Washington is Composed of Land from 19 Original Owners

George Washington

George Washington

The hundred square mile plot selected as the new seat of government was not unclaimed land. There were farms, estates and towns that were being swallowed up by United States government. But, I should add, that this wasn’t a case of eminent domain.

Nineteen original landowners were negotiated with, directly by George Washington himself at the end of March, 1791. He met with them during the day and in the evening, closed the deal with them at Suter’s Tavern in Georgetown.

By the way, Suter’s — formally known as the Fountain Inn — was the main gathering place in Georgetown at the time and is purported to have been at what is presently 31st and K St. NW.

After acquiring all the land for the new federal district, Washington wrote a letter to fellow Founding Father and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson.

The terms entered into by me on the part of the United States, with the landholders of Georgetown and Carrollsburg are, all land from Rock Creek along the river to the Eastern Branch, and so upwards to or above the Ferry, including a breadth of about one and one-half miles, the whole containing from three to five thousand acres, is ceded to the Public on condition, that, when the whole shall be surveyed and laid off as a city (which Major L’ Enfant is not directed to do), the present proprietors shall retain every other lot, and for such part of the land as may be taken for public use, for squares, walks, and so forth, they shall be allowed at the rate of twenty-five pounds per acre, the public having the right to reserve such parts of the wood on the land as may be thought necessary to be preserved for ornament, the landholders to have the use and profits of all the  grounds until the city is laid off into lots and sale is made of those lots, which, by this agreement, becomes public property. Nothing is to be allowed for the ground which may be occupied as streets or alleys.

View of the Georgetown waterfront in the 1790s (Library of Congress)

View of the Georgetown waterfront in the 1790s (Library of Congress)

Also of note is a record of September 8th, 1791 of the Commissioners meeting with Jefferson. This is important documentation of the streets naming convention in Washington.

…to name the streets of the Federal City alphabetically one way and numerically the other from the Capitol, and that the name of the City and Territory shall be the City of Washington and the Territory of Columbia.

The printers throughout the United States are requested to insert the above in their papers.

Well, unfortunately for President Washington and the Federal Government, the generous contractual clause granting the landowners continued use of the property created some serious problems. The farmers continued to raise their crops on land now owned by the government, preventing the proper laying of planned streets and roads.

One of these farmers was particularly troublesome and labeled obstinate by President Washington. David Burnes had approximately 700 acres coveted by the government, including the land on which the White House currently sits. Burnes was the recipient of numerous letters from the Commissioners, imploring him to cease growing his crops on land that was laid out to become Pennsylvania Avenue.

Washington in 1792

Washington in 1792

David Burnes' cottage in 1894 prior to razing (PGCist on Flickr)

David Burnes’ cottage in 1894 prior to razing (PGCist on Flickr)

UPDATE: Per the comment I received, I should probably clarify that this refers to the city of Washington, not the entirety of the District. Today they are one and the same, but they were very much distinct back then.


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  • MBG

    The old City of Washington comprised land owned by the 19 original proprietors — not the whole District of Columbia.

    I saw your email seeking opinions/input. My chief suggestion is to cite your sources.
    For this one you could be looking at: http://www.boundarystones.org/articles/caemmerer_1932.pdf
    and
    Bessie Wilmarth Gahn, Original Patentees of Land at Washington Prior to 1700 (Originally Published, 1936; Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969), p. 26-29, 73-75; Margaret Brent Downing, “Earliest Proprietors of Capitol Hill,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 21 (1918), pp. 1-23,
    and
    A Site for the “Federal City”: The Original Proprietors and Their Negotiations with Washington
    Louis Dow Scisco
    Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C.
    Vol. 57/59, [The 43rd separately bound book] (1957/1959), pp. 123-147

  • ET

    It is funny but today the Mall is so manicured that we think that was always the case. Every time I see one of these old photos of what is now the Mall I am surprised at how messy it really was.

  • jxjl99a

    Actually there is one story that Gen Washington did try to push his weight around and did threaten Mr. Burnes with eminent domain. To which Mr. Burnes replied to the General words to the effect that Gen Washington would have been nothing but a surveyor and a poor surveyor at that had he not married the widow Custis. This, its said, did not please Gen Washington.
    The story of the obstinate Mr. Burnes was invented by a writer for the National Intelligencer in the 1800s. It is probably not the true story. Gen. Washington was a savvy land speculator in his time. Once he decided on what land he wanted for the new Federal City he went about using various tricks to try to get the land at low prices without the land owners finding out the true purpose for the buying of the land and probably raising their prices once they found out. It is thought that Mr. Burnes had inside information (Mr. L’Enfant resided with Mr. Burnes for quite some time while Mr. L’Enfant was surveying the new Federal City) on the location of the land needed. Mr. Burnes and his children were seen showing Mr. L’Enfant all over the acreage and area from Rock Creek to the hill called Jenkins Hill (where the capital was built). Mr. Burnes would not agree to selling the land until Gen Washington sat down with him and told him for what exactly the land was to be used and offered him a fair deal. Upon hearing of its true purpose from Gen Washington, it is said the Mr. Burnes readily agreed to the land deal. This caused Gen Washington to remark to himself “the obstinate Mr. Burnes” and laugh at himself for trying to use so many tricks to get the land when all he had to do was sit down with Mr. Burnes and talk with him. This story was told by one who was a witness to the event.

  • Cymbaline

    I have been trying to find out why the piece of land on the site of today’s Foggy Bottom/ West End was known as ‘Mexico’. Any ideas? It seems too early for that name to be around. Any help would be appreciated.

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