Washington DC City Pages Capitol Hill Stay
Washington DC Weather
Home > History > Washington DC History (1571 - 1703)


Washington History necessarily begins on the Potomac River - known to many Native Americans as the "Co-hon-ho-roo-ta", to the Spanish as the "Espiritu Santo"; to the first English explorers as the "Elizabeth"; and to Lord Calvert's pilgrims as the "St. Gregory." "Europeans were on the Potomac River in the first half of the 16th century," says Catholic historian Shea. But the earliest explorer who is known to have sailed for any considerable distance up the river was the Spanish admiral, Pedro Memendez, founder of Saint Augustine (1565) and governor of Spain's Florida possessions. He ascended, in 1571, as far as Aquia Creek - possibly as far as Occoquan Creek, about 25 miles below Washington. His departure, in the same year, marks the end of Spanish connection with Potomac history.

Captain John Smith explored the Potomac River in 1608, at least as far as Great Falls. He was the first European to reach the river's navigable head, though some authorities think he did not actually land upon what is now Washington soil. From 1608 to 1622 no other European is known to have reached the upper tidewater Potomac region. Then a foraging party from Jamestown, aided by friendly Indians from what is now the Virginia side, crossed from Potomac Run to the Maryland side of the river, and raided the Indian town of Nacotchtant, in what is now the Anacostia region.

George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, came to Virginia in 1629, "to plant and dwell." But as a devout Roman Catholic, he would not take the Protestant oath required of all colonixts, and Governor Hervey ordered his return to England. In the homeland, Lord Baltimore received a royal grant of that part of Virginia north and east of the Potomac River between 38 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude. The tacit understanding between King Charles I and Lord Baltimore was that in this proprietary domain, christened "Maryland", the persecuted Catholics from the homeland might find refuge. The first Lord Baltimore died in 1632, but his son and heir, Cecil Calvert, sent his younger brother, Leonard, with "very near 20 gentleman of very good fashion and 300 laboring men" and two Catholic fathers, Andrew White and John Altham to begin the Maryland colonization.

They arrived in Chesapeake waters in March 1634, coming to anchor near the mouth of the "Petomeack" - or, as they renamed it, the "St Gregory" - at Blakistone's Island. Soon, however, Calvert hurried up-river in the smaller of his two ships. The ruler of the native tribes on the Maryland side was the "emperor" of the Piscataway Indians. To gain the latter's good will was Calvert's mission in sailing up the river to Piscataway Creek, about a douzen miles below Washington. He took with him as interpreter, Henry Fleet, a fur trader who had spent 2 years in the region - according to A.R. Spofford, the first white man authentically known to have trodden upon what is now Washington soil. The Native Americans were hostile to Calvert; and so he returned with Fleet down the Potomac to its mouth and settled a short distance inland north of the river, where "the Cittie of St. Mary", first capital of Maryland, developed.

From that point settlement rapidly and peacefully spread up the river. Grants of land to gentlemen planters were in most cases large. The manorial system prevailed - an estate of 1,000 acres oor mor became a manor and its master a lord. Settlement seemed aparse, yet by the beginning of the 18th century most of the land on both sides of the Potomac had been taken up and the upper tidewater region peopled by some of the most aristocratic families of both Virginia and Maryland.

Opposite Mount Vernon, at the mouth of Piscataway Creek, stands Warburton Manor, granted in 1641 to the Digges family. A little south and weast of this is Marshall Hall, granted to William Marshall in 1651. Bordering on "the freshes of Piscataway" was Mount Airy, the seat of Benedict Calvert, son of the fifth Lord Baltimore; here General Washington often stayed, and Calvert's daughter Eleanor married John Parke Custis, son of Martha Washington. Nearer the present city of Washington was another historic mansion, Oxon Hill, home of the Addisons. Between Oxon Creek and the Eastern Branch (or Anacostia River) was Blew Playne, a tract of 1,000 acres granted in 1692 to George Thompson. In 1663 Thompson was granted three other tracts: Duddington Manor, 100 acres; Duddington Pasture, 300 acres; and New Troy, 500 acres. In 1670 he leased his tracts for 1,000 years to Thomas Notley, who in 1671 patented them as Cerne Abbey Manor. At his death in 1679, his godson Notley Rozier inherited the manor. In 1716 it was again given its orginal name of Duddington Manor; and in the last decade of the 18th century, the manor (then, by intermarriage, owned mainly by the Carroll and Young families) was the largest and most valuable estate within what hen became the District of Colombia.

