Discovering the Decades: 1840s

This historical summary, reprinted from the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News (1999), places Alexandria’s history from the 1840s in a wider perspective.

Page updated on Jul 1, 2019 at 12:15 PM

Points in Time

  • 1840: Antislavery “Liberty Party” founded; 10-hour day declared for laborers on federal public works; world’s first dental school opened in Baltimore
  • 1842: American settlement of Oregon territory begins; Canadian border with Maine and upper Midwest settled; first recorded use of general anesthesia in surgery; P.T. Barnum opens museum in New York City
  • 1843: Methodist Church splits over slavery; typewriter invented
  • 1844: Completion of first telegraph line
  • 1845: Baptist Convention splits over slavery; phrase “manifest destiny” coined; Texas annexed to U.S.
  • 1846: Smithsonian Institution established; sewing machine patented
  • 1846-1848: War with Mexico
  • 1847: Mormons begin settle Salt Lake valley; rotary press invented; American Medical Association founded; Frederick Douglass begins publishing North Star  
  • 1848: Revolutions in Europe spur emigration; Seneca Falls convention on women’s rights  
  • 1848: Gold discovered in California 

As America gradually recovered from the economic woes of the 1830s, so did Alexandria. The town's economy was still heavily led by the exports of crops and foodstuffs, creating a favorable, but sometimes problematic balance of trade. "In Sept. 1841, the dullness of the market [in Alexandria] was owing in some measure to the want of vessels to take it off." [Alexandria Gazette 9/14/1841] In 1840 the value of exports was $393,028 and imports $105,605. The leading articles of export in the 1840s were flour (78,615 barrels in 1840), wheat, corn (more than 50,000 barrels a year of each), plaster, salt, rye and oats. Tobacco dropped to about 5,000 barrels shipped annually, but fishing was still a major industry. [Thomas Duffy, Decline of the Port of Alexandria, 1800-1861, M.A. thesis, Georgetown University, 1965; Alexandria Gazette 12/20/1839]

By 1847, Alexandria ranked ninth in the U.S. in overall trade following New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, Richmond-Petersburg and Cleveland. [Duffy] Despite the apparent profit from commerce, the feeling that the town was falling behind its peers is palpable in the press' ubiquitous boosterism. The wheat and flour trade, for example, staple of the Alexandria economy, was increasingly shifting to the Midwest. Looking toward an uncertain future, the Alexandria Gazette exhorted local businessmen to establish new manufacturing ventures and support existing ones.

There are here now large thriving manufacturing establishments.... As soon as our Canal is completed we shall be abundantly supplied with water for manufacturing purposes; nor, in truth, do we see the reason, why this should not become, at once, a MANUFACTURING TOWN, having the means already of a flourishing commerce to rid us in the transportation of goods, and Ship Yards where the finest merchant vessels are yearly turned off the stocks.... Let us, then, by all means, commence early with our MANUFACTORIES.

To a great extent, industrialization was successful, with several factors contributing to development. First, completion of the Alexandria Canal connection with the C&O Canal in 1845 increased the flow of coal and raw materials to the Potomac ports. Second, retrocession of Alexandria County from the District of Columbia to Virginia in 1846 lifted Congress' restrictive banking policies. It was no accident, for instance, that the Alexandria Savings Institution was founded in 1847, and that the Bank of Potomac and the Farmers Bank merged with the Exchange Bank of Virginia the same year. Thirdly, Alexandria's association with railroads commenced in 1847, with a failed effort to construct a railway to Harper's Ferry. The next year, however, another railroad, the Orange & Alexandria, began constructing a road south via Orange and Culpeper to Gordonsville. Finally, the City Council practiced a little economic development gimmickry, passing an 1846 measure stipulating that the first factory thereafter constructed in town would be exempt from paying taxes for fifteen years; the second factory for ten years; and the third for six. These changes, "combined with the agricultural improvements of the era, gave Alexandria her final boost as an export center." [Duffy; Smith and Miller, A Seaport Saga]

Green Steam Furniture Factory image
Green Steam Furniture Factory, South Fairfax Street.

By the end of the 1840s, manufacturing concerns included two shipyards, two iron foundries, a cotton factory, large cabinetmaking shops, a coach making factory, a tannery, several bakeries, a soap and candle factory, a pottery, and one of the largest breweries in the South. By 1850, the wealthiest man in town was no longer a merchant, but a manufacturer, James Green. Green operated a prosperous furniture factory on South Fairfax Street and as well as the Mansion House Hotel on North Fairfax.

