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A Stone’s Throw
by Lauret Savoy, Editorial Board Member, Terrain.org

Placing Washington, D.C., before the Inauguration


The lower Potomac River is a large tidewater tributary of the Chesapeake Bay that separates much of Maryland from Virginia.  Upstream from its mouth the wide channel bends and narrows west and north to the fall line, the boundary between the low coastal plain and ancient bedrock Piedmont.  Above this point, which is the head of navigation, rapids and falls are common.

My father’s people made a home on the tidewater and Piedmont lands of Maryland and Virginia.  Four generations of his paternal forebears, from the early 1800s on, lived at the Potomac’s fall line because the District of Columbia was there.

Cadastral map of the City of Washington in 1792, also showing the townships of Georgetown, Hamburgh, and Carrollsburg.


Cadastral map of the City of Washington in 1792, showing land tracts and the townsites of Georgetown, Hamburgh, and Carrollsburg.
Graphic courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

I write these words late in December, less than a month before inauguration day.  On January 20, 2009, with more than four million people expected in Washington, D.C., Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, and the first African American in this office.  Millions of people watching the events on television will witness tradition and pageant: the oath of office taken on the Capitol steps, the new president’s inaugural address, and then the parade along Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House.  Glimpses of monuments and memorials in downtown Washington might be familiar reminders of national promise.

But Washington, D.C., has always been a contested place of paradox and contradiction.  Unlike the capitals of most other nations, the district was established distant from the country’s economic, intellectual, or cultural centers—its unlikely origins and location as the seat of government due to political machinations and deal-making.  And this invented capital long held a “secret city,” a large population of enslaved and free African Americans.  By condoning both chattel servitude and the “slave” trade within its borders for more than half a century, Washington, D.C., in its actual life had an uneasy relationship with aspired-to national principles or ideals.  The eve of the presidential inauguration seems an appropriate time to reconsider its historical landscapes.

The Constitution authorized a district of up to ten miles square be established as the permanent seat of the new federal government.  Public history tends to continue like this: In July 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, empowering President George Washington to choose a site along an 80-mile stretch of the Potomac River “between the mouths of the Eastern Branch [Anacostia River] and the Connogochegue.”  Whether developed or not the site would replace Philadelphia as the capital in 1800.

But public history sometimes fails to mention the backstory, the why behind the geography of the seat of government.  Put simply, the president wanted the capital embedded in the South, not too distant from his plantation in Virginia.

Plan of the City of Washington, dated 1793, and reading "now building for the Metropolis of America, and established as the permanent residence of Congress after the year 1800."
Plan of the City of Washington, dated 1793, and reading "now building for the Metropolis of America, and established as the permanent residence of Congress after the year 1800."
Graphic courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.



As Garry Wills and other historians have pointed out, it was difficult for a “slave” holding president, or other federal official, to live in his accustomed manner in places like Philadelphia, the capital in the 1790s and a city known for antislavery sentiments.  The permanent home of the federal government had to be located in a region friendly to, and unquestioning of, slavery.  In fact, before the Civil War, most of the American presidents, as well as members of the Supreme Court and Senate, were substantial holders of “slaves,” and no “northern” president before Abraham Lincoln seriously challenged such interests.

With President Washington somewhat in the background, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and others worked to fulfill the president’s wish, subverting Congressional authority and minimizing debate on alternative sites.  Thus, the land that became the District of Columbia was ceded by Maryland and Virginia at the Potomac River’s head of navigation.  At the time (1790), the two states held more than half the entire nation’s enslaved population. 

The new District of Columbia was to include two thriving commercial river ports: Alexandria (from Virginia) and Georgetown (from Maryland).  Downstream of Georgetown, within the Maryland side of the district, the new City of Washington would also include the small townsites of Hamburgh near the mouth of Rock Creek and Carrollsburg on the Eastern Branch.  But Chesapeake tobacco agriculture really defined the tidewater landscape that was to become the federal city.  Woodlands separated cleared fields of more than twenty plantations and farms worked largely by enslaved labor, according to John Michael Vlach, a scholar on the architecture of slavery.

