Early Alexandria: The Colonial and Federal Periods

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

Page updated on Jul 2, 2019 at 3:49 PM
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research into  Alexandria's prehistory shows that Native Americans first visited the area about 13,000 years ago, and historical documents suggest that they remained in the vicinity until about 1675.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.

A Timeline of Alexandria History

  • 1608  John Smith explores the Potomac River as far as Great Falls, noting Indian settlements called “Assaomec” and “Namassingakents” near present-day Alexandria.
  • 1654  Margaret Brent , first female lawyer in America and adviser to the governor of Maryland, receives a grant of land from the Virginia governor that includes the future site of Alexandria.
  • 1669  Scottish merchant John Alexander purchases some of the former Brent land from a Welsh ship captain for “six thousand pounds of Tobacco and Cask.”
  • 1732  An official tobacco inspection warehouse is established on the property of Hugh West , approximately where the present Oronoco Street meets the river.
  • 1749  Prominent landowners and business men, led by Scottish immigrants John Carlyle and William Ramsay, petition the Virginia House of Burgesses to establish a town called Alexandria, named in honor of the Alexander family.
  • 1755  At the beginning of the French and Indian War, British General Edward Braddock and several thousand soldiers camp in and around Alexandria. Five of America’s royal governors meet at John Carlyle’s house to discuss war strategy. The Carlyle House  is open to the public.
  • 1773  Christ Church is built, so far outside of the tiny town that it is called “the church in the woods.” Christ Church is open to the public, as a house of worship.
  • 1774  Upset over British taxation policies, Alexandrians approve George Mason 's “ Fairfax Resolves ,” which call for an end to trade with England.
  • 1774  Friendship Fire Company founded. The Company's 1851 building is now the Friendship Firehouse Museum , open to the public.
  • 1777  Alexandria is the chief smallpox inoculation center in Virginia for the American army. A quarantine station was located at Jones Point.
  • 1785  A meeting is called in Alexandria to discuss Virginia's and Maryland’s rights to trade along the Potomac River, raising issues which result in the Constitutional Convention two years later.
  • 1785  John Wise, local tavernkeeper and entrepreneur, constructs what will be known as Gadsby’s Tavern, with the largest function room in Alexandria.  Gadsby's Tavern Museum is open to the public.
  • 1785  The Alexandria Academy, the town’s first public school, opens.
  • 1785  Philip Richard Fendall builds house on Oronoco Street on lot purchased from his cousin, Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.  The Lee-Fendall House  is open to the public
  • 1789  George Washington becomes first president of the United States of America and leaves Alexandria for New York. Before his presidency, he maintained a town house on Cameron Street, had a family pew at Christ Church, and dined, danced and conducted business at many of Alexandria's taverns.
  • 1791  First and southernmost cornerstone for new Federal capital set at Alexandria’s Jones Point; the town officially becomes part of the District of Columbia in 1801.
  • 1792  Edward Stabler opens an apothecary business, one of several successful commercial ventures by Quakers in Alexandria.  The Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary Museum  is open to the public.
  • 1792 The new “City Hotel” opens on Royal Street and becomes famous when managed by John Gadsby four years later. Gadsby's Tavern Museum is open to the public; the 1792 building also houses a restaurant.
  • 1810  Robert E. Lee, young son of Revolutionary War hero Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, moves to Alexandria with his family.
  • 1814  During  War of 1812, Alexandria surrenders to an attacking British naval force.  To spare the town, a ransom of tobacco, flour, cotton and sugar is paid.
  • 1824 The Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, visits Alexandria for a Grand Reception and Celebration held in his honor. Lafayette was invited by President James Monroe to be "The Nation's Guest," attending parades, ceremonies and receptions in every state. Lafayette souvenirs marked the occasion. 

Archaeological Site Reports

Selected listings from the Alexandria Archaeology Bibliography.

Adams, Robert M 

Artemel, Janice G. Elizabeth Crowell, Donald A. Hull and Dennis Knepper  

Engineering-Science, Inc.

Foss, Robert M.

Hurst, Gwen J.

  • 2000 -  Archival Investigations of 101 Wales Alley, City of Alexandria, Virginia. Thunderbird Archeological Associates, Inc., Woodstock, Virginia. This was the site of a wharf adjacent to Fitzgerald’s Warehouse.

John Milner Associates

Knepper, Dennis A. and Kimberly Prothro

Morton, Brown W. III

Schweigert, Kurt P.

