Great First-Hand Description of Washington in 1800; Most Houses, Small Miserable Huts

Oliver Wolcott, Jr.
Oliver Wolcott, Jr.

We often wonder what the city was like in the early days. By all accounts, it was a miserable place to be.

We dug up an interesting article in The Baltimore Sun from December 17th, 1853, which makes the same claims. The article quotes a letter written by Oliver Wolcott, Jr., written on July 4th, 1800 and addressed to his wife.

At the time, Mr. Wolcott was the country’s second Secretary of the Treasury, serving under President Adams (read about his trip from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800).

Below is the printed excerpt from his letter.

I have made every exertion to secure good lodgings near the office, but shall be compelled to take them at the distance of more than half a mile. There are,  in fact, but a few houses at any one place, and most of them small miserable huts, which present an awful contrast to the public buildings.–The people are poor, and, as far as I can judge, they live like fishes, by eating each other. All the ground for several miles around the city being, in the opinion of the people, too valuable to be cultivated, remains unfenced. There are but few enclosures, even for gardens, and those are in bad order. You may look in almost any direction, over an extent of ground nearly as large as the city of New York, without seeing a fence or any object except brick-kilns and temporary huts for laborers.

Greenleaf’s Point presents the appearance of a considerable town which had been destroyed by some unusual calamity. There are (at Greenleaf’s Point) fifty or sixty spacious houses, five or six of which are occupied by negroes and vagrants, and a few more by decent working people; but there are no fences, gardens, nor the least appearance of business. This place is about a mile and a half south of the Capitol.”

It’s really hard to imagine a place like the one mentioned in the first-hand accounts of the time. The description above is terrific and helps draw the picture of, what was really, a small, dumpy town plopped down on the banks of the Potomac River.

Below is a print that we found of Washington, done in 1834. It shows what Washington would have looked like, facing west down Pennsylvania Ave. from the Capitol.

- click image for more -
Image shows a black-and-white engraving published in 1834 to portray Washington, D.C. and the west front of the U.S. Capitol grounds as they were in 1800. Includes the west end of the west grounds and Pennsylvania Avenue, with poplar trees planted in 1803.
Image shows a black-and-white engraving published in 1834 to portray Washington, D.C. and the west front of the U.S. Capitol grounds as they were in 1800. Includes the west end of the west grounds and Pennsylvania Avenue, with poplar trees planted in 1803.

Source: Library of Congress

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • jxjl99a

    Pierre L’Emphant, spurred on by Gen. Washington, secured lodging early on in one of the nicest houses there (before most anyone knew of Gen. Washington’s plan for the new Federal City there) with my GG GG GG G Uncle, David Burnes II, who lived in his Grandfather’s house, David Burnes I’s cottage build in the 1740/50s, who owned the 800+ acres that most of the government buildings west of the US Capital eventually were placed upon. It seems that only the major land owners in the area east of Georgetown had nice houses. His house was a mansion compared to most of the houses there it is said. He farmed the land and made a good living. David Burnes II was the last land owner to agree to giving up land to the government for the new Federal City. His reasons for doing so were that he farmed the land as his only income, which was left to him by this father and grandfather, James Burnes and David Burnes I respectively. And his inside track with Pierre L’Emphant also probably made him privy to the plans for the new capital, causing him to hold out when Gen. Washington sent several supposedly non-government, private buyers around to buy up land from unsuspecting land owners who would surely raise their price if they knew of the plans for a new capital there. At any rate, David Burnes II died later, after the deal was made with Gen. Washington, leaving his daughter as the richest young lady in the new Federal City. She married Senator Peter Van Ness who became Mayor of D.C. and commander of the city’s militia. They built a fine house, known as the Van Ness Mansion, in the early 1800s said to be the nicest mansion in D.C., even nicer than the White House. It resided where the Pan American building now sits. David Burnes I cottage sat south of the Pan Am building between it and where the Washington Monument now sits. David Burnes I’s old cottage was torn down much to the displeasure of preservationists in 1892/93 as it was the last pre-Revolution house remaining in D.C. The fireplace mantel from the cottage can be seen today in the City Museum of Washington. The old carriage house for the Mansion and cottage is said to still sit behind the Pan Am building.

    • Sheila

      Outstanding!

  • ET

    What is the relationship between Greenleaf Point and Wheat Row which was developed in the late 18th century by James Greenleaf.

    Southwest has a few older homes like the Thomas Law House and the Duncanson-Cranch House both which would have been there in the early DC years.