Why Is Washington, D.C. Called the District of Columbia?

sketch of new federal capital by Thomas Jefferson (March 1791)
sketch of new federal capital by Thomas Jefferson (March 1791)

This would seem to be a very rudimentary history post for our blog, but there may be a number of GoDCers who don’t know the naming history of the District of Columbia.

What was the Residence Act?

Congress passed the Residence Act on July 6th 1790, giving our first President, George Washington, the task of selecting a site for the nation’s capital city on the banks of the Potomac River. He selected the current site, which included the cities of Georgetown, Alexandria and other smaller settlements like Carrollsburg, Hamburg, and Tennally’s Town.

Something interesting to note, is that Congress recognized that Washington’s family owned a fair bit of property in and near Alexandria, and as a result, prohibited the erection of federal government buildings on the annexed Virginia side of the District … just so any potential conflict of interest would be avoided.

The new capital was 100 square miles, which now included the cities of Georgetown, Alexandria, and the new Federal City, plus Washington County (everything north of what is today Florida Avenue) and Alexandria County (now Arlington County).

Today, we take for granted the city’s name, streets, and layout, but in the late 18th century, all this was just being dreamt up. George Washington had come to refer to the new capital as “the Federal City” until a meeting was held on September 9th, 1791 in Georgetown.

First referred to as “the Federal City”

In attendance were three men important to our history: Thomas Johnson, David Stuart, and Daniel Carroll. Below is a letter that resulted from that meeting, wherein the city received its permanent name. The three men were writing to Pierre L’Enfant.

Sir: We have agreed that the Federal District shall be called ‘The Territory of Columbia,’ and the Federal City the ‘City of Washington.’ The title of the map will therefore be, ‘A Map of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia.’

We have also agreed that the streets be named alphabetically one way and numerically the other, the former to be divided into north and south, and the latter into east and west numbers from the Capitol. Major Ellicott, with proper assistance, will immediately take, and soon furnish you with, the soundings of the Eastern Branch, to be inserted in the map. We expect he will also furnish you with the proposed post road, which we wish to be noticed in the map.

We are respectfully yours,

Thomas Johnson
David Stuart
Daniel Carroll

Pierre L’Enfant plans the new capital

L’Enfant took his orders and the resulting design is largely what we have today in our city. Below is the map he made, “Plan of the City intended for the Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States …” Make sure you click on the map for greater details. You’ll notice that Rock Creek is labeled Pine Creek on the map.

- click image for more -
Early map of the District of Columbia - Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States...
Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States…

Source: Library of Congress

From Territory to District of Columbia

So back to the naming of the City of Washington and the Territory of Columbia. The first was obviously to honor the great man that was our first president. The latter, you may not know, is for Christopher Columbus, the man who “discovered” the New World. “Columbia” is the feminine form of Columbus and “Territory” was dropped in favor of “District” when the District of Columbia was incorporated as one entity in 1871 with the Organic Act.

So there you have it. The origins of our city’s name.

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  • B’Dale Res

    The only towns that were within the district were Georgetown and Alexandria. Hamburg, Carrollsburg never existed. Some of the sketches by Jefferson included the proposed naming the city Hamburg or Carrollsburg instead of Washington.

    If you are into maps and how the city was designed, sold, built…I would highly recommend reading ‘Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.’

    There is also an old book (can post the name later) that is a collection of letters between L’Enfant/Washington/Jefferson and the creation of DC.

    But again, the cities/towns/hamlets of Hamburg and Carrollsburg never existed. The territory was basically full of farmers that owned pretty large pieces of land.

  • B’Dale Res

    Also, Daniel Carroll, David Stuart and Thomas Johnson were the first Commissioners (3) of DC. They did not get a long with L’Enfant and were part of the reason why L’Enfant was removed from the project. Carrollsburg = Daniel Carroll who has a pretty elaborate history with the founding of this nation and DC. He owned lots of land in MD, which some of it was in the borders of modern day DC.

  • Nice post. Very informative.

  • Andy Rowe

    I think I see the origin of Piney Branch here. It was a branch of Pine Creek! Though, if I read the note on the map correctly, it may have been labeled White’s Branch at the time of this map.

