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Modest Monuments: The District of Columbia Boundary Stones

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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.

“Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States : projected agreeable to the direction of the President of the United States, in pursuance of an act of Congress passed the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC, ‘establishing the permanent seat on the bank of Potowmac’: [Washington D.C.]” Pierre Charles L’Enfant, 1791 (Republication by United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, 1887). Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

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.

Comments (7)

  1. Now in Washington you..know what vist.

  2. Seguramente quizá algunos que estén por ese lugar podrían tener una idea de que monumentos vistitar…muy bonito..un saludo al maestro luciano

  3. nice

  4. As a DC resident when I was doing a little research, I ran across which is nice collection of all sorts of stuff related to the boundary stones.

  5. I have a plat plan from 1964, when my father bought the property to build Great Falls Estates in Great Falls, Va. It clearly shows that the corner of this 17 (approximately 1 acre) lot parcel has a “FLINT STONE” set at it’s corner at Riverbend Road. It’s walking distance to the Potomac, by Riverbend Park. I have always wondered if this is part of the original survey of the 1700s. Does anyone know how to find out anything about this? I have only hit dead ends online when searching.

  6. Beverly Good Slope: the plat would probably say Boundary Marker if it were a Boundary Marker. The old plats used metes and bounds surveying, which is used here in the east, and the surveyer would use a physical object such as a “FLINT STONE” or “red oak tree” to deliniate the boundaries of a property. The metes and bounds has been updated to a grid set up by the US, and now the “monuments” or markers are a permanet metal pipe.

  7. I live in South Africa where much heritage has now been lost because it’s not of importance to the current government.
    I’d encourage every effort to preserve/conserve this fascinating heritage of yours. Once lost, it’ll never be replaced.

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