The new city began on cultivated fields, forested tracts, and tidal-river lowlands and swamps.  The White House was built on David Burnes’s tobacco plantation.  The Capitol was constructed on Jenkins Hill, within a large estate owned by Daniel Carroll.  Goose or Tiber Creek flowed where Constitution Avenue now runs, emptying into the Potomac River where the monument grounds now sit.  (The land to the west and south was made only in the late 1800s by filling the tidal river’s edge with sediment dredged downstream.)

“Slave Market of America,” a large broadside condemning slavery and the “slave” trade in the District of Columbia, published by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1836.


“Slave Market of America,” a large broadside condemning slavery and the “slave” trade in the District of Columbia, published by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1836.
Graphic courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

By the early 1800s, views of the City of Washington boasted muddy or dusty roads (depending on the weather), scattered habitable buildings, partly built structures, and many abandoned projects, in addition to farms and woods.  As Englishwoman Harriet Martineau recalled in her Retrospect of Western Travel (1838):

The city itself is unlike any other that was ever seen, straggling out hither and thither, with a small house or two a quarter of a mile from any other; so that, in making calls “in the city,” we had to cross ditches and stiles, and walk alternately on grass and pavements, and strike across a field to reach a street.

Government officials spent as little time there as possible, especially during hot, humid summers when insect- and water-borne diseases were likely.  Congress supposedly worked only after the harvest and before planting season.  Resignations were very common, as were proposals to move the capital to a more hospitable location.

After nearly fifty years Washington city was still in process of becoming a city.  Andrew Mackay, a visitor from Scotland, saw in 1846 “ever and anon a street just begun and then stopped, as if it were afraid to proceed any further into the wilderness.”

Charles Dickens’s ridicule from an 1842 visit is more telling:

It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions….  Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long, that want only houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament—are its leading features…. To the admirers of cities it is a… pleasant field for the imagination to rove in; a monument raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness.

Such as it is, it is likely to remain.

Slavery was embedded in the District of Columbia’s founding and daily business for seven decades.  Nearly a quarter of the district’s population in 1800 were African Americans, most enslaved.  They not only worked the tobacco land, but largely built the White House and Capitol.  (One can still find federal pay-stubs from that time, directing compensation to “owners” for the enslaved labor.)  They also worked as domestic servants, and as skilled and unskilled laborers throughout the slowly growing urban area.

After the Constitutional ban on importing enslaved Africans went into effect in 1808, planters in the deep South sought enslaved labor interstate, particularly after cotton booms.  Tobacco planters in tidewater Maryland and Virginia who had exhausted their soil’s productivity responded by selling or renting their enslaved “property.”  The District of Columbia soon became a large and notorious market depot between the Chesapeake and lower South, what historian John Hope Franklin once called “the very seat and center of the slave trade.”

Englargement of the "Slave Market of America," noting "The Home of the Oppressed," with slaves paraded in front of the Capitol.
Enlargement of the "Slave Market of America," noting "The Home of the Oppressed," with those enslaved being led past the capitol by an overseer.
Graphic courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.



But neither slavery nor the trade existed easily in Washington.  Because Congress had jurisdiction over the district, abolitionists claimed it could ban slavery and the trade there.  (The first issue of the Liberator ran front-page articles on the D.C. trade.)  The southern counter-argument was that Maryland and Virginia would never have ceded land for the capital if slavery weren’t protected by law, as it was it those states.

Some residents repeatedly petitioned Congress for bans in the first half of the 19th century.  What is unique is that the district’s antislavery community was probably the southernmost cell of organized abolitionist activity, and one of extensive cooperation among free African Americans and white residents.  In 1846, Congress ceded Alexandria back to Virginia, partly due to efforts of traders fearing a ban in the District of Columbia.

