Ever Wonder Why Washington, DC is part of a square… resting on a point?

What happened to the rest of the square?DC map.jpg

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Legislation was passed in 1790 to establish the new national capital on the Potomac River at a site to be determined by Washington. Land would be taken from both Maryland and Virginia to form the capital city. (To learn why the capital was to be on the Potomac River, see a previous post  Ever Wonder Why The U.S. National Capital is Located Where It Is). The new national capital was to be a square of 10 miles on a side – 100 square miles. Washington understood that commerce was going to be important to the new capital city and he wanted to include the 3 major seaports of the Potomac River:

  •  Alexandria, VA – in 1790 the largest port between Philadelphia and Charleston and then an independent city founded in 1749.
  •  Georgetown – the farthest upriver that ocean-going vessels could travel. Also an independent city founded in 1751.
  •  Bladensburg, MD – located on the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (now the Anacostia River) and was an important seaport for Maryland shipping and commerce.

In order to include all 3 of those ports in a square 10 miles on a side…the square had to be turned to include Alexandria at the lower tip… Georgetown in the left side and just snag Bladensburg on the upper right side. Land was ceded from Maryland and Virginia to the U.S. Government to form the new capital city.

As you contemplate the map and those 3 points, keep in mind that surveying in 1790 was not a totally precise process and there were no detailed accurate maps to layout that 10×10 mile square.

So what happened to the rest of the square?

By the 1840s there had been very little economic growth in the portion taken from Virginia; almost all of the commercial development was north of the Potomac River.

In 1844, the Commonwealth of Virginia petitioned Congress to return that portion taken in 1790.

Congress did so in 1846. Arlington County was formed along the nice straight linesDC map 1 surveyed in 1790 and Alexandria re-established its original boundary lines (not all of Alexandria became part of the capital city).

Here ends the history lesson!!

Now you indeed have some wise comments to make at the next event you attend!

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