Early Alexandria: The Colonial and Federal Periods

Learn about Alexandria from its earliest colonial settlers until the 1820s.

Page updated on Mar 7, 2020 at 10:59 AM
1608, Map of Virginia, John Smith
1608 Map of Virginia, John Smith
Map of Alexandria, 1746
 1746 Survey Plat
Map of Alexandria, 1748
1748 “Plan of the Land where on Stands the Town
of Alexandria.” George Washington
Map of Alexandria, 1749 
1749 “A Plan of Alexandria now Belhaven.” George Washington
Map of Alexandria, 1762
1763 “Alexandria.” George West
Map of Alexandria, 1782
1782 “Camp a’Alexandrie Le 17 Juillet 15 Milles
de Clochester [sic].” Comte de Rochambeau
Map of Alexandria, 1798
1798 “Plan of the Town of Alexandria in the
District of Columbia.” Colonel George Gilpin

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Early History: The Colonial and Federal Periods

When John Smith mapped the Potomac River in 1608, he noted Native American settlements close to the area of what is now Alexandria. When Europeans settled in the area later in the 17th century, they most likely encountered remnants of a once-thriving community. Archaeological research into  Alexandria's prehistory shows that Native Americans first visited the area about 13,000 years ago, and historical documents suggest that they remained in the vicinity until about 1675. In 1674 the Virginia House of Burgesses authorized Governor Berkeley to construct a fort just south of Hunting Creek, to defend the northern frontier of the colony against the Susquehannocks and other Indian groups 

In 1654, Dame Margaret Brent obtained a patent for a 700-acre plot in what is now Alexandria. In 1669, Governor Berkeley awarded an overlapping land grant to Robert Howson, an English ship captain. This tract extended along the Potomac River, from Hunting Creek on the south to the Little Falls on the north. Less than a month later, Howson sold the land to Scotsman John Alexander. The town was later named for the Alexander family.

In the 17th century, plantations could be found along the Potomac River in Northern Virginia. 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. The Tobacco Inspection Act of 1732 designated West's warehouse as the official inspection point for this area. Hugh West oversaw the warehouse along with a ferry and tavern, while Philip and John Alexander farmed much of the surrounding land. To facilitate shipping, Scottish and English merchants 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. 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.

The new town of Alexandria thrived for the next few decades and attracted a growing variety of skilled craftsmen, small industries, and many taverns. 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.

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. Streets were lined with substantial brick houses. Alexandria's political, social, and commercial interests were of great importance to many local residents, including George Mason, John Wise, and George Washington. While his main residence was at Mount Vernon eight miles to the south, 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.