Chronicling the rich and fascinating history of Washington, DC, this useful resource for teachers and parents, reveals to young readers the city’s remarkable past through 21 hands-on activities. Children will gather items for a building cornerstone’s time capsule, design a memorial for a favorite president, take a walking tour of the National Mall, and much more. The book also includes a time line and list of books, websites, and places to visit.
About the Author
Richard Panchyk is the author of World War II for Kids, Our Supreme Court, and New York City History for Kids. He lives on Long Island in New York.
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Washington, DC, History for Kids
The Making of a Capital City with 21 Activities
By Richard Panchyk
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Richard Panchyk
All rights reserved.
A Capital Is Born
If you had walked around in what is today Washington, DC, just 250 years ago, you would never have guessed that the nation's capital would wind up there, in the swampy emptiness along the north side of the Potomac River.
By the 1600s, Native Americans had been living in the area of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River for almost 2,000 years. Closest to present day Washington was a small Algonquin village called Nacochtank. Tauxenant was a larger village near what is today Mount Vernon in Alexandria, Virginia. Other settlements included Nameroughquena, directly across the Potomac from DC in Virginia; Assaomeck, at the site of present-day Alexandria; Namassingakent, a little bit south of Alexandria; and Moyaone, across the Potomac from Tauxenant, in Maryland.
Legend has it that Native Americans used the marshy valley below Capitol Hill as a fishing ground in springtime. Tribal councils were held at the principal settlement where the Algonquin chief lived — on the peninsula where the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers meet.
As with most places along the East Coast, there was a continued influx of European settlers in the area. By the mid-18th century, the vast majority of the Native Americans in the area had been forced to retreat to the west.
The First European Settlements
The first European to explore the Washington, DC, area was Captain John Smith, who arrived in June 1608 with 14 companions. His party was the first to sail up the "Patawomeke" or Potomac River, going as far as Little Falls, about five miles north of present-day Washington. He said that there was an "abundance of fish lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan; but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with." The crew fired bullets upon the water's surface, and the sound of the shots, along with their echoes, startled the Native Americans who were watching from the banks.
An English trader named Henry Fleet, who explored the same area in the 1630s while looking for furs, said, "The place is, without all question, the most healthful and pleasant place in all this country, and most convenient for habitation; the air temperate in Summer and not violent in Winter. It aboundeth with all manner of fish. The Indians in one night commonly will catch thirty sturgeons in a place where the river is not over twelve fathoms broad. And, for deer, buffaloes, bears, turkeys, the woods do swarm with them, and the soil is exceedingly fertile."
In the 1660s some Irish and Scottish settlers came to an area that is now part of DC and made a home there. In 1663, Captain Robert Troop owned property in what is now southeastern Washington. By that time, the land known today as Capitol Hill was owned by Francis Pope and called "Rome." Another man, William Lang, owned land in what is now the western part of the city. It was by no means a highly populated area.
Archaeology in Your Backyard
ARCHAEOLOGISTS have discovered much about DC's past through excavations at key sites. Try your hand at excavation and see what you can learn.
Artifacts from Native American cultures and early European settlements have been turning up in Washington for many years. Everything from bottles to pottery to tools has turned up in digs around the city. Archaeologists are often called in to check the ground for artifacts when a new building's foundation is being dug, and they have to work quickly to rescue what they find so that building construction remains on schedule.
* Tape measure
* 4 long nails (at least 3 inches) or 12-inch wooden dowels
* Paintbrushes, various sizes
* Small ziplock bags
* Permanent marker
* Flat-bottomed sieve
Find a spot in your backyard or schoolyard (with permission) where you can dig. Measure out a 2-foot-by-2-foot square. Mark the corners with nails or dowels hammered almost all the way into the ground, and tie string from one corner to the next to set off the excavation area.
Scrape away at the surface of the ground using the trowel. Remove the loose dirt and place it into a bucket. If you spot an artifact (a piece of glass, bottle cap, coin, etc.), use a brush to clear away dirt from around the object. Note the depth at which you found it and photograph it in situ — where it lies. Then carefully remove it and bag it, labeling the bag with the location and date.
As you continue to scrape away, you will notice the soil changing color. This is called stratigraphy, or layering of the soil. Note the depth at which the change occurs and the color of each layer in your notebook. When you reach a new layer, empty the bucket into the sieve and sift to find any small artifact fragments.
Dig until you have gone down about 1 foot. By now you are probably at a level representing the surface hundreds of years ago. When you are done, refill the hole.
In 1748, a town called Bellhaven was founded on the Potomac in Virginia, about five miles south of what would become the city of Washington. A few years later, the name of the settlement was changed to Alexandria. It soon became a thriving and important port city, and warehouses filled with tobacco, corn, and flour lined the waterfront. George Washington, who lived in Virginia, worshipped for many years at Christ Episcopal Church, which was dedicated in 1765. In 1791, Alexandria officially became part of the District of Columbia.
