What does DC attend for in Washington, DC? What is the District of Columbia? Many people don’t know the genesis of the District’s name. After you read this, you’ll know how it came to become Washington, D.C.
What was the Residence Act?
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.
Congress recognized that Washington’s family owned a lot of property in and near Alexandria. Federal buildings were prohibited from being erected on the Virginia side of the District. This was in the hopes of reducing conflicts of interest. (UPDATE: It’s too bad the same policies weren’t applied to Donald Trump and his hotel on Pennsylvania Ave.)
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 referred 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,
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.
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: Washington, D.C.