{ subscribe_url:'//loc.gov/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/geography-and-maps.php', }

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.

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 […]

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 […]

New Exhibit Celebrates the National Park Service Centennial and the Organic Act

Today’s post is from Jacqueline Nolan, a Cartographer in the Geography and Map Division. Today officially marks 100 years of the National Park Service! National parks are a cherished resource of the American public, and serve as inspiration to many countries and communities worldwide. A new exhibit open today in the Geography and Map Division […]

Imaginary Maps in Literature and Beyond: Map Monsters

This blog post is part of a summer series on imaginary maps, written by Hannah Stahl, a Library Technician in the Geography & Map Division. Read the introductory post to the series here. “You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters!” – Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the […]

Exploring the National Parks in the Geography and Map Division

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this month, there is no better time to highlight the Geography and Map Division’s special Digital Collection “Mapping the National Parks.” This curated collection includes nearly 200 maps, dating from the 17th century to the present, covering national parks and areas that in the future would become […]

Maps for the Masses: Geography in the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge

It is almost a cliché to say, but today, in 2016, maps are everywhere. The barriers to geographic information have come down so that anyone with internet access or a smart phone can see maps of the world in incredible detail. But the wide availability of maps to people of all walks of life is […]

Millie the Mapper

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, Worlds Revealed is featuring weekly posts about the history of women in geography and cartography. You can click on the “Women’s History Month” category see all related posts.   We’ve all heard the story of Rosie the Riveter: women, from a wide variety of backgrounds, who entered […]

Computing Space VI: The Many Languages of Space or How to Read Marble and Dacey

Today’s post is the sixth in a year-long series called,”Computing Space,” which highlights new mapping technologies and new areas for cartographic innovation, along with stories of the lives and work of many of the mostly unknown cartographers, geographers, mathematicians, computer scientists, designers and architects who both now, and in the past, have had a hand […]

Putting Women Back on the Map

In honor of Women’s History Month this March, Worlds Revealed is featuring weekly posts about the history of women in geography and cartography. Today, we’ll give a brief overview of what’s to come. You can click on the “Women’s History Month” category see all related posts. Women cartographers envisaged, engraved, drew, and printed every kind […]