Discovering the Decades: 1830s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1830s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Nov 5, 2020 at 3:15 PM

Points in Time

  • 1827-1838: Beginning of great Irish and German immigration
  • 1830: Indian Removal Act  
  • 1830: Andrew Jackson reorganizes his cabinet as a result of the Eaton affair 
  • 1830: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founded
  • 1830: First U.S. locomotive constructed; B & O Railroad opens;
  • 1830: Godey’s Lady’s Book founded
  • 1831: Nat Turner revolt; Anti-Masonic Party founded; mechanical reaper invented
  • 1832-1833: Controversy over state nullification of federal laws reaches its peak, and lower tariffs adopted to assuage the feelings of Southerners
  • 1833: Jackson vetoes renewal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States; sudden withdrawal of federal funds from Bank causes a financial panic
  • 1834: Whig Party arises  
  • 1834: First use of federal troops to intervene in a labor dispute (among the Irish laborers constructing the C & O Canal); electric motor invented
  • 1836: Texas declares its independence and fights a two-month war with Mexico; U.S. Patent Office established; Samuel Colt patents the revolver
  • 1836-1844: Congress repeatedly denies hearings on anti-slavery legislation
  • 1837: Financial panic brought about by reckless land speculation; Samuel Morse patents Morse Code for use with his new “telegraph”; John Deere invents one-piece steel plow
  • 1837-1840: American-Canadian border tensions
  • 1839: Charles Goodyear discovers vulcanized rubber
  • 1839: Slave mutiny on Spanish ship L’Amistad  

The Unites States of 1830 contained 12.9 million inhabitants. Over the decade, 600,000 European immigrants entered the U.S., many of whom left Ireland and Germany for economic and political reasons. More than half of the country's urban population was concentrated in its four largest cities (in descending order): New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston. While Alexandrians had always tried to emulate Philadelphia, formerly the biggest city, they were increasingly comparing themselves – and being increasingly unfavorably compared to – Baltimore, the booming nearby commercial rival.

The rapid growth of cities and towns was due largely to immigration and the attractive force of factory employment. The down-side of these phenomena included unprecedented crowding, anti-immigrant and anti-black agitation, and an increasing physical and economic separation between the wealthier and poorer inhabitants.

Relatively tiny Alexandria, with its 8,241 residents in 1830, was described much as it had been in 1820 or 1810 or 1800.

The streets...are generally well paved. It is considered remarkably healthy, and the view from the city is very fine... The river opposite to the town is a mile in breadth, and varies from 34 to 52 feet in depth...the harbor is naturally very fine and it has been much improved by the erection of large and commodious wharves... [Joseph Martin, Gazetteer of Virginia and the District of Columbia]

Alexandria boasted three banks with an aggregate capital of $1,700,000 and three insurance companies. It also had several “baking establishments, where ships bread and crackers are made equal to any manufactured in the United States or elsewhere, two ship yards, an extensive brewery, and several tanneries, a foundry upon a large scale with a manufactory of steam engines and various machinery for cotton factories, and several manufactories of cigars.” The town carried on “an extensive trade in flour, tobacco, sumac, fish, lumber and other articles, with the Southern states, West India and Europe.” By 1831 209,294 barrels of flour were shipped from the port, with total foreign exports reaching about $600,000 to $900,000 a year in the early 1830s {Martin}. During the decade the export of fish was a major industry in Alexandria as 150 sites above and below the town produced a catch amounting to $750,000,000 herring and 22,500,000 shad in 1835.

Phoenix-like, an artificial village known as “Fishtown” would arise each spring on the strand between Princess and Oronoco Streets where hundreds of African Americans could be seen gutting, separating and packing fish in barrels of brine.

Nonetheless, the editor of the Alexandria Gazette commented on what he perceived to be an underlying weakness in the local economy and suggested that Alexandrians rely less on flour exports and concentrate on establishing large, diversified trading houses.

The town was ill-prepared for the economic vicissitudes of the 1830s. President Jackson's war against the Second National Bank - which he considered too powerful and anti-democratic - reached a crisis. In 1833 he ordered that $10 million of federal money be withdrawn from the Bank and deposited in some state banks. The Bank reacted by calling in commercial loans, which led to a panic and recession. One of the casualties was the Bank of Alexandria, Virginia's oldest financial institution, which failed in 1834.