During the 18th century, the nearest settlement to the site of the nation's future capital was Georgetown, so named in honor of Britain's King George II. It was founded in 1751, when the colony of Maryland authorized five commissioners to build a town on the Potomac River, above the mouth of Rock Creek, in Frederick County.
Georgetown was to be laid out in 80 lots over 60 acres of land. The commissioners were told to purchase those 60 acres from the original landowners. Two of those owners, George Gordon and George Beall, refused to sell their land to the commissioners until it was appraised. The appraisal said the land was worth 280 pounds, so they were awarded that amount. A survey — a precise measurement of the land's natural features and man-made boundaries — was completed in early 1752, and Gordon and Beall were allowed to pick two lots each for their own use. Mr. Gordon agreed, but Beall was stubborn and refused. He was told he had 10 days to change his mind or he'd lose his chance. After a week, he wrote back, "If I must part with my property by force, I had better save a little than be totally demolished."
The population of Georgetown in 1800 was 2,993, and it grew quickly over the next 20 years. By 1820 the population was 7,360, and after that it leveled off, staying around 8,000 for the next 40 years.
Selecting a Site for the Nation's Capital
During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress met in several different locations, for reasons that included safety. After the war ended, there was much discussion within the young republic as to where the federal government should be permanently located. New York was the largest city, but it was not centrally located. Boston was also large, but it was too far north. Among the many cities that were considered during early discussions in Congress were Kingston, New York; Annapolis, Maryland; Baltimore, Maryland; Newport, Rhode Island; Trenton, New Jersey; Williamsburg, Virginia; Wilmington, Delaware; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Debate and discussion continued for several years. Once the Constitution was adopted in 1788, Congress took up the question with a new sense of urgency, and additional locations such as Germantown and Wright's Ferry in Pennsylvania and Havre de Grace in Maryland were offered as potential sites. All in all, 24 different locations were proposed for the capital between 1783 and 1789! There was even a suggestion to have two capitals, one in the north and one in the south, so Congress could alternate between them. Philadelphia and New York badly wanted the honor, and offered to donate their existing buildings for use by the federal government.
One critic who felt the capital should be in an existing large city wrote in 1789, "When we reflect on the present state of population in the United States, nothing can be more preposterous and absurd than the idea of fixing the seat of Congress in a village, or the raising a new city in a wilderness for their residence."
In September 1789 Congress passed a bill to locate the government at Germantown, Pennsylvania, but this bill was abandoned before it became a law.
A committee had been appointed to examine the region along the Potomac, and in June 1790 Congress took up discussion of the committee's report. It recommended that the capital be located "on the eastern or northeastern bank of the Potomac," which would place the new capital only about 15 miles north of Mount Vernon, President George Washington's Virginia home.
Finally, after a month of unsuccessful, last-minute pushes for Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore, on July 9, 1790, an act "for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of government" on the Potomac passed the Senate by the narrow margin of 32–29. The bill was approved by President Washington on July 16, thus ending the seven-year-long struggle.
The Residence Act said that "a district of territory, not exceeding ten miles square, to be located, as hereafter directed, on the River Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Connogochegue, be, and the same is hereby, accepted for the permanent seat of government of the United States." It also gave the president power to appoint commissioners who would "under the direction of the President survey, and by proper metes and bounds define and limit a district of territory, under the limitations above mentioned." The commissioners had the power to purchase land as necessary and to oversee the construction of the new city. The bill decreed that the federal government would relocate to the new capital the first Monday in December 1800, remaining in Philadelphia until that time. President Washington appointed David Stuart, Daniel Carroll, and Thomas Johnson as commissioners.
L'Enfant and the Plan for the City
Born in France, Pierre Charles L'Enfant had come to America in 1777 and had served as an engineer with the Patriots in the Revolution. He rose through the ranks and was well respected, and known by General Washington. After the war, Major L'Enfant designed Federal Hall in New York City, the first capital of the new country. He was working on a design for a mansion in Philadelphia when he was approached by George Washington to lay out the new capital city.
L'Enfant arrived in Georgetown on March 12, 1791, and immediately set about his work, assisted by a talented surveyor from Pennsylvania named Andrew Ellicott. When George Washington arrived in Georgetown on March 28, L'Enfant met him in person and gave him a preliminary report. In his report, L'Enfant described where he thought the Congress building should be located, and gave the president some of his first impressions of what the new city should look like. He explained that the city's plan should not be an ordinary rectangular grid, as that would become "tiresome." No matter how appealing it might at first look on paper, he felt it would be neither grand nor beautiful.
L'Enfant asked statesman Thomas Jefferson to send him sample city layouts from elsewhere in the world. Jefferson provided plans of European cities such as Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Amsterdam, Strasburg, Paris, Orleans, Bordeaux, Lyons, Montpelier, Marseilles, Turin, and Milan, that he happened to have in his collection.
