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Washington D.C. history and timeline

Washington D.C. is the political and national capital of the United States. Founded by George Washington in 1790, the city grew to become one of the most influential and iconic cities in the world. Unsurprisingly, Washington D.C. attracts millions of visitors every year. Along with its historic and political landmarks, the city also boasts world-leading art galleries and museums such as the Smithsonian.

Let's explore the fascinating history of Washington D.C.

Washington D.C.'s Native Tribes and European Settlers

Before European settlers arrived, the area that would become Washington D.C. was inhabited by several Native American groups. Evidence for settlement in the area dates back to 4,000 years ago. Many of these tribes belonged to the Algonquian language group.

The area was ideal for settlement due to the proximity of the Potomac River. Two tributaries of the Potomac – the Anacostia River and Rock Creek – were also important for indigenous settlers. Some of the major tribes included the Piscataway, Patawomeck, Doeg, and Nacotchtank.

During the 17th Century, two European colonial provinces were established on either side of the Potomac River – Maryland and Virginia. The first European settlers arrived in the area in 1662, establishing several settlements along the river. After several clashes, many of the native tribes were forced to move to other areas.

During this period, two settlements were founded that would eventually form part of the federal district established by George Washington and other Founding Fathers in 1790. The town of Alexandria was founded in Virginia in 1749, while the settlement of Georgetown was established on the Maryland side in 1751. Both became major river ports for trade and shipping.

Establishment of a National Capital

Before and after the War of Independence, the city of Philadelphia enjoyed several spells as the capital of the United States. However, that changed after a revolt in 1783 known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny.

The revolt was made up of disgruntled Continental Army soldiers who had fought in the War of Independence. These soldiers hadn't been paid and demanded their wages from Congress. On June 20th, 400 soldiers descended on the State House. The mutiny was suppressed, but many of the Founding Fathers realized the need for a permanent residence for Congress.

One of the Founding Fathers, James Madison, suggested that the national capital should be independent of the established states. With states from the North and South each arguing their case, it was agreed that the national capital would be established along the Potomac River. This area was chosen because it formed a natural boundary between Maryland and Virginia.

Both states donated land for a federal district that would form the national capital. In 1790 and 1791, a Residence Act was passed to create a permanent site for the federal government. As President, George Washington was allowed to choose the final site.

He selected an area that included the settlements of Georgetown and Alexandria. The new district was named the Territory of Columbia, while the new city was named the City of Washington. Forty sandstone markers were placed to mark each mile of the new district. Many of these markers can still be seen today.

The Development of Washington D.C.

In 1791, Washington appointed a French-American engineer, Pierre Charles L'Enfant to design a plan for the new city. L'Enfant's original plan was a grid layout with a State Capitol building in the center. The city would be crisscrossed by a series of grand avenues named after the other states. L'Enfant also envisioned major infrastructure projects including a large canal system.

However, L'Enfant clashed with three commissioners appointed by Washington to develop the city. L'Enfant refused to provide a copy of his plan and was dismissed by Washington. Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor working under the commissioners, recreated most of L'Enfant's plans and continued the project.

In 1800, Congress was officially moved to the new federal district. Both the White House and the first phase of the United States Capitol building were also completed in 1800. John Adams, George Washington's successor, became the first President to use the White House as his official residence. By the end of 1800, the city's population had reached over 14,000 people.

War of 1812 and the Burning of Washington

However, the fledgling city soon faced a huge setback. In June 1812, the United States declared war against its former master, Britain. During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain and France both pressured the United States to avoid trading with their opponents.

America sided with France and blocked trade to Britain. The Americans were also angry that the British had been supporting Native Americans who were resisting American expansion. Battles raged in Canada and the Northwest Territory as the US Army attacked British areas. However, once the British defeated Napoleon in 1814, they concentrated on the United States.

In August 1814, a British invasion force defeated the US Army at the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland. Shortly after, the British attacked Washington, setting the city ablaze. The assault was seen as retribution for American actions in Canada, where several cities were burned.

Both the Capitol building and the White House felt the rage of the British. Over 3,000 books from the Library of Congress were destroyed, but parts of the building survived. The White House was severely burned inside, although much of the exterior structure survived the blaze.

