil War," William & Mary Quarterly (Vol. 11, Series 2)] By 1810, Alexandria also ranked third in the nation in the production of refined sugar (see Place in Time, below). Crude sugar was imported from the West Indies and New Orleans in exchange for cargoes of flour and tobacco.

But sometimes trade brought tragedy. As a seaport community Alexandria was continually exposed to plagues, epidemics and other serious diseases. The venerable Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick estimated that nearly 3,000 inhabitants left town during the yellow fever epidemic of 1803, and of those who remained, 200 or more became permanent residents of Penny Hill Cemetery. [Smith and Miller, Seaport Saga]

After 1805 Alexandria's trade was somewhat disrupted by the construction of a causeway from the Virginia shore to Mason's Island. This structure not only obstructed the river passage between Alexandria and Georgetown but it blocked the flow of commercial traffic down the Potomac Canal from the western hinterlands to the port of Alexandria. As a result, Alexandrians began to agitate for the construction of a canal paralleling the river.

At the same time there were more serious challenges to Alexandria's commerce. One of the weapons in the war between Great Britain and France were paper blockades of their enemy's ports. Should any neutrals violate the blockades, each of the combatants was more than willing to seize their ships and cargoes. The British also turned to the forced impressment  of sailors from American ships to replenish the Royal Navy. The Jefferson Administration responded to the situation by passing a series of Non-importation Acts. Finally in December 1807, Jefferson declared a complete trade embargo with foreign countries. As an instrument of diplomatic policy, the embargo was ineffectual and only served to devastate American ports. Those who obeyed suffered grave damage and ships still abroad were prey to the French. Some enterprising traders nonetheless carried on a brisk smuggling trade. Faced with widespread opposition, President Jefferson signed the Non-Intercourse Act in 1809, which repealed the Embargo Acts and re-opened American shipping to other countries, excepting that of France and Great Britain.

Alexandria ended the first decade of the nineteenth century with a spectacular fire which ravaged the waterfront. "It commenced in a cooper's shop near the wharves adjoining Union Street on September 24, 1810 and consumed nearly every building from Prince to Duke Street." [Seaport Saga]

Land Transportation

By any standard, land travel in early Virginia was cumbersome and slow. Hogsheads of tobacco were rolled over mere paths while stagecoaches and carriages crept along roads filled with ruts and stones. With access to a deep water port, Alexandrians initially neglected the importance of a transportation system to the transmontane region. Alexandria's lifeblood, however, depended on the transport of wheat and flour from the hinterlands by wagon.

In 1796, Virginia granted the Fairfax and Loudoun Turnpike Company the first private charter in the state to construct a road from Alexandria to the ford of the Little River at Aldie. Unsuccessful in this venture, the company was reorganized in 1802 and renamed the Little River Turnpike Company. By 1806, with some financial aid from the state, it had laid out, paved and opened a new road to Aldie. In 1808 the Fauquier and Alexandria Turnpike Company built a new paved road between Fairfax and Warrenton and connected to the Little River Turnpike. In an era when most turnpikes failed to turn a profit, the Little River, under the direction of Alexandria Quaker Phineas Janney, paid dividends to its shareholders. [Harrison, Landmarks of Old Prince William] Alexandrians also shortened the distance to the towns of Colchester, Occoquan and Fredericksburg. The Hunting Creek Bridge Company was chartered to erect a toll bridge over Great Hunting Creek. The span was completed sometime before 1810, and the Hunting Creek Turnpike was extended to Dogue Run. At the north end of town, the Washington-Alexandria Turnpike Company began to construct a road toward the capital in 1808. The road roughly paralleled the current Route 1, then crossed Four Mile Run, and eventually led to the new Long Bridge across the Potomac. Completed at a cost of $100,000 in 1809, this 5,000-foot bridge was reputed to be the longest in the world. The route was a real boon to businessmen and local citizens since it halved the distance from Alexandria to Washington City.