  • 1998 - West End. Prepared for Norfolk Southern Corporation (Carlyle Project). West End Village was a small community on Duke Street.

Tolson, Sarah

  • 1980 - Carlyle House Archaeology Project Final Report, Draft 2. Manuscript. Carlyle House, Alexandria, Virginia. This report detailed the 1753 house’s construction and design influences and a history of the property Results of the archaeological investigation included such features as well shafts and privies with artifacts dating from the time of John Carlyle.

Williams, Martha R.

Williams, Martha R.


Discovering the Decades

Discovering the Decades places Alexandria’s history in the context of U.S. history. Originally published in the Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News, 1999.

The Alexandria Chronicle 

For  links, see the Alexandria Historical Society listing of Chronicle articles.

  • Hugh West and the West Family's Momentous Role in Founding and Developing Alexandria and Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, Virginia  by Jim Bish, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2010
  • Alexandria and Belhaven: A Case of Dual Identity by Diane Riker, The Alexandria Chronicle, Summer 2009
  • A British Fleet Sails into Alexandria by Ted Pulliam, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2009
  • A Tale of Two Continents: How Fortune and Ability Affected Two Brothers: Doctor George Carlyle of Cumberland County, England, and John Carlyle of Alexandria, Virginia by Jim Bartlinski, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2008
  • Gunpowder, Flour, Fire and Heirs: A Waterfront Block from Duke to Wolfe Streets by Ted Pulliam, The Alexandria Chronicle, Fall 2007
  • The Fitzgerald Warehouse: The Early History of an Alexandria Landmark by Diane Riker, The Alexandria Chronicle, Summer 2007
  • Reaching for the Channel: Some Documentary and Archaeological Evidence of Extending Alexandria's Waterfront by Steven J. Shephard, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 2006
  • Isaac Todd's 1804 Alexandria Profiles by Mona Leithiser Dearborn, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 1994
  • Alexandria, Virginia's Market Square  by Penny C. Morrill, The Alexandria Chronicle, Spring 1993
  • From Alexandria to Albany: The Journal of Mrs. Charlotte Brown, 1754-1757 by Ethelyn Cox, Alexandria History Magazine, 1980
  • Gen. Edward Braddock: A Retrospective by Ethelyn Cox, Alexandria History Magazine, 1980. 
  • The Alexandria Market Square by Jamees D. Munson, Alexandria History Magazine, 1980.
  • The "Precarious Trade" of a Virginia Tobacco Merchant: Harry Piper of Alexandria, 1749-1776 by Thomas M. Preissir,   Alexandria History Magazine, 1978 

The Historic Alexandria Quarterly 

Waterfront History

  • Travelers Accounts of the Historic Alexandria Waterfront
  • Howson & Brent , by Ted Pulliam. It was probably the biggest real estate deal in the history of Northern Virginia. It took place in 1669 and included all the land on which Arlington Cemetery, the Pentagon, Reagan National Airport, and Old Town Alexandria now are located.
  • Alexandria and Belhaven , by Diane Riker. For the first dozen years of its history, Alexandria, Virginia, was a town with two names. Which came first: Alexandria or Belhaven? This paper attempts to disentangle fact from fantasy.
  • Chadwicks on the Strand , by Diane Riker. From a sandy bank to a restaurant: the development of the Lawrason and Fowle warehouses on the Strand.
  • Alexandria’s First Wharf , by Ted Pulliam. In 1749, Alexandria was situated on high bluffs that formed a crescent-shaped bay with two points of land at each end of town extending out into the bay. This paper examines the first wharf, its location, date, and builder.
  • Fitzgerald Warehouse , by Diane Riker. At the corner of King and Union streets in Alexandria stands the earliest waterfront structure the city retains from its heady days as an international port. Seen today from across King Street, the brick and stone warehouse, built for Col. John Fitzgerald in the mid-1790s, appears to tilt toward the river. And the river is where its story begins. This paper is updated and enlarged from Ms. Riker’s, “The Fitzgerald Warehouse: The Early History of an Alexandria Landmark,” published by the Alexandria Historical Society in The Alexandria Chronicle, Summer 2007.
  • The Warehouses of Lower King Street , by Diane Riker. In 1749, when the first town lots went on sale, the present 100 block was well east of dry land. But investors realized the potential. This paper examines early owners and development.