  • Jim Williams

    “The new capital was 10 square miles …”
    I think you mean 10 miles square, or 100 square miles. The District is ten miles on each side (including the Virgina portion).

    • SirLizard

      No, they mean 100 square miles. It’s like square footage in an apartment. My apartment is 1,000 square feet, but it’s not 1,000 feet long on each side. The area of Washington, DC, today is 68.34 mi². It’s less than the originally planned 100 because only the portions on the Maryland side of the Potomac were used, not the ones on the Virginia side.

  • Adam L

    Columbia may be derived from Columbus, the city was not really named in his honor. It was a poetic name for the United States in use at the time. Think: “Hail, Columbia”, “Columbia University” (formerly King’s College), Columbia Record/Pictures/Broadcasting, etc. So it’s like the District’s name is “District of the United States”, which actually makes sense.

  • DH in NE

    GoDC, can you clarify something? It seems like the city of Washington was a distinct entity from the District of Columbia in the early days. I’ve read that Washington had its own charter and laws, as did Georgetown and Alexandria. I think the borders of Washington city were the L’Enfant plan. After the second Organic Act (1871?) these entities ceased to exist and we were left with just the District of Columbia. We tend to use Washington to refer to the entire district now, but in reality, is any place officially named Washington anymore? Is this why the mayor removed Washington from DC license plates?

    • I believe the formal name is the District of Columbia and the major city in the District was Washington. Pre-1871, for example, people would refer to Georgetown, DC. In 1871 the borders of Washington City were moved from Boundary Road (Florida Ave – Old City) out to the District Border to make the city of Washington, the same as the District.

      • Citizen

        Except that there are no official references to “Washington” in the current DC Code. The only official name is the District of Columbia. I believe all of the official websites indicate this too, that there is only a D.C., not a Washington.

  • Paul H

    The “Territory” was replaced by “District” with the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801. The use of the acronym DC was in use on maps well before the Organic Act of 1871. I have some 1830’s correspondence addressed to Alexandria, DC.

  • MarkNearrfk

    Re: ‘Columbia’ as being the feminine form of ‘Columbus’:
    I hope not to cavil against someone who has done so much valuable research, but ‘Columbia’ is not really the feminine form of ‘columbus,’ dove, which is ‘columba,’ but rather the admiral’s name converted into a toponym using the age-old suffix -ia, as in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Babylonia, etc. So it means ‘Land of Columbus.’

  • Michael Davis

    The first and only governor of D.C. was Riggs for whom Riggs National Bank was named.

  • BalancedApproach

    Why would they “feminize” Columbus’ name; if true?

  • arejaye

    Knowing what we know now about the REAL ‘Christopher Columbus’ and his ruthless ways and the fact that he was utterly and completely lost when he “discovered” a land that never lost to begin with, his name should be erased from every part of the U.S. history because he was and is not deserving of credit of doing good things except for himself and Columbus Day be taken away as any sort of holiday. He was an evil man who couldn’t even get his own government to back his ventures, named the new people he encountered when he landed as Indians(showing how completely lost he was), he was an idiot who shouldn’t be praised especially when his ‘discovery’ brought on the beginning of what would be the largest genocide in the history of humankind. He should be praised no more than Hitler or any other insane egotistical maniac.

    • Kirk Halgren

      Since Leif Erikson “discovered” north America about 500 years prior to Columbus, I move we change the name to District of Erikson.

      • SirLizard

        There were already people here long before Leif Erikson “discovered” North America.

  • SirLizard

    I don’t see Rock Creek labeled as anything at all, but I do see Piney Branch (which branches off Rock Creek) labeled as Piney Creek.

  • Pat russell

    The US was high jacked by liberal thugs.
    Nameing our capital after a murderer who never even landed foot on American soil.
    (see Haiti.)
    Americos Vespusious now theres the topic.
    Who are these people trolling here.

  • Maria De Matties

    I think this is really Great! Having the territory District of Columbus, I wish they would of kept the name to be in masculine form instead of female form, I have to admit that I like the name better masculine then Columbia female.