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A Brief History of Alexandria

Alexandria, Virginia is located on the west bank of the Potomac River, about six miles south of Washington, D.C. and nine miles north of Mount Vernon. Our town has a most peculiar history.

 

John Warner (1747), A survey of the northern neck of Virginia, being the lands belonging to the Rt. Honourable Thomas Lord Fairfax Baron Cameron

A Land Grant

The end of the English Civil War in 1649 brought about the execution of King Charles I, the exile of his son, Charles II, the collapse of the English monarchy, and the establishment of first a commonwealth and later a protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. Early in his exile, the throneless Charles II granted approximately five to six million acres of land to seven supporters who had accompanied him to Antwerp and France.

The land grant, known as the Northern Neck Proprietary, encompassed all the land in America bounded by and within the heads of the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, the courses of the two rivers, and the Chesapeake Bay, including a great portion of the Shenandoah Valley.

The proprietorship amounted to twelve percent of the colony of Virginia, including the modern-day cities and counties of Alexandria, Arlington, Augusta, Clarke, Culpeper, Fairfax, Fauquier, Frederick, Greene, King George, Lancaster, Loudoun, Madison, Northumberland, Orange, Page, Prince William, Rappahannock, Shenandoah, Stafford, Warren, Westmoreland and Winchester. It also included the modern-day counties of Berkeley, Hampshire, Hardy, Jefferson and Morgan in West Virginia.

After Lord Cromwell's death and the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, one of the loyal seven, Lord Thomas Culpeper, the second Baron Culpeper and later colonial governor of Virginia, acquired the interests of the other six proprietors and became the sole owner of the Northern Neck Proprietary. Upon Lord Culpeper's death in 1710, his widowed daughter, Lady Catherine Fairfax, inherited the proprietorship. In 1719, on her death, Lady Catherine left the granted lands to her son, Thomas Fairfax, the sixth Lord Fairfax of Cameron.

In the mid-to-late 1730s, Lord Fairfax came to America to visit and inspect his lands, and begin its clearing and cultivation. He permanently relocated here in the mid-to-late 1740s, becoming the only resident peer in colonial America at the time.

Ownership of the lands comprising the Northern Neck Proprietary suffered long and bitter contest over many years, first among the original grantees and the English Crown, and later among these parties, other Culpeper family members, the colony of Virginia, and those who had previously settled the lands.

 

A Colonial Town

In 1669, Charles II authorized Sir William Berkeley, the Governor of Virginia, to award a 6,000-acre land grant to Robert Howsing, an English sea captain, for his service in transporting 120 settlers from England to Virginia. This land grant, which extended along the Potomac River from Little Falls in the north to Hunting Creek in the south, was issued out of the Northern Neck Proprietary (a part of which was claimed by Charles II).

Less than a month after receiving the grant, Captain Howsing sold the land to John Alexander, a Virginia planter, for 6,000 pounds of tobacco. This was most likely the cargo for the return voyage. Over the next 50 years, much of the Alexander acreage was cleared and put to farming.

By 1732, the year of George Washington's birth, Hugh West erected a tobacco warehouse two miles south of Hunting Creek. The building was one of many facilities contemplated by the Virginia Tobacco Inspection Act of 1730 to centralize the inspection, weighing and grading of tobacco at public depots along Virginia's numerous rivers.

 

Charles Magnus (1863), Birds eye view of Alexandria, Virginia

The surrounding area became known as Hunting Creek Warehouse, and the earliest known effort to establish a community there was made in 1745. John Colville, a merchant, land speculator, member of the Virginia General Assembly and a Colonel in the Prince William County Militia, and others, sought to establish a commercial settlement at the navigable head of Hunting Creek. They wanted to build a new tobacco warehouse and establish a town called Cameron. Although this specific plan was never approved, interest in the basic premise would continue for several years. Interestingly, a small merchant hamlet called Cameron was settled four miles west of Hunting Creek Warehouse. (Today, Cameron is experiencing explosive growth. In April 2010, the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved the development of three mixed-use towers around the Eisenhower Metro station, comprising 1,200 residential units and 67,000 square feet of retail space.)

In 1748, shortly after Lord Fairfax's final removal to America, English and Scottish merchants from Cameron petitioned the Virginia General Assembly to establish a town along the Potomac River near Hunting Creek Warehouse to facilitate shipping and commerce. The Howsing/Alexander property was selected for the town site.

