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.

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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