Politics and law

Virginia laws remained in effect in Alexandria until the U.S. Congress passed a new charter for the town in 1804. The charter eliminated the offices of recorder and aldermen, divided the town into four wards, and provided for a sixteen-member common council to be elected annually. [Macoll, ed., Alexandria, A Towne in Transition]

From the beginning, residents debated the legal and political status of Alexandria within the new Columbian District. Some, including former U.S. Attorney General Charles Lee, forwarded a petition to Congress in 1803 which called for the retrocession of the town because "our characters differ altogether from those of the citizens of Washington and George-Town, that we are `men of industrious habits,' in possession of commerce, arts and mechanism, consequently incapable of cooperating with the vagabonds and speculators in the City." [Alexandria Expositor] The controversy would raise its ugly head later in the century.

Between 1800 and 1809, the citizens of Alexandria provided lavish entertainments for each of the three sitting U.S. presidents — Adams, Jefferson and Madison. With the new capital so close, it was natural that the commander-in-chief would occasionally visit. This "tradition" has continued to this day.

In August, 1809, City Council passed an ordinance which required that each of the approximately 750 free African Americans residing in Alexandria by 1809 had to have a white person attest to his good character in order to be allowed to remain within the city. Members of the Society of Friends protested the legislation. Whether the measures were strictly enforced remains a question for debate. [Miller, Out of Bondage: A History of the Alexandria Colonization Society; Alexandria History (Vol. VII, 1987); Alexandria Gazette] The year before, the federal government had enacted a ban on the further importation of African slaves. Although there was still frequent smuggling, the reduction in the supply of slaves pushed up their prices. Meanwhile, demand intensified with the spread of cotton cultivation in the wake of technological advances in that crop's processing. As a result, the supply-demand situation encouraged most Southern slaveholders to be less willing to manumit their slaves during the antebellum period. It also encouraged Virginia slaveholders to sell one of their greatest assets, human beings, to plantations of the Deep South.

Place in Time

For many years, the site of the first sugar refinery in Alexandria was the convenient place to park when going to the Old Town movie theater or to services at Christ Church. More recently, the half block on Cameron Street between Columbus and Alfred streets has become home to the Alexandria Red Cross and several families in new townhouses. The City archaeologists came to the parking lot in the 1980s armed with historic fire insurance maps to discover if we could find the remains of an early nineteenth-century sugar refinery. During five field seasons, archaeologists and volunteers dug the entire half block, finding the remains of the foundations, exterior vats and outbuildings, a large cistern, and the home of one of the owners. Research provided by Sara Revis assisted in recreating the bustling activities which occurred here between 1804 and ca. 1828 when the sugar house ceased operation.

Messrs. Brunner and Moore ran the following advertisement in the fall of 1804: "Sugar House—the subscribers have on hand at their Sugar House in Alexandria Loaf and Lump sugars and molasses, their own manufacturing, which they sell at the Philadelphia and Baltimore prices." They had already constructed a five-story sugar house on the lot. Moore bought out Brunner's interest three years later, including the acre of ground, buildings and "all moulds, boilers, coppers, and implements made use of in the sugar refinery...." During the same decade Jacob Hoffman constructed his own sugar house on Washington Street just south of his home (which is now known as the Lloyd House, administrative offices of the Office of Historic Alexandria). Hoffman's complex also included a factory for tobacco products.

If you stood on the corner of South Alfred and Cameron streets 190 years ago, you would have seen two sugar houses at which 800,000 pounds of sugar was produced annually. About seven enslaved men and boys toiled at each refinery at the physically strenuous and dangerous tasks of refining the raw West Indies muscovado to hard, white sugar cones for domestic use and export. Alexandria's sugar production ranked third in quantity only to the entire states of New York and Pennsylvania, even though our population was less than one-tenth that of Philadelphia or New York. [Barr, Cressey and Magid, "How Sweet It Was," in Historical Archaeology of the Chesapeake]

Bank of Alexandria image
The Bank of Alexandria, Cameron and North Fairfax Street


The buildings are chiefly of brick, some of them very stately and elegant. The banks are kept in houses quite magnificent...." So did Captain Henry Massie describe the town of Alexandria in 1808. The most magnificent of the banks was assuredly the Bank of Alexandria, a three-story brick edifice completed in 1807 and assessed at a value of $50,000. The bank failed in the Panic of 1834, and the structure was thereafter incorporated into James Green's Mansion House Hotel complex. Now perhaps the second oldest purpose-built bank building in America, you can see the structure today restored to its Federal-period appearance. Particularly notable are its neoclassical arched doorways with their American eagle carvings on the keystones. 

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.