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Origins of Arlington

Connection to D.C.

Original map of D.C. as planned by Pierre L'enfant.
L'Enfant Map
image courtesy of the
National Capital Planning Commission
From Washington’s beginnings, the City and the surrounding communities have been integrally related. The Constitution’s specifications of a city “not to exceed ten miles square” left the dilemma of a separate city to grow up in the broader region. Architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed the City to be situated on both sides of the Potomac River. And although part of the City’s land was given back to Virginia, the ring of Civil War fortifications expanded the City’s boundaries so that after the war, many properties acquired for military reasons remained in Federal hands. In 1902, Senator James McMillan, chairman of the newly created Park Improvement Commission of the District of Columbia (better known as the McMillan Commission) created a plan for the National Capital. In the decades that followed, many of the McMillan Plan’s proposals were implemented. However, the connections to the growing suburbs were integral in creating a metropolitan region for the twentieth century. This vast metropolitan view created a National Capital Area stretching from Great Falls to Mount Vernon.

In 1788, Article I, Section 8 of the newly framed Constitution gave the Congress power to accept a territory "not exceeding ten miles square" to be used as the seat of the Federal Government. There was intense rivalry between the states to provide the site of the new Capital. Cities in the North and South put forth pleas to be the one selected. Some notable cities from the Revolutionary War were considered: Boston, where the first shot had been fired; Philadelphia, where independence had been proclaimed; Yorktown where it had been won. To appease everyone, Congress resorted to “choosing no city already in existence, but building a new one on purpose.”

On July 16, 1790, Congress made up its mind for good and decided that the President should be entrusted with choosing “on the river Potomac” a territory, ten miles square, which should become the “Federal Territory” and the permanent seat of the Government of the United States.

President George Washington was quick to make a decision. As a native Virginian and an avid horseback rider, the hills and valleys of the Potomac River region were familiar to him. Not only was the region easy to navigate, it provided access to the Chesapeake Bay and was inland enough to be secure. An additional consideration, which Washington mentioned repeatedly, was the region’s central location among the chain of the 13 United States.

Upon learning of President Washington’s selection, a French army officer who had fought for him wrote:

“Sir…. No nation, perhaps, had ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their capital should be fixed…. And, although the means now within the power of the country are not such as to pursue the design to any great extent, it will be obvious that the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth a the nation will permit it to pursue at any period, however remote….”

Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant

Washington knew of L’Enfant’s engineering and architectural talents and in 1791 L’Enfant was chosen to draw up designs for the Federal City. As L’Enfant began the design, Washington commissioned Major Andrew Ellicott, the U.S. Geographer-General, to conduct the survey of the new District of Columbia. Benjamin Banneker, a notable free black man, was called upon to assist him.

The 1801 Act by which the Congress of the United States took jurisdiction over this area specified that the portion ceded by Maryland should be known as the County of Washington, and that the portion ceded by Virginia, including the Town of Alexandria, should be known as the County of Alexandria (present day Arlington). Since George Washington owned land in this region, he did not want it to appear that he was seeking personal gain through his selection. Therefore, it was specified that no public buildings were to be erected on the Virginia side of the Potomac.

Arlington, which had once been part of the frontier of America, was now in the heart of the United States’ national government.

Layout of City / Boundary Stones

Original diamond map of the District of Columbia
Original D.C. boudaries with markers noted
Image courtesy of the
National Capital Planning Commission
The original boundaries of the Capital City encompassed a ten-mile square, or an area of 100 square miles, in a diamond shape with north, east, south and west corners as indicated in the diagram. Four boundary stones were placed to mark these four corners of the diamond. Smaller stones were added at one mile intervals between the four corners for a total of 40 stones. The Virginia stones are the South Cornerstone, Southwest stones 1-9, the West Cornerstone, and Northwest stones 1 through 3. The marker stones were sandstone and were quarried at the Aquia Creek quarry on the Potomac River, in Stafford County, Virginia, about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C. This same sandstone was later used for many early Federal buildings, including the White House and the center portion of the U.S. Capitol.
Boundary stone number 9 placed by Benjamin Banneker
Stone Marker # 9
Image courtesy of the National
Capital Planning Commission

Born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker, was the free, self-taught mathematician and astronomer known as the “first black man of science” and part of Andrew Ellicott’s survey team that laid out the boundary of the District of Columbia, at the direction of George Washington. Banneker fixed the position of the first boundary stone by lying on his back to find the exact starting point for the survey of the District, and plotting six stars as they crossed his spot at a particular time of night. This first cornerstone was set on April 15, 1791, and marked the south corner stone of the District of Columbia. From that location, the surveyors advanced northwest into Virginia and then crossed the Potomac into Maryland. In 1847. Banneker’s boundaries define what is today Arlington County. Boundary Stone # 9 has been denoted a National Historic Landmark to honor Banneker, and is located today at Jones Point, Virginia.

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