A Brief History of Alexandria

Alexandria, founded in 1749, has a fascinating history, and many of its historic buildings are still preserved today. During its long history, Alexandria was a tobacco trading post, one of the ten busiest ports in America, a part of the District of Columbia, home to both the largest slave-trading firm in the country and a large free-black community, a Civil War supply center for Union troops, and a street-car suburb for Federal workers.

Page updated on Oct 2, 2019 at 11:22 AM

During its long history, Alexandria was a tobacco trading post, one of the ten busiest ports in America, a part of the District of Columbia, home to both the largest slave-trading firm in the country and a large free-black community, a Civil War supply center for Union troops, and a street-car suburb for Federal workers. Alexandria was also the hometown of George Washington, Robert E. Lee, Jim Morrison and Mama Cass.

Clovis Point Drawing image
13,000-year-old Clovis Point, found at the Freedmen’s Cemetery Site.
Drawing by Andrew Flora.

Prehistory (13,200 years ago to 1,600 AD) 

The shoreline of the Potomac River where Alexandria is located today has been a useful and popular spot for centuries, long before the modern community was founded. Just upriver from Alexandria, the river tumbles over a series of cataracts known as Great Falls, its last obstacle to the Chesapeake Bay. These falls form a barrier to fish traveling upstream to spawn each year, which in turn makes the area just downstream a good fishing ground for local people.

Native American artifacts that have been found in various places around Alexandria can be dated as early as 13,200 years ago and as late as 1,600 AD, during which time various groups used the area as a fishing camp. Exploring the Chesapeake Bay in 1608, John Smith sailed up the Potomac River and contacted many different people along both banks. When Smith neared this point, he met at least two groups that we now refer to as the Tauxenents and the Nacotchtanks, both part of a larger affiliation known as the Conoy chiefdom. These people made up just a small percentage of the thousands of Native Americans who inhabited the region and enjoyed its rich resources of fish and game. After Smith's visit, it would be many years before white settlement would expand into this part of tidewater Virginia.

Learn more about Alexandria's prehistory.

Alexandria Waterfront Drawing by Elizabeth Luallen image
The Alexandria waterfront in 1764. Drawing by Elizabeth Luallen (color added).

Early European Settlement and the Founding of Alexandria (1669-1749)

Much of present-day Alexandria was included in a 6,000-acre land grant from Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, which was awarded to Robert Howson, an English ship captain, on October 21, 1669. This land overlapped a 700-acre patent that had previously been issued to Dame Margaret Brent in 1654. The Howson-tract extended along the Potomac River, from Hunting Creek on the south to the Little Falls on the north. The grant was made by authority of King Charles II in recognition of Captain Howson's bringing 120 people to live in Virginia. Less than a month later, Howson sold the land to John Alexander for 6,000 pounds of tobacco.

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, plantations were established along both sides of the Potomac River and settlement began to spread further into northern Virginia. When Fredericksburg was founded in 1728, it was the northernmost town in Virginia but was still located in the tidewater, where tobacco production was profitable.

By 1732, Hugh West had established a tobacco warehouse on high bluffs overlooking a small but deep bay, at what is today the foot of Oronoco Street in Alexandria. Philip and John Alexander farmed much of the surrounding land and Hugh West oversaw the warehouse along with a ferry and tavern. When Fairfax County was established in 1742, many of the county's residents already lived several miles inland, away from the river and from commercial ties to the outside world. Many of them found that grains like wheat and corn could be raised more profitably than tobacco in this upland area, but they desperately needed a trading place where they could gather their crops for export and could buy manufactured merchandise from abroad. To facilitate shipping, Scottish and English merchants who owned real estate at Cameron, a small hamlet four miles west of the Potomac, petitioned the Virginia General Assembly in the fall of 1748 to establish a town at West's Hunting Creek Warehouse. In the spring of 1749, this site was selected and the new town was named Alexandria in honor of the early owner of much of the land, Scotsman John Alexander. John West, Fairfax County surveyor, laid-out 60 acres (by tradition, assisted by 17-year-old George Washington), and lots were auctioned off in July 1749.

Learn more about early Alexandria

Banknote image
Detail from banknote, depicting port.