After fires engulfed the city, a powerful storm descended on the city, causing further damage. The British occupied Washington for 26 hours before being forced to repair their ships due to the storm.

Washington's Recovery and Civil War

Despite the British assault, the city recovered quickly. The Washington City Canal began operating in 1815. In 1835, the first railroad reached Washington, connecting the city to Baltimore, Maryland. By 1840, the city's population had reached over 23,000, while the population for the wider federal district had reached 43,000.

During the early 1840s, discussions regarding the abolition of slavery gathered pace. Some citizens in Alexandria were nervous that abolition would impact their city's economy and petitioned to be reincorporated into Virginia. The campaign succeeded in 1847.

In 1861, the American Civil War erupted following the election of anti-slavery campaigner Abraham Lincoln as President the year before. 11 states, including Virginia, seceded to form the Confederate states. Meanwhile, Washington became the headquarters of the Union states and the epicenter of Lincoln's war effort.

Aware that the Confederate forces wanted to take Washington, the Union reinforced the capital. The army built extensive walls and several new forts around the city. In 1862, slavery was abolished within the district – a precursor to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Washington only experienced one major battle during the Civil War. In July 1864, Confederate and Union troops clashed in Northwest Washington during the Battle of Fort Stevens. The action took place just four miles away from the White House. Union troops emerged victorious, although both sides lost several hundred men.

In April 1865, the war ended when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union general Ulysses S. Grant. A few days later, President Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford's Theater in Washington.

Post-War Washington

Despite the conflict, Washington's population grew rapidly. In 1860, the district was home to approximately 75,000 people. By 1870, the population had grown to over 130,000. Much of the increase was due to an influx of freed slaves from the Southern states.

However, the city's infrastructure was still relatively poor, with dirt roads and woeful sanitation facilities. Despite rapid modernization, throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Washington still suffered from overwhelmed public infrastructure and poor housing.

In 1902, the McMillan Plan proposed several changes to the National Mall. The new vision was partially inspired by the original city plan designed by Charles L'Enfant in 1791. Some of the prominent features suggested by the plan include the Lincoln Memorial and Union Station. However, changes were gradual as the plan was never officially adopted by the US government.

In 1907, work began on a new major cathedral for the city – the Washington National Cathedral. A new church had been included in L'Enfant's original plan for the city. In 1893, Congress approved a charter containing plans for a Protestant Episcopal cathedral. Although it took 83 years, the Neo-Gothic cathedral was finished in 1990 when President George H.W. Bush observed the addition of the final finial.

There were dark times, though. In July 1919, race riots broke out after a black man allegedly raped a white woman. Fanned by the city newspapers, white men retaliated, attacking black citizens and their businesses. The violence lasted four days and coincided with other racist attacks across America during the so-called Red Summer.

Over the following decades, Washington D.C. continued to grow into one of the world's foremost national and political capitals. In 1942, the Declaration by the United Nations was signed in Washington, paving the way for the founding of the United Nations in 1945.

Washington D.C. is also the central hub of America's military defense organization. Up until 1941, the Department of War was housed in the Munitions Building. But with preparations gearing up in case the US became involved in World War Two, a new headquarters was needed.

In July 1941, Congress authorized President Roosevelt's plan to construct the new headquarters on the site of the old Hoover Airport. By June 1942, the designs had been completed as work continued. The Pentagon was completed in January 1943 and has been an integral part of America's defense operations ever since.

During the 1960s, Washington became the focal point for protests by the Civil Rights Movement. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., thousands of protesters gathered in the city. Poignantly, King gave his iconic “I have a dream” speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Nowadays, Washington D.C. is one of the most popular urban tourist destinations in the United States. Over 19 million people visited the Washington district in 2021. Many come to admire national monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial or Jefferson Memorial, while others come to visit museums like the Smithsonian.

Famous Landmarks:

  • The White House – Completed in 1800
  • United States Capitol – First completed in 1800
  • Smithsonian Museum – Founded in 1846
  • Washington Monument – Completed in 1884
  • National Mall – Officially established in 1901
  • Washington National Cathedral – Construction began in 1907
  • Lincoln Memorial – Completed in 1922
  • Jefferson Memorial – Finished in 1943
  • The Pentagon – Completed in 1943


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