As part of the Compromise of 1850, northern legislators were able to get a resolution approved that prohibited importing slaves from other states into D.C. for sale.  But this ban did not end the within-city trade or slavery itself, and interstate trade simply shifted to Alexandria. Congress didn’t outlaw slavery in the district until 1862, during the war.

The landscape and architecture of this urban slavery are often overlooked.  Pens for holding enslaved people in transit were common sights throughout the district, even from the windows of Congress.  Some of the city’s most notorious pens and markets were located on the Mall and in sight of the Capitol and other federal buildings.  Edward Coles, President Madison’s secretary, worried in 1809 that foreign visitors and diplomats would witness “such a revolting sight” as “gangs of Negroes, some in chains, on their way to a Southern market.”

Although most physical signs of urban slavery, like the pens, were torn down as the city grew after the Civil War, remnants can still be seen.  Outbuildings behind old, stately residences, according to Vlach, are but a few remaining examples of “slave” quarters and work areas that both separated and controlled the geography of movement of those enslaved.

Decatur House, one of the oldest surviving residences in the city, sits across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, on the northwest corner of Lafayette Square.  Around 1839 John Gadsby, the home’s second owner and a “slave” dealer, constructed a two-story building behind the original house as working and living quarters for his many enslaved servants.  (Unverified legend has it that Gadsby may have traded from pens at his home.)  Just blocks from the Capitol, an old plantation house (now called Friendship House) and a weathered brick building that served as “slave” quarters are what remain of The Maples or Maple Grove plantation.

Englargement of the "Slave Market of America," noting "Public Prison in the District," with slaves on the auction block.


Enlargement of the "Slave Market of America," noting "Public Prison in the District," with "sale of a free [African American] citizen to pay his jail fees."
Graphic courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

For me the District of Columbia’s history frames more personal stories of people-in-place I don’t yet fully know.  My father’s ancestors, most of them African Americans with the blood of Europe and perhaps Native America, were likely there because of tobacco plantations, indentured servitude, enslavement, and freedom. 

But the past of Washington landscapes—even if unrecognized or poorly understood—is not remote or without impact on America’s present.  Some say that slavery is a distant past best forgotten in order to “move on.”  Some might say this presidential inauguration, two-hundred years after Abraham Lincoln’s birth, could be a marker of a new post-racial society.  Yet it’s impossible to understand or tell this nation’s story without understanding the hand-in-glove fit of chattel labor and the country’s growth as an independent economic and political power in the world.  And the America of today certainly is not yet post-racist, because too many of the ignorant assumptions that both rationalized slavery and stemmed from it still exist.

Perhaps understanding the presence of the past requires self-acknowledgment of origins.  To recognize that history is not a grand story about individuals or of particular choices or events, but of intricate relationships across time and space—and to know the after-effects of such relationships in our present.  Even old drainage patterns of filled-in streams still exist beneath pavement, concrete, and Washington’s buildings.


Lauret Savoy writes and photographs across threads of cultural identity to explore their shaping by relationship with and dislocation from the land. A woman of African-American, Euro-American, and Native-American heritage, she is a professor of environmental studies and geology at Mount Holyoke College. Her books include The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World (Milkweed Editions), Bedrock: Writers on the Wonders of Geology(Trinity University Press), and Living with the Changing California Coast.
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Brown, Letitia Woods, 1972, Free Negroes in the District of Columbia. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deyle, Steven, 2005, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Green, Constance, 1967, The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Melder, Keith, 1989, Slaves and freedmen: The Wilson Quarterly, 13 (1), 77-83.

Reps, John W., 1991, Washington on View: The Nation’s Capital since 1790. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. (The quotes from Charles Dickens, Andrew Mackay, and Harriet Martineau were found here.)

Vlach, John Michael, 2006, The last great taboo subject: Exhibiting slavery at the Library of Congress, in Horton, James Oliver and Horton, Lois E., eds., Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. New York: The New Press, 57-73.

Wills, Garry, 2003, Seat of bondage: American Heritage, 54 (6), 57-62.



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