As much as Alexandria progressed, it increasingly lagged behind the other major East Coast cities. Baltimore, an old rival, had grown to be the second largest city in the nation and home to the important B&O Railroad and a fleet of speedy clipper ships. Alexandria, on the other hand, attracted few newcomers. In spite of a sharp rise in immigration to America, the town's population leveled off, gaining fewer than 300 individuals during the 1840s.


Initially Alexandria had welcomed the town's inclusion into the ten-mile-square which comprised the District of Columbia...[but] Alexandrians soon became disillusioned with their status.... Provisions of the 1791 act creating the district precluded the construction of any public buildings south of the Potomac River.... Furthermore, the 1801 District Act disenfranchised the local populace. They could not vote in presidential elections and had no representation in Congress.... [W]ith the Panic of 1837 and the failure of the Congress to recharter the Bank of Alexandria in 1834, Alexandria suffered severe economic privation.... While no railroad lines serviced Alexandria, Baltimore had been allowed to siphon off the lucrative trade of the Shenandoah Valley by constructing the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad through Virginia to Winchester. Therefore, a strong impetus developed to retrocede Alexandria to Virginia. [Smith and Miller]

On July 9, 1846, the U.S. Congress voted to permit Alexandria and Alexandria County to retrocede to Virginia  upon referendum. A vote was held on September 1-2 at the Alexandria Courthouse. "A total of 985 votes were cast; of this number, 763 votes for retrocession and 222 were against.... On September 7, 1846, President James Polk issued the result of the vote and declared the retrocession in full force and effect." Virginia formally accepted the territory on March 13, 1847, and Alexandrians celebrated the occasion with a huge parade on the 19th. [Smith and Miller]

National salutes were fired at sunrise, at noon and at sunset. The flags of the shipping in port were displayed... At 10 o'clock a procession formed under the command of Dr. Wm. L. Powell, Chief Marshall...and marched through the principal streets. The military made a beautiful display. The Ringgold Cavalry and the Mt. Vernon Guards attracted much attention... About noon the procession arrived at the Public Square and an address was delivered by George Washington Parke Custis (Martha Washington's grandson)... Business was suspended through the day...and the streets were crowded... Everything passed off in the happiest manner. [Alexandria Gazette 3/23/1847]

Other politics national and local

Until retrocession, local politics was perhaps not as momentous an undertaking; the town was limited in its authority and often hamstrung by Congress. The most important legislative efforts of the early and mid 1840s included the appointment of a committee to lobby Congress for the establishment of a quarantine station at Jones Point; the commissioning of a new survey and map of the town by Alexandria Canal engineer Maskell Ewing; the passage of laws relating to the inspection of wheat, theatrical performances, weights and measures, and the city's subscription of stock in the Alexandria Canal. Council also passed an ordinance which limited the extent to which private wharves could be extended into the Potomac River. Law and order was a high priority, and Council saw fit to hire additional police officers to patrol the city. [City Council Minutes]

Council also undertook a reform of local government, lobbying Congress for a town charter amendment to allow the mayor to be directly elected by the public. On March 7, 1843, Alexandrians went to the polls and for the first time cast their ballots for mayor. Robert G. Violett took office on March 9, but served only eight days before resigning because of pressing business affairs. [Alexandria Gazette 3/9/1843]

From the mid-1830s until the Civil War, a large percentage of Alexandria's electorate supported the Whig Party. This national party had been formed to oppose President Jackson's policies. The Whigs advocated a nationalistic economic policy, the "American System," which emphasized internal improvements, protective tariffs, a conservative public land sales policy and continuation of a National Bank. These designs appealed to conservative Alexandria merchants and manufacturers whose business operations extended beyond state lines and relied heavily on coastwise trade.

Despite the fact that District residents could not vote in national elections, Alexandrians sponsored a grand jubilee and illumination in honor of the election of the Whig ticket of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler in November 1840.

They marched through the principal streets, the air resounding with shouts, the windows filled with ladies waving their handkerchiefs, and the side walks covered with a moving mass of lookers-on. The most beautiful part of the procession was the open carriages filled with the little girls representing the states and territories.... National Salutes were fired during the day, the shipping in port were decorated with streamers and flags, banners, and emblematic devices were suspended from the houses in every part of the town.... As soon as night closed in upon us, the illumination blazed forth in all its splendor.... The streets were thronged with ladies... A large bonfire blazed upon the bosom of the Potomac, casting its red light upon the shores of Maryland and another at the upper end of King Street, reflected its lustre upon the hills of Virginia.... Bands of music, playing the most enlivening airs, moved through the town...and shouts and huzzas were raised at the public places.... [I]t was the "era of good feelings." [Alexandria Gazette 11/27/1840]

In the Alexandria Archaeology collection are sherds from a Harrison "log cabin campaign" commemorative pitcher, which was sold from the King Street china store of Robert H. Miller.