Immediately north of Thompson's New Troy tract (which extended far north of what is now called Capitol Hill) was a tract called Scotland Yard, Patented to Captain Robert Troope in 1663, or earlier; and immediately north of Troope's land lay the tract known as Room, or Rome, granted to Francis Pope in 1663, and wrongly supposed by many writers to include the high land upon which our Nation's Capitol now stands. In 1600 James Langworth, of Charles County, Maryland, bequeathed to his son John his rights in 670 acres "yet to be taken up"; this, it is thought, was the 600-acre tract granted to John Langworth in 1664 - the so-called Widow's Mite, lying to the north. It changed hands many times during the next 130 years. A tract known as Vineyard, in what became the Georgetown area, was patented to William Hutchinson in 1696; part of it was owned by Robert Peter in 1791. In 1703 Col. Ninian Beall, of Upper Marlborough, acquired much land in the same vicinity - the so-called Rock of Dunbarton (or Dumbarton), and that recorded as Beall's Levels. Part of the latter passed to the Burnes family, including much of the land now comprised in the White House region and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the east.

The "10 mile square"; which in 1791 became the Federal area was fringed with many notable manors - Riversdale, belonging to the Calverts; Northampteon, manor of the Fairfaxes of Cameron; the Darnall homes, including Woodyard; the Caroll manors, including Rock Creek Mansion, where Father (later Archbishop) John Carroll lived; Chillum Manor, where one branch of the Digges family lived; Clean Drinking Manor, which passed from the Coates to Charles Jones; Friendship; one of the Addison manors; Rosedale, the Beall properties, and others.

Long Before towns began to have any importance in the region, the social life of the great landowners was varied and delightful. Tobacco had brought vast wealth to the gentleman planters of Virginia and Maryland, and the abundance of slaves had given them ample time for leisure. The gentlefolk lived much in the saddle, thinking little of riding five, ten even more miles to pay a social call, or to dine, with a neighbor. "Every house was a house of entertainment,"; says Spofford, "for hotels were almost unknown. Any descent stranger was sure of welcome."; Card - parties, horse races, shooting matches, athletic sports, fencing, and other gentlemanly tests of alertness and skill, river parties, hunting meets, riding matches, etc... - all were popular in their due season. The table of gentlefolk gave evidence of abundance and good taste. Liquors were to be had in every variety, and hospitality was so open and sincere that it was rare day when some stranger did not sit at the family table.

But these landed proprietors, with their charming affluence and leisure, by no means comprised the whole of humanity in Colonial Virginia and Maryland. There were many small planters who worked the less fertile land themselves - sometimes with a slave or two, sometimes alone; and some of the great Maryland landowners made fortunes by settling German immigrants on their plantations as tenant farmers. these small growers could no, like the rich proprietors, profitably consign their crops to English agents. "The large planters, therefore, became traders, buying the tobacco of their poorer neighbors and opening plantation stores in which the small farmers bought necessary merchandise."; There were also rather considerable artisan, mechanic, and laborer class, mostly persons sent over from England under indenture to Colonial employers, whom they wee required to serve for a period of 3 to 5 years, as recompense for the cost of their passage and a commission to the agent or shipo wner who had arranged the transaction. To all of these economically oppressed classes, the western "back country"; offered a promised land toward which they pushed in ever-increasing numbers. But no path of escape in any direction stood open to the hordes of African slaves, who constituted by far the largest population group in the tidewater region, and upon whose labor the imposing structure of plantation prosperity the region was chiefly based.

Immediately north of Thompson's New Troy tract (which extended far north of what is now called Capitol Hill) was a tract called Scotland Yard, Patented to Captain Robert Troope in 1663, or earlier; and immediately north of Troope's land lay the tract known as Room, or Rome, granted to Francis Pope in 1663, and wrongly supposed by many writers to include the high land upon which our Nation's Capitol now stands. In 1600 James Langworth, of Charles County, Maryland, bequeathed to his son John his rights in 670 acres "yet to be taken up"; this, it is thought, was the 600-acre tract granted to John Langworth in 1664 - the so-called Widow's Mite, lying to the north. It changed hands many times during the next 130 years. A tract known as Vineyard, in what became the Georgetown area, was patented to William Hutchinson in 1696; part of it was owned by Robert Peter in 1791. In 1703 Col. Ninian Beall, of Upper Marlborough, acquired much land in the same vicinity - the so-called Rock of Dunbarton (or Dumbarton), and that recorded as Beall's Levels. Part of the latter passed to the Burnes family, including much of the land now comprised in the White House region and along Pennsylvania Avenue to the east.


©1994-2012 DCpages.com