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What Does ‘District of Columbia’ Mean in Washington, D.C.?

Explore the historical significance and meaning behind 'District of Columbia' in Washington, D.C. Uncover the origins of this iconic name and its relevance today.
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Many wonder about the meaning behind the term ‘District of Columbia’. What does it stand for in Washington, D.C.? Many people don’t know the genesis of the the city on the Potomac River, the seat of our federal government. The ‘District of Columbia’ has a rich history, with its name having significance that many might not be aware of. After you read this, you’ll know how land taken from both Maryland and Virginia became our capital city, now just 68.3 square miles.

The Residence Act passed on July 6th 1790, giving President Washington the task of placing the capital on the Potomac. The cities of Georgetown, Alexandria and other smaller settlements like Carrollsburg, Hamburg, and Tennally’s Town fell into the new capital territory.

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Congress recognized that Washington’s family owned a lot of property in and near Alexandria. Federal buildings were prohibited from being erected in the new District on land formerly within the State of Virginia (actually the Commonwealth). This was in the hopes of reducing conflicts of interest.

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

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

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 french born 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.’

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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.

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

Why is it Called the ‘District of Columbia’ and Not Washington, TC?

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 that’s why we’re DC, not Washington, TC. That’d be weird.

So there you have it. The origins of our city’s name: Washington, D.C.

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