It is commonly believed that Captain John West, Jr., the Deputy Surveyor of Fairfax County, prepared the first land survey for the proposed town. His initial survey, however, is not the well-known one that survives to this day. That same year, Lord Fairfax befriended a very young George Washington, who was a distant relative and an aspiring land surveyor.

Lord Fairfax invited Washington to join a team that was surveying the Northern Neck Proprietorship in the Shenandoah Valley west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Washington recorded his survey experiences in a journal, noting that the settlers in the valley were hostile, uncooperative, and unwilling to pay Lord Fairfax for land that they had previously purchased from Virginia. After the Shenandoah Valley survey was completed, and with Lord Fairfax's help, Washington was appointed to the office of Surveyor of Culpeper County.

 

George Washington (1748), Survey of the site of Belhaven, Virginia

George Washington (1749), A plan of Alexandria, now Belhaven

Historians have credited Washington with preparing a total of 199 land surveys during his life. One of them was entitled Plat of the Land whereon now Stands the Town of Alexandria. It was most likely prepared sometime in 1748 or early 1749. The map includes a simple outline of the proposed town, and an annotation that reads "Area 51 acres, 3 Roods, 31 Perch" (3 roods is ¾ of an acre, and 31 perch is 511½ feet). The map also notes the locations of the Hunting Creek Warehouse and other existing structures, the proposed town limits, the suitable uses of the available land, and soundings and shoal locations for nearby portions of the Potomac River.

Toward the middle of 1749, Washington prepared a second map, entitled "Plan of Alexandria, Now Belhaven." This plat includes a street grid, which his earlier map had omitted. It was probably used in connection with the sale of town lots, as it lists the locations of the lots, the names of the purchasers, and the transaction prices. While these two early maps of Alexandria are undeniably in Washington's hand, it is widely thought that he derived or copied them from Captain West's original surveys.

The Town of Alexandria was established in 1749. Upon its founding, some wanted to call the town Belhaven, as was prematurely noted in Washington's second map of the town. Other views prevailed, however, and the town was named for the family of John Alexander. Several years later, in 1752, Scottish merchants petitioned to change the name of the town from Alexandria to Belhaven. The petition was denied, and the name of the town has remain fixed and unchallenged ever since.

At the time of the American Revolution, Alexandria was a very busy port, and served as one of America's principal commercial and trading centers.

Following the war, the Commonwealth of Virginia began legal proceedings to seize all the land comprising the Northern Neck Proprietary. The legal dispute continued for more than 30 years when, in 1816, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case of Martin vs. Hunter's Lessee that the Commonwealth was the legal owner of the land. This case is well known to all American lawyers and federal constitutional scholars because it established the important legal principle that the U.S. Supreme Court has ultimate authority over state courts in all matters involving federal law. Alexandria was formally incorporated in 1779.

 

A Federal City

In 1789, Alexandria, together with a portion of Fairfax County, were ceded by Virginia to the new federal government to become a part of the planned 10-mile-square District of Columbia. Formally accepted by the U.S. Congress in 1801, Alexandria remained a part of the Federal city until 1846, when the District’s southwestern boundary was moved to the far shore of the Potomac River, and the Virginia portion of the District was ceded back to the Commonwealth. So, for nearly half a century, Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia.

A Capital City

Alexandria served briefly as the capital of the Restored Government of Virginia during the second half of the American Civil War. At the start of the war in 1861, Union loyalists in Virginia established a seat of government in Wheeling, which was then still a part of the Commonwealth. In 1863, when West Virginia broke away from Virginia and joined the Union as an independent state, the capital of the Restored Government of Virginia was moved from Wheeling to Alexandria, where it remained for two years. After the defeat of the Confederacy in 1865, the "reunified" state capital was "reinstated" in Richmond. There have been only five capitals of Virginia -- Jamestown (1607-1699), Williamsburg (1699-1780), Richmond (1780-1861 and 1865-present), Wheeling (1861-1863) and Alexandria (1863-1865). You could also argue that Danville was a sixth capital, because retreating Confederate state officials met there briefly for a week in April 1865.

A Great Place to Live

Why is Alexandria, particularly Old Town, such a popular place to live? It is a small city infused with a compelling history, it has an efficient and responsive local government providing excellent public services, it is located very close to Washington, D.C. and the Potomac River, it has several Metro stations and its own bus system, it has several vibrant commercial districts, and it has a widely diverse mix of residents.

         
 

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