The Town of Alexandria: A Major Trading Place (1749-1860)

Alexandria thrived for the next few decades. During the mid-1750s, the town was a staging area for British troops involved in the French and Indian War. English General Braddock made his headquarters in Alexandria and occupied the Carlyle House while planning his campaign against the French in 1755. In 1763, another land sale was held greatly increasing the size of the community. Twenty years later, more new land was created by filling in part of the Potomac shoreline, allowing merchants to build wharves which reached ocean-going vessels in the river’s deep water channel. Lots all over town were subdivided repeatedly by their owners who rented space to dozens of different types of skilled artisans, grocers and small merchants, tavern keepers and other tradesmen. The population included many slaves as well as free blacks who lived primarily in neighborhoods called "the Bottoms" and "Hayti."

Incorporated in 1779, Alexandria became a port of entry for foreign vessels and a major export center for flour and hemp. By the end of the 18th century, Alexandria was among the ten busiest ports in America and had been designated an official port of entry, allowing foreign shipping to land and unload without registering somewhere else first. Its bustling harbor teemed with brigs, schooners, and ships of the line, which traversed the high seas and engaged in international and coastal trade. The streets were lined with substantial brick houses and the "sound of the hammer and trowel were at work everywhere." Alexandria's political, social, and commercial interests were of great importance to many local residents, especially to neighboring George Washington in Mount Vernon. Washington maintained a town house here and served as a Trustee of Alexandria. Washington also purchased a pew in Christ Church, served as Worshipful Master of Alexandria Masonic Lodge No. 22, and shipped his wheat and fish through Alexandria merchants.

In 1789, Alexandria and a portion of Fairfax County were ceded by the State of Virginia to become a part of the new 10-mile square District of Columbia. Formally accepted by Congress in 1801, Alexandria remained under the aegis of the new federal government until it was retroceded to Virginia in 1847. In 1796, a visitor, the Duc de La Rochfoucauld Liancourt, commented that, "Alexandria is beyond all comparison the handsomest town in Virginia--indeed is among the finest in the United States."

"Light Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War general, and the father of Robert E. Lee, brought his family to Alexandria in 1810. Robert lived here until his departure for West Point in June. 1825.

Despite increasing competition from Baltimore, which gradually replaced Alexandria as the main shipping point for the upper Chesapeake region, the town remained a bustling center for the export of grain and bread products, fish, a variety of small manufactures and rail transportation.

Alexandria also was a center of the slave trade during the early nineteenth century, from which thousands of blacks were transported to Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and other areas in the deep-South where cotton production demanded more and more labor. New gas and water works and many new homes were constructed in town during this period and Alexandria's population almost doubled in the decade before 1860.

View from Pioneer Mill.
View of Alexandria wharves from Pioneer Mill.

The Civil War (1861-1865)

Within days of Virginia's secession from the Union in the spring of 1861, Federal troops arrived in Alexandria to take possession of the city. Union military forces arrived on May 24, 1861, and Alexandria became a logistical supply center for the federal army. Troops and supplies were transported to Alexandria via the port and the railroad and then dispersed where needed at the front. Wounded soldiers, brought back on the trains, crowded the available hospitals and temporary medical facilities in and around the town. Many of the largest buildings in town, including The Lyceum, were confiscated for use as hospitals and for other official purposes and many new warehouses were constructed along the waterfront. It was during this era that several forts were constructed in Alexandria as a part of the defenses of the City of Washington. Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site contains one of these restored forts. From 1863 to 1865, the City was the capital of the Restored Government of Virginia, which represented the seven Virginia counties remaining under federal control during the Civil War. By the end of the Civil War, Alexandria's economy was in shambles but the city itself had been spared the destruction witnessed by many other places in Virginia such as Richmond and Fredericksburg.

Although Alexandria was a major slave-trading center prior to the Civil War, it also had a history of several free black communities. African-American life flourished with the establishment of churches, social and fraternal organizations, and businesses. Many early Alexandria African-Americans were skilled artisans. During the Civil War, African American refugees flooded into Union-controlled areas, including Alexandria and Washington. Although many of the freedmen found work and some served in the Union army, others arrived destitute, malnourished, and in poor health. After hundreds of freed people perished in the area, a parcel of undeveloped land was seized from a pro-Confederate owner for use as a cemetery. This cemetery is now the  Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial, open to the public. 

