Evolution of a District, as shown through maps in the Library of Virginia Collections

This exhibit focuses on the evolution of the District of Columbia as told through maps. Maps from several Library of Virginia collections show the District from the eighteenth century through the American Civil War; and when the Town of Alexandria, Virginia was a part of the District.

Alexandria in the District
Alexandria, Virginia was "in the District" from the 1790s until 1846 when it was retro-ceded to the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

Colonel George Gilpin compiled this plat of Alexandria at the request of W.Charles and William Alexander. John V. Thomas published Gilpin's plat in 1798.

Charles Murray petitioned the General Assembly in December 1839 to halt the development of a graveyard in Alexandria for an African-American Methodist congregation that met in Washington D.C. The plat shows the lots in question and those located by Hunting Creek.

The lot in question included a local spring that flowed close to locally used well water by the Hunting Creek bridge. In his petition Murray argued that the graveyard would destroy his property and make the spring and well water unfit for use.

He offered to exchange lots with the congregation, who, presumably, didn't accept his offer.

The Alexandria Canal ran from the town of Alexandria to the Potomac Aqueduct; Alexandrians wanted to connect with the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Georgetown.

The map's engraver, W.J. Stone clearly shows major roads and topographical detail for land located between Hunting Creek and Little Falls.

Thomas Sinclair issued this map of Alexandria shortly before the town was retro-ceded to Virginia.

The map shows streets, topographical detail, turnpikes, canals, a race course, property owners, several place names and soundings (depths) in the river.

A handwritten note above the remarks section indicates that the lots encircled in ink were the subject of a title dispute between the children of Charles Alexander, Sr. and Charles Alexander, Jr.

Washington City "in the District"
The following published maps show the District prior to the retro-cession of the Town of Alexandria to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1846. 

Andrew Ellicott was hired by Pierre Charles L'Enfant to survey the 100 square mile boundary of the Territory of Columbia when Congress decided to build the nation's capital along the Potomac River. Ellicott completed his survey on March 30, 1791.

This facsimile is an exact copy of the 1794 "Ten Square Mile" map completed by Andrew Ellicott and published by the Philadelphia firm of Thackara and Vallance.

Samuel Hill's 1792 map of the District of Columbia is the source for this facsimile that was included in A.B. Hamilton's "Maps of the District of Columbia." It shows block numbers and proposed government buildings. Hill was an engraver who worked out of Boston, Massachusetts.

William James Stone engraved this map of Washington and it is similar to a very popular map of Washington published in 1818 by Richard King. King's map may have been the first to be published in Washington City.

King's map included vignettes of the President's House and the Capitol - these are missing from Stone's publication.

Stone references several public buildings including the Navy Yard, and the area's roads, turnpikes and railroad lines.

This small derivative of Andrew Ellicott's 1794 topographical map of the District of Columbia was engraved by P.A.F. Tardieu and sold in Paris, France.

He highlights the location of the President's House and the Capitol building.

Originally published in "A Complete Historical, Chronological, and Geological American Atlas", this map provides a great amount of detail about the District of Columbia in the early part of the 19th century. It includes information concerning the boundaries, climate, population and a historical sketch of the District of Columbia.

This tiny map of Washington City includes Alexandria and Georgetown and highlights the District of Columbia's major roads, canals, rivers and creeks. The "Washington Guide" by William Elliott was a long running guide to the District of Columbia.

W.H. Bartlett engraved this view of Washington from the President's House during Martin Van Buren's presidency. It focuses on the National Mall leading to the Capitol building.

D. McClelland engraved this map of Washington City. Washington's street grid is clearly delineated.

He outlined city ward boundaries and identified numerous government and public buildings.

The District After 1846
After retro-cession published lithograph maps of the City of Washington and the District continued to highlight buildings and places of interest to tourists. Atlases were of interest to students and travelers alike. 

This colorful map of the "Capitol City" was published in an atlas by the very productive Mitchell publishing firm. Alexandria is not included since it was retro-ceded to Virginia in 1846.

Readers can locate churches, the Washington Library and Masonic Hall. It includes vignettes of the plan of the principal floor of the Capitol.

This map's author, W.H. Gamble, was a draughtsman and engraver who worked for the Mitchell publishing firm.

Atlas readers were able to easily identify wards, street names, canals, bridges and other buildings of interest to Americans.

Alvin Jewett Johnson and his publishing company were best known for producing the "New Illustrated Family Atlas" in which this map was published. The "Family Atlas" was sold by subscription by door to door book canvassers.

Street names, waterways, the President's House, the Mall and other places of interest are identified.

Vignettes of the Capitol, Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Institute surround this map of the nation's capital.

This nautical chart by the U.S. Coast Survey is the fourth of four sheets of the Potomac River from Washington D.C. to its entrance into the Chesapeake Bay.

The chart shows soundings, tides, lighthouses and the configuration of the shoreline.

Civil Engineer E.G. Arnold published a topographical map of the District of Columbia that identified the location of fifty-three forts, four batteries and forty army hospitals.

Two days after the Colton firm issued Arnold's map for sale, War Department officials began confiscating any copies they could find, including those purchased for sale. Federal officials entered private residences to seize copies in their efforts to eradicate any vestige of the map, even traveling to New York City to destroy the lithograph stones.

The G. Woolworth Colton publishing firm was compensated when the United States government reimbursed their losses for $8000.00. Very few copies of Arnold's map are extant today.

Several public buildings and spaces are identified including: the Capitol, Smithsonian Institute, the President's House, the Mall, Navy Yard, Marine Hospital and National Observatory. At a glance this map of Washington appears to be a facsimile of the very famous Thackara and Vallance map of D.C.

The Philadelphia firm Bradley and Company hired French painter, Christian Schussele, to paint this scene of Washington and his family; William Sartain engraved the printed version. Both are based on Edward Savage's 1798 print of the Washington family.

Martha's hand lays on a manuscript map of Washington, presumably a copy of the first plan of the district drawn by Pierre Charles L'Enfant in 1791.

Credits: Story

Research, text and arrangement by Cassandra Britt Farrell and Mary Kate du Laney with assistance from Audrey McElhinney and Sonya Coleman.

Imaging by Mark Fagerburg and Paige Buchbinder, Photo & Digital Imaging Services department.

All images from Map Collection,
Manuscripts & Special Collections, Library of Virginia

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.