Prosperity briefly returned in 1835, fed by the new wealth of the state banks. Cotton prices soared and so did speculation in western lands. The following year, however, both the federal government and English leaders directly or indirectly tightened credit, causing a major six-year depression as the land market collapsed. It is said that, for a time, most of the workers in New York were unemployed. The conditions ruined the country's nascent unions, as each worker was forced to fend for himself. Dependent on far-flung commerce, Alexandria was damaged as much as anywhere. Private societies were created “for furnishing employment to the industrious, indigent and several for supplying food, clothing and fuel to the poor in winter.”

Frustrated by the inability to compete with other ports even in the best of times, Alexandria gambled on a major, capital-intensive transportation initiative: canal building. Local business leaders subscribed to shares in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, which was intended to cross the mountains and reach the Ohio Valley. It was hoped that a legion of horse-drawn barges would make available western raw materials and western markets. In addition, Alexandrians began the construction of a seven-mile-long, forty-foot-wide canal that would connect the town to the terminus of the C&O at Georgetown. This connection required an enormous aqueduct, the construction of which was one of the great engineering feats of the nineteenth century. Just as remarkable was its cost: nearly one million dollars.

On July 4, 1831, with great fanfare the construction of the canal began one mile north of Alexandria on the Washington Road. Mayor John Roberts “in due form commenced the Alexandria Canal first by breaking ground amidst the cheers and good wishes of the assembled multitude. G.W.P. Custis, (Martha Washington's grandson) ... delivered a patriotic and eloquent address, pertinent to the glorious day.” The project was soon beset by problems as Alexandria was unable to meet its annual $15,000 interest payment. In 1836, the town petitioned the U.S. Congress for relief, but assistance was not forthcoming. “Left to its own resources, Alexandria poured more and more borrowed money into the aqueduct and lateral canal. On top of an additional $50,000 investment authorized in 1835, the Common Council in 1836 agreed to the investment of $250,000 more in the project. The money was to be borrowed and interest on the loan be paid by the levy of a special add-on real estate tax.” [William B. Fraley, in A Town in Transition] Therefore, when the U.S. Congress passed a bill authorizing $300,000 for canal expenses in March 1837, Alexandrians rejoiced, marching through the streets and lighting bonfires.

Of course, today we know that the canal was a failure. Encouraged by the success of New York's Erie Canal, however, it would not have seemed unreasonable to bet on these man-made waterways. But canals were contending not only with each other, but also with a new technology, the steam locomotive. Although Alexandria would later become a rail hub, the businessmen of bustling Baltimore first seized the reins of the iron horse and constructed a rail line parallel to and competing with the C&O Canal.

Even in the 1830s, observers perceived the downward trend of Alexandria's relative economic power, a trend which had begun during the administration of Thomas Jefferson.

As her star was descending others were ascending to take the place of the fallen brightness. Georgetown and Washington prospered at her expense...with the benefit of trade once confined to the better known Alexandria... Alexandria's commerce has dwindled to less than the tithe of what it was, and the trade of a great producing country has gone with it. Many of the streets, for lack of the destroyer man to walk upon them have given a quiet resting place for the rank weed. [Alexandria Gazette 1/29/1840]

Slavery and anti-slavery

Alexandria's other major enterprise during this era had a far more unsavory quality. It centered on the slave trade and the transshipment of thousands of African Americans to the deep-South cotton states of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Headquartered at 1315 Duke Street the firm of Franklin and Armfield, slave dealers, commenced operation in 1828. Advertisements appeared constantly in the local newspaper which stipulated that “cash and highest market prices would be paid for any numbers of likely young negroes of both sexes.” By the 1830s, Alexandria had become the largest slave trading center in the United States. [William F. Smith and T. Michael Miller, A Seaport Saga]

The trade in surplus slaves represented the contrast between the exhausted soil of Northern Virginia and the expanding cotton culture in the deep South. There were many Virginians who sought the eventual emancipation of all enslaved people – as long as they could be “returned” to colonies in Africa or the Caribbean. The Society of Friends was particularly active in encouraging gradual abolition, with or without colonization. Formed in Alexandria in 1827, a Quaker-led “Benevolent Society for Ameliorating and Improving the Condition of the people of Color” assisted with manumissions and published a series of anti-slavery essays.

