1800s

The Alexandria Retrocession of 1846

1835 map of the District of Columbia.

We have the states of Maryland and Virginia to thank for the land that created the nation’s capital and the greater District of Columbia. It was through their cession of territory via the Residence Act of 1790 that Congress was able to establish a permanent home for a federal government that was up to that point rather itinerant. The 100-square-mile block called for by Congress that would constitute the District was made up of 69 square miles of territory from Maryland and another 31 square miles from Virginia. The District, which was organized by the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, organized the territory and officially placed it under the control of Congress. The bill was enacted on February 27, 1801, and almost from the moment of its passage, Virginia was looking for a way to get its territory back.

Evening Star article from March 25, 1882.

The Disappearing Corpse of D.C.'s First Murderer

Washington was unprepared for its first murder trial in 1802. The trial took place in the Capitol building, for want of a court room, and the murderer was held in a temporary jail in an alley dwelling on 4 ½ street. All around it turned out to be a difficult event for the city, but let’s start at the beginning.

Patrick McGurk was an Irish immigrant who lived on F Street, between 12th NW and 13th NW. He worked as a bricklayer and had a serious drinking problem. As too often is the case, his wife suffered from his bad habit. In the summer of 1802, McGurk beat his wife so badly that she and their unborn twins died. After being convicted at trial, D.C.’s first murderer was sentenced to hanging.

That's when things started to get weird.

The Stranger in America by Charles William Janson. (Photo source: Internet Archive)

Impressions of Washington: Charles William Janson, 1807

Throughout the history of the capital, people have thought of it as… a pretty bad place, honestly. From Lead Belly in 1937, to Mark Twain and Charles Dudley in 1873, to Nathaniel Hawthorn in 1862, to Byron Sunderland in the 1850s, to Charles Dickens in 1842, to a British Chaplin in the War of 1812, to Abigail Adams in 1800, it seems like pretty much everyone has disliked the District. If you don’t want to read one more, skip to the bottom to check out the people who, somehow, against all odds, actually like the city -- if not, read on!

Charles William Janson was an Englishman who lived in and wrote about America from 1793 to 1806. He published the account of his travels in 1807, in The Stranger in America. The following is what he had to say about what was then called “Washington City”...

Painting of Thomas Moore from National Portrait Gallery. (Source: Wikipedia)

Ireland's National Poet Visits Washington, 1803

In the wilderness of early Washington, fancy hotels and salons were not yet available for the stars of the city to gather. Instead, prominent citizens gathered in a farmer’s cottage to “discuss crops and drink apple jack.” In 1803, an Irish celebrity joined them around the fire, and immortalized the scenery in verse.

Plaque describing defunct Washington City Canal. (Photo by Matthew Bisanz used via GNU Free Documentation License)

The Rise and Fall of the Washington City Canal

Just within sight of the Washington Monument is a little stone house not open to the public. Used for National Park Service storage today, this house is the last remnant of one of the biggest mistakes in municipal planning in the District’s history: the Washington City Canal.

The canal was first conceived of by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant. He envisioned something grand like, well, the Grand Canal at Versailles. George Washington thought the canal was a good idea because it would increase commerce by bringing goods directly into the city center.

But, right from the beginning, the proposed canal was plagued with problems.

Impressions of Washington: Frances Few, 1808

Development of Pierre L'Enfant's Plan for the City of Washington was still in its infancy when Frances Few visited Washington in the early 1800s. (Source: Library of Congress)

Frances Few, of a prominent New York family, spent the winter of 1808-1809 in Washington, D.C. with her aunt. She had a lot to say! Initially, Miss Few is very pleased with the city and its parties. But as the 19-year-old’s stay wore on, she was decidedly less impressed with the city and its politics. Check out her comments after the jump!

This is not the face of someone who enjoyed her stay in Washington, D.C.

Impressions of Washington: Abigail Adams, 1800

When Abigail Adams came to Washington, D.C. on November 16, 1800, she arrived at an infant city, sparse and not fully formed.  Having just left the comforts of old Philadelphia, this must have been quite a shock. To make matters worse, her trip south had seen been rough. So, it’s safe to assume that she was in an irritable mood, when she finally made it to D.C.

We should probably keep that in mind while reading her appraisal of the city because she was pretty harsh. The First Lady called the capital ‘a city only in name,’ and pulled no punches in her description of Georgetown

Yarrow Mamout's Place in History

Yarrow Mamout was the most prominent African American in early Washington.  He was a Muslim, educated in West Africa to read and write in Arabic.  He and a sister arrived in America from on a slave ship in 1752. After forty-five years as a slave of the Beall family of Maryland, Yarrow (his last name) gained his freedom and settled in Georgetown. In 1800, he acquired the property at what is now 3324 Dent Place and lived there the rest of his life.

The house on Yarrow Mamout’s old lot in Georgetown is scheduled for demolition, but efforts are underway to save any artifacts from his occupancy as well as his mortal remains from the bulldozer.