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Brief History of Washington DC 1662-1954

History of Washington DC

Our nation’s capital is known for its striking monuments and memorials and the many iconic places and events that have shaped our country. The story of our country unfolds in these tributes and celebrations to our forefathers and visionary leaders and offer visitors to the city a view into where it all began. Here’s a brief look into the history of Washington, D.C.to help tell the story of how it came to be one of the most significant cities in America.

Early Settlers
Captain John Smith, an explorer from England is said to have explored the region in the early 17th century. The first colonial landowners to the area were George Thompson and Thomas Gerrard, who were granted the Blue Plains tract in 1662.

Congress Created the “District” in 1790

Additionally, George Washington selected Washington, D.C. as our nation’s permanent capital in 1791. But the city’s past traces back nearly 4,000 years; evidence shows us that Native Americans were first to settle in the area near the Anacostia River.

Significant Events
1792 President George Washington appointed David Rittenhouse as the first director of the US mint. Rittenhouse was the foremost scientist of America at the time.

1792, October 13 The cornerstone of the executive mansion, later known as the White House, was laid during a ceremony in the District of Columbia.

1793, September 18 President George Washington laid the foundation stone for the U.S. Capitol on Jenkins Hill.

1800, June 4 Construction of the White House was completed.
1800, November 1 John and Abigail Adams moved into “the President’s House” in Washington DC. It became known as the White House during the Roosevelt administration.

Washington DC White House

1800, November 17 The Sixth Congress (2nd session) convened for the first time in Washington, DC, in the partially completed Capitol building.

1801, February 27 The District of Columbia was placed under the jurisdiction of Congress.

1801, March 4 Thomas Jefferson was the first President to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C.

1802, May 3 Washington, D.C., was incorporated as a city, and the mayor was appointed by the president and the council elected by property owners.

1814, August 24 The War of 1812 sees 5,000 British troops marched into Washington, D.C., in retaliation for the American burning of the parliament building in York (Toronto). The British burned the White House, the Capitol and almost every public building in the city before a downpour extinguished the fires. President James Madison and his wife fled, Dolly Madison saved the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.

1814, August 25 British forces destroyed the Library of Congress, containing some 3,000 books.

1815, January 30 The burned Library of Congress was reestablished with Jefferson’s 6,500 volumes.

Library of Congress

1818, January 1 An official reopening of the White House took place after repairs were completed for the burning during the War of 1812.

1835 January 31 Richard Lawrence attempted to assassinate President Andrew Jackson at the White House. Lawrence fired 2 pistols but missed. Lawrence apparently thought he was the king of England and that Jackson owed him money.

1839, February 20 Congress made it illegal to duel in the District of Columbia.

1839 Construction began on the General Post Office Building. It was completed in 1847 under architect Robert Mills and later became known as the Tariff Building.

1844, May 1 Samuel Morse sent the first telegraphic message as a demonstration between Washington, DC, and Baltimore

1846, August 10 President James Polk established the Smithsonian Institution. The US Congress chartered the Smithsonian Institution, named after English scientist James Smithson whose bequest of $500,000 made it possible. The Smithsonian Institute was born and Joseph Henry became its first secretary.

1848, July 4 The cornerstone of the Washington Monument was laid by President Polk. Each state of the union was invited to donate a memorial stone. The white marble obelisk, which is 555 feet tall and 55 fee square at the base, was not completed until 1884. The public was admitted to the monument on October 9, 1888.

1850, September 20 The slave trade in Washington, D.C., was abolished. Although the 1850 legislation made the slave trade illegal, slavery itself was still legal. Nevertheless, Washington became a haven for free blacks. By 1860, free blacks outnumbered slaves almost four-to-one.
1862-President Abraham Lincoln put an end to Washington’s slavery altogether, freeing about 2,989 African Americans who were then slaves according to the slavery code.

1859, February 19 New York Congressman Daniel E. Sickles was acquitted of murder on grounds of temporary insanity. This was the first time this defense was successfully used. Sickles shot and killed Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, author of “Star Spangled Banner.” He shot Lee, the DC district attorney, for having an affair with his wife. Sickles pleaded temporary insanity and beat the murder rap.

1865, April 14 President Lincoln was shot and mortally wounded by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater. Vice President Andrew Johnson became the 17th President of the US.

1874 The Secret Service headquarters returned to Washington, D.C. after 4 years in New York City.

1877, December 6 The Washington Post published its first edition.

1879 President Rutherford B. Hayes had the first White House telephone installed.

1884, December 6 The Washington Monument was completed by Army engineers.

Washington Monument

1885 The National Aquarium first opened to visitors in Washington DC.

1888, January 27 The National Geographic Society was founded in Washington, DC.

1895 Georgetown became part of Washington, DC.


1896 Mary Church Terrell founded the National Association of Colored Women in Washington, D.C.

1897 The US National Congress of Mothers was founded in Washington, D.C. It later became the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, known as the PTA (Parent Teachers Association).

1907 Union Station opened.

1912 The first cherry blossom trees, a gift from Japan, were planted in Washington, D.C.

Cherry Blossom Tree

1915  The cornerstone for the Lincoln Memorial was laid in Washington, D.C., a year to the day after groundbreaking.

1922 President Harding had a radio installed in the White House.


1922 The first airplane landed at the US Capitol.

1924, February 22 Calvin Coolidge delivered the first presidential radio broadcast from the White House as he addressed the country over 42 stations.

1935 All plane flights over the White House were barred because they disturbed President Roosevelt’s sleep.

1941 The National Gallery of Art opened.

1944 The US Congress chartered the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

1954 A World War II memorial to US Marines was dedicated next to Arlington National Cemetery.

Some of the most stirring and impactful events occurred in Washington, D.C. When you visit, be sure to visit the city’s most poignant monuments and memorials and take a tour to learn more about the fascinating history that shaped our country.