Learn more about Alexandria during the Civil War.

The last torpedo made in Alexandria, 1945.
The final torpedo made at the Naval Torpedo Station, Alexandria, 1945.

The Industrial Era (1865-1950s)

In the wake of the war, Alexandrians struggled to rebuild their city's commerce and prosperity. City Hall burned in 1871 but was replaced the following year. Electricity and telephone service arrived in the 1880s and new neighborhoods sprang up around the outskirts of the city by the turn of the century. Local industries included the Robert Portner Brewing Company, the Old Dominion glass works, the Virginia Marine Railway and Shipbuilding Company, and Potomac Yard, one of the largest rail facilities in the country.

The U.S. Naval Torpedo Station, now the Torpedo Factory Art Center, was built during World War I and was expanded during World War II, with large industrial buildings dominating Alexandria's waterfront. A Ford Motor Company warehouse at the south end of the waterfront was also converted to military use during World War II.

The Second World War brought tremendous growth and change to the Washington area and to northern Virginia. National Airport was constructed at the beginning of the war on Alexandria's northern edge, the former site of Abingdon plantation. Thousands of people from all over the country poured into the region as the government expanded and Alexandria became one of many "bedroom communities" serving the capital city. This growth set the tone for the post-war period, as well, which has seen even greater development of Alexandria and her surrounding communities.

Learn more about Alexandria in the 20th Century.

Bicentennial Parade 1976 image
The 1976 bicentennial parade as it passes in front of Gadsby’s Tavern.

Historic Preservation and Urban Renewal

By the 1920s, Alexandria was a quiet little southern town, but one with an especially rich heritage. Seeking to capitalize on this history and tap into the stream of tourists who traveled through Alexandria regularly on their way to Mount Vernon, local American Legion Post 24 purchased the old City Hotel as their headquarters and museum. The building had once been known as Gadsby's Tavern and had served a distinguished clientele including George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Fired by the same spirit that was guiding the restorations at Colonial Williamsburg, Gadsby's Tavern reopened to the public with a colonial costume ball in 1932, the bicentennial of Washington's birth. The American Legion's purchase and restoration of Gadsby's Tavern was part of the fledgling preservation movement beginning to take hold in Alexandria that later blossomed in the face of urban renewal in the 1960s.

During the mid-1960s, the City's leadership began to remake the old colonial port into a modern city as many of the oldest parts of town were redeveloped. Market Square, where public markets were held since the town's founding, was cleared of 18th- and 19th-century buildings except for the 1872 City Hall, and the block was excavated to hide a parking garage under the new Square. Across South Royal Street, most of the block was similarly demolished and excavated for a series of boutiques and retail stores named Tavern Square (the development being adjacent to Gadsby's Tavern.) As the wrecking balls swung, Alexandria's preservation movement grew, forcing city government to protect some of the community's landmarks. Among the buildings saved and restored during this period were The Torpedo Factory Art Center, The Lyceum and the Carlyle House, which joined Gadsby's Tavern in undergoing extensive renovations in time for the nation's Bicentennial in 1976. The Alexandria Archaeology program also has its origins in the 1960s urban renewal project.

The Old and Historic District, designated in 1946, was the third historic district in the United States, after Charleston and New Orleans. The historic African American community known as Uptown was designated as the Parker-Gray District in 1984, and in 2008 was approved for listing on the Virginia Landmarks Register. Several Alexandria neighborhoods are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Learn more about Historic Preservation in Alexandria.

Prince Street Today image
Prince Street today.

Alexandria Today

Today, Alexandria still retains much of its historic character. Many late 18th- and early 19th-century townhouses and warehouses remain in the "Old Town" section of the city, along the west bank of the Potomac River. While still a residential area for many Federal employees, Alexandria is also home to many national associations, corporations, restaurants, shops and other businesses. Many old landmarks have become museums, historic sites and art galleries. Public parks line the waterfront and the river is actively used by fishermen and recreational boaters. Visitors to the National Capitol area find that Alexandria serves as a quaint change of pace from the hectic hustle of downtown Washington, a place to relax and discover what the region was like many years ago.