September 9, 1791 – The Nation’s New Capital is Officially Named Washington

In July of 1790, a congressional act empowered President Washington to choose a location for the national capital along the Potomac River and to appoint three commissioners to oversee its development. Washington selected a ten square mile area of land from property in Maryland and Virginia that lay on both sides of the Potomac.

Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor, and Benjamin Banneker, a free black and self-taught scientist, were appointed to survey the 100-square-mile diamond-shaped area. Forty stone markers, each a mile apart, were erected to mark the boundary from the celestial calculations made by Banneker.

Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker

Within the diamond, which would become the District of Columbia, a smaller area was laid out as the City of Washington. A third commissioner, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French artist and engineer, was given the job of devising the layout for the city.

According to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., President Washington originally referred to the newly-created town as “the Federal City.” But at a meeting on this day in history, September 9, 1791, the commissioners agreed that the “Federal district shall be called the ‘Territory of Columbia’ and the Federal City the ‘City of Washington.’” The website explains:

The term “district” was more popular than “territory” and officially replaced it when the capital was incorporated in 1871. The name “Washington” was chosen by the commissioners to honor the President. “Columbia,” a feminine form of “Columbus,” was popularized as a name for America in patriotic poetry and song after the Revolutionary War. The term idealized America’s qualities as a land of liberty.”

Thackara & Vallance's March 1792 print of Ellicott's [sic] “Plan of the City of Washington".

Thackara & Vallance’s March 1792 print of Ellicott’s [sic] “Plan of the City of Washington”.

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