In the 1844 Presidential election, Alexandrians supported Whig Henry Clay, who had promoted projects benefitting the District, against Democrat James K. Polk, who had earlier voted against aid to the victims of Alexandria's great 1827 fire. Polk also opposed the construction of the Alexandria canal. When the votes were tallied, Polk had won the nation, but voters in neighboring Fairfax County came out for the Whigs.

The Mexican-American War

Perhaps the greatest political issue of the 1840s was the war with Mexico. The Polk administration propelled the country into conflict over the annexation of Texas and a disputed boundary. Behind these proximate causes was an awakening nationalistic/imperialistic consciousness of America's "manifest destiny" to occupy as much of North America as possible.

Alexandria was as well represented among the troops as any town. One noted Alexandrian, Robert E. Lee, particularly distinguished himself in battle.

In 1846...Alexandrians heralded the call of President Polk to annex Texas and to settle the West. Company B of the First Virginia Regiment, composed of Alexandrians, was escorted to the wharf by the Mount Vernon Guards and Ringgold Cavalry as they boarded the steamer Phoenix for Aquia Creek. After arriving in Richmond by train, the troops proceeded to Norfolk where they were put on the bark Victory and sailed for Mexico. [Smith and Miller, A Seaport Saga]

Mexico gave up its claims to Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and parts of New Mexico. Alexandrians staged a victory celebration and dinner for the returning troops in August 1848.


The opening of vast new territories exacerbated the issue of the expansion of slavery. While it may have seemed an opportunity to slave-owning agriculturalists, it actually planted the seeds for the destruction of the institution. In 1850 a compromise over slavery in the new territories followed acrimonious debate and helped polarize opinions nationally and within states and territories. The slave trade would be outlawed in the District of Columbia, and the fugitive slave laws were toughened at a time when Northerners were becoming more resistant to enforcing them. In 1840 slavery was all but dead in the North and had never been economically significant there. It was no loss then, and therefore no surprise that many Northerners were at least indifferent and sometimes radically opposed to the institution. Southerners were becoming more dogmatic in their own defense. The growing debate eventually divided even religious communities. In the 1840s both the Baptists and Methodists split, roughly North and South, into pro- and anti-slavery factions.

Meanwhile, the slaves themselves had little hope that their status would be improved by anything other than their own efforts. While African Americans resisted their bondage in myriad smaller ways every day, many created opportunities for true freedom. By 1840 the Underground Railroad was well established. Escaped slaves bravely groped their way northward, often connecting with and abetted by a courageous minority of sympathetic whites and free blacks. The Quakers are particularly notable for their assistance. A clandestine system of routes and safe-houses was developed, taking the fugitives as far as Canada.

Slave trading firms like Alexandria's Franklin and Armfield were making a tidy profit selling surplus Virginia slaves to new owners in the Mississippi Valley. There were few things that the slaves feared more than to be sold South – separated from their families, and expecting to be worked to death on cotton plantations. In 1841, the Brig Creole  sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia carrying a cargo of slaves bound for New Orleans. Some of the African Americans managed to get free and took control of the ship, killing one of the white crew. They escaped to the Bahamas, where all but those most directly responsible for the mutiny were freed by the British government.

Place in Time

Although New England led the country in textile production, by the 1840s the Southern states had entered this manufacturing arena. A group of Alexandria businessmen established the Mount Vernon Manufacturing Company in 1847. The firm purchased property on the southeast corner of Washington and Pendleton Streets and constructed a four-story building housing "two thirty-two horsepower steam engines powering the factory's 4,000 spindles and 120 looms... The business employed 47 men and 88 women." Messrs. Stanton and Francis, executed the brick work; Messrs. Davis, McKnight and Price the carpentry. The engine, driving machinery and other iron work were manufactured at the foundry of T.W. and R.C. Smith of Alexandria. Small in comparison to Northern mills, Alexandria's cotton factory was unrivaled locally. [G. Terry Sharrer, "Commerce and Industry" in A Towne in Transition]

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.