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The Changing Place Names of Washington, D.C.

The following post is by Kim Edwin, a library technician in the Geography and Map Division.

Since coming to the Washington, D.C. area and joining the Geography and Map Division, I have enjoyed learning about the early history of our nation’s capital through maps and place names. In studying maps from the city’s early years up to the present, it’s clear that the city has seen a complicated array of toponyms and political geography over its history.

The Residence Act of 1790 created a national capital, known as the Federal District, from portions of Maryland and Virginia, centered on the convergence of the Potomac and the Anacostia rivers, which are names derived from the Algonquian Native American language. In 1791, President George Washington appointed Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant to develop a plan for the new city. This resulted in a map, now famously known as the L’Enfant Plan, an enhanced version of which can be seen below. L’Enfant does not name the new city in his map, but within his layout of streets, marked by circles and diagonals, he shows locations for the “President’s House” as well as the “Congress House.” It even has a “Grand Avenue” on the site of today’s National Mall.

Enhanced reproduction of L'Enfant Plan for Washington, DC with street grid and locations of President's House and Congress House.

“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 on the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC, ‘establishing the permanent seat on the bank of the Potowmac,'” original by Pierre Charles L’Enfant, 1791. Computer-assisted reproduction published by Library of Congress with National Geographic Society, U.S. Geological Survey, and National Park Service, 1991. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Despite all his hard work, friction between the mercurial L’Enfant and the commissioners supervising the creation of the Federal District plan ultimately forced President Washington to fire L’Enfant. Surveyor Andrew Ellicott, who had been working on surveying the boundaries of the Federal District, was tasked with carrying on with planning. Using much of Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 design, Ellicott’s 1792 map, as seen below, is labeled as the “City of Washington” in the “Territory of Columbia.” As the feminine of Christopher Columbus’s last name, “Columbia” was a poetic name for America with origins in the early 18th century. Of course, we all know that “Washington” is named after President George Washington.

Map of updated L'Enfant Plan for Washington, DC by Andrew Ellicott with streamlined road network.

“Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia : ceded by the states of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them established as the seat of their government, after the year MDCCC,” Andrew Ellicott, 1792. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801 formally organized the “District of Columbia” as under the control of Congress and consisted of five political entities, including three cities and two counties. The three cities were the long before established cities of Georgetown and Alexandria, as well as Washington City, which had been delineated in the L’Enfant Plan. The eastern and western sides of the Potomac River within the district became Washington County and Alexandria County, respectively.

Map of the entire District of Columbia including Georgetown, Washington City, Washington County, Alexandria County, and Alexandria City. Detail is minimal and focuses on political geography.

“District of Columbia,” Thomas Gamaliel Bradford, 1835. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Due to the turnover of city planners, the War of 1812, flooding, and other losses of support, there were significant delays in implementing the designs of the city over the next few decades. In 1846, portions of the District of Columbia on the western side of the Potomac River (Alexandria County and Alexandria City), were retroceded to Virginia. In 1851, President Millard Fillmore hired the landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing to redesign the National Mall. Shortly after being hired, Downing tragically died in a steamship explosion, leading to still more delays.

Nevertheless, the city did grow throughout the 19th century. Albert Boschke’s 1857 map of Washington City shows the significant urban development occurring at the time. Boschke’s map also shows that the area that is now at the western end of the National Mall was still part of the Potomac River. In the following years, dredging of the Potomac and the use of collected fill to build up the lower marshy areas of the city significantly controlled flooding, helped prevent the spread of malaria from mosquitoes, and made the surrounding waterways more navigable. Politically, the District of Columbia (now consisting of Georgetown, Washington City, and Washington County) became unified as one territorial government under the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871.

Map of Washington City within L'Enfant Plan, showing building footprints and development of city.

“Map of Washington City, District of Columbia, seat of the federal government: respectfully dedicated to the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of North America,” Alfred Boschke, 1857. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

John Trout’s beautiful watercolor panorama captures the city as it was at the turn of the 20th century. In 1902, the year following Trout’s painting, the Senate Park Commission made new developmental recommendations for the central core and surrounding park system of the city. These recommendations were contained in what became known as the McMillan Plan, named after Senator James McMillan. The McMillan Plan essentially updated L’Enfant’s plan with the “City Beautiful” style reminiscent of many European capitals. The improvements later resulted in the Lincoln Memorial with a reflecting pool and the Jefferson Memorial with its aesthetically balancing tidal basin.

Panoramic watercolor of Washington, DC centered over national mall, with building roofs in red.

“View looking northwest from Anacostia: [Washington D.C.],” John L. Trout, 1901. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Today, Washington, D.C. is the thriving capital city envisioned by its early founders. With thousands more maps of Washington, D.C. available in the Geography and Map collections, there is always more learn about the history and geography of the nation’s capital.

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