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Modest Monuments: The District of Columbia Boundary Stones

The oldest set of federally placed monuments in the United States are strewn along busy streets, hidden in dense forests, lying unassumingly in residential front yards and church parking lots. Many are fortified by small iron fences, and one resides in the sea wall of a Potomac River lighthouse. Lining the current and former boundaries of Washington, D.C., these are the boundary stones of our nation’s capital.

The story of the boundary stones begins with the Residence Act of 1790, which approved of the creation of a new national capital along the Potomac River in the shape of a diamond 10 miles on each side, for a 100 square mile area. The new capital would be carved out of land from Maryland and Virginia. President George Washington, himself an accomplished surveyor, designated Jones Point to be the southern point of the diamond, with the rest of the territory to be surveyed and mapped from there. Beginning in 1791, a team led by Andrew Ellicott, and including famed astronomer and intellectual Benjamin Banneker, set out from Jones Point to perform an initial survey of the new territory. Although Banneker was forced to drop out of the project due to illness, Ellicott and his team were able to complete the full survey on the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac River in 1792. At each mile of the survey, a stone was placed to mark the boundary of the “Territory of Columbia.” In 1846, Virginia’s donated land portion to what had then become the District of Columbia was returned to Virginia, thereby nullifying the original purpose of many of the stones on the diamond’s northwestern and southwestern sides.

The boundary stones were intended to define the territory’s borders and solidify the permanence of the new national capital. But over the years, weathering, urban development, and other factors have taken a toll on the stones themselves. In 1906, Fred E. Woodward visited each boundary stone, took photographs, and documented their conditions. Among his documentations is his Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia, which shows the locations of each boundary stone while noting that several stones were damaged or missing (appearing only as “stumps”).

Woodward Map

“Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia.” Fred E. Woodward, 1906. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

In a letter to the Columbia Historical Society (today the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.), Woodward called for these stones to be preserved. He wrote:

Important as these ancient boundary stones are to the historian or antiquary, they are singularly unprotected and should at once be safeguarded against further injury or damage other than the necessary exposure to the elements. Such protection might be afforded by a small enclosure about five feet square and five feet high, suitably made of wrought iron of approved national design, to be placed around each stone. In some such manner, may these earlier monuments of the history of the District of Columbia be preserved for those who come after us.

In the years following Woodward’s report, a number of preservation efforts were undertaken to save the stones, including the construction of protective fencing that Woodward had proposed. A boundary stone protected by fencing is shown in the below photograph by Harris & Ewing from 1922.

Boundary Stone

“District of Columbia boundary stone.” Harris & Ewing, 1922. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Today, 36 of the original 40 boundary stones still exist in various physical conditions. Some stones legibly maintain their original inscriptions marking the “Jurisdiction of the United States,” while others have been severely eroded or sunk into the ground so as to now resemble ordinary, naturally-occurring stones. The inclusion of all of the boundary stones into the National Register of Historic Places in the 1990s and various rehabilitation efforts by local and federal government agencies in recent years point to renewed interest in preserving the stones (if perhaps not restoring them to their full, 1790s glory).

In whatever physical state, the boundary stones have largely survived for over 200 years and today remain a series of modest monuments to Washington, D.C.’s past and present.

Places in Civil War History: Fort Sumter and Virginia Secession

This is the third in a series of guest posts from Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis. On April 12, 1861, the first salvos of the American […]

Places in American Civil War History: Preparation for War

This is the second in a series of guest posts from Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis. On the eve of the Civil War, few detailed maps […]

Places in American Civil War History: Maps Depicting Prologue to War and Secession, March 1861

This is the first of a series of guest posts from Ed Redmond, Cartographic Specialist in the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, documenting the cartographic history of maps related to the American Civil War, 1861-1865. The posts will appear on a regular basis. The first post will provide on overview of pre-war mapping, […]

The Bob Crozier Collection: Aerial Reconnaissance in World War II

Today’s post is from Ryan Moore, a Cartographic Specialist in the Geography and Map Division. Bob Crozier served as a Technical Sergeant in the 654th Topographic Engineers from 1943 to 1946. Crozier was part of the American First Army under General Omar Bradley. He donated a collection of photos and maps created during World War […]

World War I: Understanding the War at Sea Through Maps

The following guest post is by Ryan Moore, a cartographic specialist in the Geography and Map Division. This blog post originally appeared in the Library of Congress Blog. Soldiers leaping from trenches and charging into an apocalyptic no man’s land dominate the imagination when it comes to World War I. However, an equally dangerous and […]

Celebrating Native American Cartography: The Catawba Deerskin Map

With the end of November and Native American Heritage Month, today we are taking a closer look at a unique map among the cartographic collections of the Geography and Map Division. Documenting just part of the expansive and diverse Native American experience is the “Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of […]

Mapping World War I Sea Mines Off the British Isles

Today’s post is from Ryan Moore, a Cartographic Specialist in the Geography and Map Division. During World War I, Germany laid more than 43,000 mines that claimed some 500 merchant vessels. The British Navy lost 44 warships and 225 auxiliaries to mines. The purpose was to interrupt the flow of supplies to Britain and to […]

New Paper on Philip Lee Phillips, the “King of Maps” for the Library of Congress

Today’s post is from Ryan Moore, a Cartographic Specialist in the Geography and Map Division. The Philip Lee Phillips Map Society of the Library of Congress is pleased to announce its latest installment of The Occasional Papers: “The King of Maps: Philip Lee Phillips’ First Acquisitions Trips in the Deep South 1903 and Europe 1905.” […]

Celebrating Waldseemuller’s Carta Marina at 500: A Conference at the Library of Congress

Conference Celebrating the 500th Anniversary of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1516 Carta Marina. Keynote address by award winning author and historian of science Dava Sobel. A two-day conference hosted by the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Waldseemüller’s Carta Marina, one of the great masterpieces of Renaissance […]