In 1831, an event occurred which threw the question of slavery into stark relief and encouraged Southern intransigence in the matter. In Southampton County, Virginia, near the North Carolina border, a preacher named Nat Turner led many of his fellow slaves in a revolt. Before Turner and his compatriots were captured, more than fifty whites had been killed. It was every slaveholder's nightmare. The countryside was up in arms, and the repercussions were extensive.

During the winter of 1831 and 1832, a Virginia convention discussed many aspects of the slavery "problem.'' Various emancipation proposals were narrowly defeated. The majority chose to defend the institution and tighten control over enslaved people. Harsh slave codes were implemented throughout the South to curb the blacks' freedom of movement and assembly, and to restrict education and possible manumission.

Free black men in Alexandria, fearful of reprisal and further restrictions of their freedoms, signed a petition pledging their loyalty, and condemning the actions of the slave insurrectionists. In the North reaction was immediate. Several anti-slavery societies were founded and were most influential in New England. Abolitionist figures like William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Weld, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were commonly considered dangerous radicals. Slaveholders grew increasingly defensive, however, under increasing scrutiny and the withering criticism of the abolitionist press. An abolitionist editor in Illinois was murdered in 1837. In 1836 congressmen who supported slavery or feared the conflicts which might ensue from tampering with the institution adopted a “gag rule” which forbade the introduction or discussion of anti-slavery bills. With the help of figures like Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery in 1838, the abolitionists gradually convinced many that slavery is intolerable. But it would take a great war to make commonplace this once-radical idea.

Pardon me, Mr. President

The same year, an assault was made on the American president, although one of the pugilistic sort. As President Andrew Jackson was being feted on board the Sydney at the Alexandria waterfront, Robert Randolph, a disgruntled naval officer, attacked him. ``At the first blow...almost a hundred arms fell upon the assailant and he was with difficulty rescued and carried on shore. We have never known more excitement nor more feeling to be manifested by all our citizens... The President was naturally highly excited and exasperated - he departed amidst the cheers and good wishes of the great crowd which had assembled.'' Randolph escaped to Richmond. Because the attack had occurred in the District of Columbia, an arrest warrant could not be served on Randolph in Virginia. President Jackson chose not to pursue the issue and, aside from a condemnation by the Alexandria City Council, Randolph was never tried nor punished for the attack. [T. Michael Miller, Murder & Mayhem]

Mills Courthouse image
Built in 1838 by noted architect Robert Mills, the District Courthouse for Alexandria, D.C. stood on the 300 block of North Columbus Street.
Lyceum Civil War image
Civil War era photograph of the Lyceum at 201 South Washington Street, built in 1839. The Lyceum now houses Alexandria’s History Museum.


The “Grecian mode'' of architecture - with its colonnaded porticos, gable and hipped roofs of low pitch, and doors surrounded by narrow sidelights - flourished in Alexandria during the 1830s and 1840s. Two outstanding examples of Greek Revival, the old District Courthouse (no longer standing) and The Lyceum, were erected in 1838 and 1839, respectively.

In 1838, the noted American architect, Robert Mills, creator of the Washington Monument and Architect of Public Buildings, designed the District Courthouse for Alexandria, D.C., on the west side of the 300 block of North Columbus Street. The sixty-foot-square edifice was erected by Alexandria contractor James Dixon. It was fireproof construction and its facade had a two-story Doric portico above a high basement. A gracefully curved double stairway rose to the main floor level. In addition, it had a low-hipped roof surmounted by an octagonal cupola from which a bell rang out on court days. [Smith and Miller, Seaport Saga; Penny Morrill, Who Built Alexandria?]

Quaker educator Benjamin Hallowell was the superintendent and perhaps the designer for the construction of the Lyceum building at 201 South Washington Street. James Philips was the mason for the project, and William H. McKnight and David Price executed the carpentry. Intended for the improvement of society through education, the Lyceum was built to house a library and a lecture hall. The imposing building exhibits ``walls articulated by Greek Doric pilasters and terminated by a correct entablature of that order... The major feature of the front is a tetrastyle Doric portico, in this instance with fluted columns. The Lyceum, with its restrained and austere classical formality, is a fine example of the Greek Revival style and an important architectural ornament to the city...'' [Denys Peter Myers, “The Greek Revival Style in Alexandria” in Historic Alexandria Antiques Show Bulletin 1990]

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.