On June 22 L'Enfant gave a second report to President Washington, with more details and a preliminary map. He explained why some of his avenues were at different angles, telling Washington that it wasn't merely to "contrast with the general regularity" but also to provide better views of the city and to directly connect its key places. At the intersection of the avenues would be open spaces set aside for squares or parks. After receiving the president's comments, L'Enfant issued his third report, with a completed map and detailed description of its contents, on August 19. He said "the grand avenue connecting both the palace [the home of the president] and the Federal House [the meeting place of Congress] will be most magnificent and most convenient."
Earlier in the year, President Washington had referred to the new nation's capital as the "Federal City." But on September 9 the commissioners wrote L'Enfant and told him the city would be named Washington, in honor of the nation's first president. "We have agreed that the Federal District shall be called 'The Territory of Columbia,' and the Federal City the 'City of Washington,"' the commissioners wrote. The name Columbia was a reference to Christopher Columbus. "The title of the map will therefore be, 'A Map of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia.'" Completion of the map allowed the first public sale of lots to be held in October 1791.
The plan submitted in December by President Washington to Congress called for a great national church, five fountains, and a grand canal running through the center of the city. The L'Enfant plan featured very wide roadways: 160-foot-wide avenues, with streets between 90 and 130 feet wide.
But trouble soon arose between L'Enfant and the commissioners. It started when one of the commissioners, Daniel Carroll, had an elegant home built within the new capital for his nephew, also named Daniel Carroll. It so happened that seven feet of the building crossed over the path of what was to become New Jersey Avenue. What did L'Enfant do? He had the offending walls demolished, writing to George Washington on November 21 that "the roof now has already down with part of the brick work & the whole will I Expect be levelled to the ground before the [week] is over."
This demolition outraged both Daniel Carrolls. They felt L'Enfant had acted without consulting the commissioners. L'Enfant believed that he reported to the president, not the commissioners, and that he had the authority to act as he wished. That was the beginning of the end for L'Enfant, who had now made enemies of the commissioners. George Washington found himself in the middle of the controversy.
By January, President Washington was still of the opinion that the problem could be solved if only L'Enfant would work with the commissioners instead of trying to work around them. He did admit, though, that he didn't think this was likely to happen.
He was right. L'Enfant would have to go. In February 1792, the president wrote to L'Enfant, saying that "the continuance of your services (as I have often assured you) would have been pleasing to me, could they have been retained on terms compatible with the law." He went on to say that the only way to keep L'Enfant would be to change the commissioners, and it would not be right to do that. He closed his letter by offering "sincere wishes for your happiness and prosperity." That was the end of it. L'Enfant had been fired, and his assistant Andrew Ellicott took over.
Washington was afraid that those who opposed the idea of this brand-new capital city would seize upon L'Enfant's removal and call the whole thing a failure. But that did not happen, and L'Enfant actually remained in the vicinity for the rest of his life.
The president recommended that L'Enfant be paid $2,500 or $3,000 for his services. He was offered a fraction of that, along with property in the city. He rejected both. Eight years later he finally submitted a request to Congress for $95,000. He wound up being paid $666.66 in 1810, and died penniless in 1825.
Though Washington wanted L'Enfant to have his map printed, he withheld it. Andrew Ellicott therefore made changes and improvements to the version he possessed and had the map printed in Boston in 1792, and Ellicott's version became the one upon which the development of the city was based.
The idea for a Catholic university in Maryland was first proposed around 1640 by Father Ferdinand Poulton, who had arrived from England in 1638. He wrote to his superiors in England with this idea and got this reply: "The hope of establishing the college which you hold forth, I embrace with pleasure, and shall not delay my sanction to the plan when it shall have reached maturity."
City Layout Game
PIERRE L'ENFANT designed the basic layout of our nation's capital. The plan featured 44 lettered streets and 52 numbered streets, as well as twenty avenues, totaling 228 miles of roads.
How would you lay out Washington if it were up to you? Is there a better layout for the city? How different would DC look with some other kind of plan, such as a straight grid like New York City? Since its creation, NYC's grid, called the "Randel Plan," has often been criticized as being too boring and uniform. People have accused it of destroying the city's natural character and geography.
Excerpted from Washington, DC, History for Kids by Richard Panchyk. Copyright © 2016 Richard Panchyk. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1. A Capital Is Born, 1600–1792,
Archaeology in Your Backyard,
City Layout Game,
Survey the District Diamond,
2. Early Days, 1792–1805,
Propose a Resolution,
3. Washington Burns, 1805–1840,
Create a Watermark,
Supreme Court Scrapbook,
4. Three Landmarks, 1840–1860,
Then and Now Game,
Create a Smithsonian Collection,
Make a Cornerstone Box,
5. Civil War Days, 1860–1880,
Write a Civil War Letter,
Design a Memorial,
6. The Making of a Capital City, 1880–1930,
Plant a Cherry Tree,
Mall Walking Tour,
Design a New Flag for DC,
Draw a Political Cartoon,
Create a Walking Tour of Your Neighborhood,
7. Modern Washington, 1930–Present,
Search for Your Family in the National Archives Records,
Write Your Own Dream Speech,
Make a Cut-and-Cover Metro Tunnel,
Request a Name Rubbing,
Be an Engineer,