Alexandria was founded as a colonial town in 1749, more than forty years before Washington, D.C. even existed. Its founding fathers included English nobleman Thomas, the sixth Lord Fairfax, baron of Cameron; Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s older half-brother; and John Carlyle, an up-and-coming merchant from a Scottish background. All wanted to establish a town on the upper Potomac River as a place where goods coming by ship from Europe and the West Indies could be traded for tobacco and other products from western Virginia and beyond.
George Washington developed a close relationship with Alexandria beginning in 1754 when he first made his home at Mount Vernon, eight miles south of town. Alexandria was the closest town to Mount Vernon, and it soon became his hometown. In 1766, he became a member of the Alexandria Trustees, then the town’s governing body.
Before the city was more than six years old, it played a key role in the beginning of the French and Indian War. In 1755, General Edward Braddock’s roughly 1,300 British soldiers sailed into the Alexandria harbor straight from the British Isles and made the town their temporary headquarters. Later, as Braddock and his troops marched toward present-day Pittsburgh, they were massacred by French and Indian forces. Before leaving Alexandria, however, they caused Alexandrians to become among the first Americans to suffer the arrogance of British officers and soldiers. As John Carlyle wrote: “. . . they used us Like an Enemy Country: took everything they wanted & paid Nothing, or Very little for it.” It was an arrogance that before long the citizens of many other colonial towns experienced, and it helped bring about the American Revolution.
Revolutionary War to Civil War
During the Revolutionary War, ships from Alexandria dodged British warships as they sailed to the French island of Martinique to trade Alexandria goods for much-needed French arms. After the war was over, Alexandria entered a golden age. As George Washington’s cousin, Lund Washington, observed at the time: “[t]he port of Alexandria has seldom less than 20 Square Rigged Sale of Vessels in it and often many more.” Imported into the port of Alexandria were such highly desired goods as wine, olive oil, and raisins from Spain; dessert wines from Portugal; fine cloth, dressy frocks, and manufactured goods from England; tiles from Holland; and rum, sugar, turtles, and coffee from the West Indies. In addition, soon after the war ended, representatives of Maryland and Virginia, with the assistance of George Washington, met in Alexandria to resolve a disagreement concerning who controlled the Potomac River. This interstate meeting was so successful that its example led, step by step, to the gathering in Philadelphia of representatives of all the new states. This gathering produced the United States Constitution.
In 1801, Alexandria left Virginia to become part of the new District of Columbia with high expectations for continued prosperity. Moving to Alexandria with his family in 1810 to share in the city’s prosperity and be closer to other Lee family members was General Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, a cavalry general during the Revolutionary War. Included in his family was three-year old Robert Edward Lee. Alexandria’s prosperity was dealt a blow in August 1814 when portions of Washington D.C. were burned by an invading British Army during the War of 1812. Alexandria itself surrendered to the British navy when its ships sailed up the Potomac River. The navy occupied the town and looted warehouses paying nothing for what they took -- 1,000 hogsheads of tobacco, 150 bales of cotton, roughly 16,000 barrels of flour and $5,000 worth of wine, sugar, and other articles, and several ships moored in the harbor. A number of Alexandrians and other United States forces extracted a small level of revenge days later when they fired upon the British ships as they sailed from Alexandria back down the Potomac. The loss of goods and the act of surrender, however, damaged the town’s economy and its reputation. As the town was recovering, it suffered another catastrophe in January 1827. A devastating fire consumed 53 of its homes and warehouses. The damage could have been worse had it not been for a nimble circus performer from a show that happened to be in town. He climbed the steepest roof in Alexandria, and supported by only a gutter, used a hose to apply generous amounts of water to nearby buildings, thus preventing the fire from spreading further. The town gradually did recover, due in part to the establishment in 1828 of a new, unsavory business venture, the slave trading firm of Franklin and Armfield. The firm set up shop at 1315 Duke Street where John Armfield purchased slaves and sent them south by ship to Isaac Franklin in New Orleans to be sold. Before disbanding in 1838, Franklin and Armfield had become the largest slave dealer in the United States.
A few years later, based in part on fear that slavery would be abolished in the District of Columbia, and thus in their city also, Alexandrians requested that all the District’s territory located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River be returned to the Commonwealth. In 1846, Congress granted the request, and in 1847 Virginia’s General Assembly officially accepted Alexandria as again part of the Commonwealth. In the 1840s and 1850s, Alexandria began to improve its connections with the west through canals and railroads. New prosperity resulted. In May 1861, however, that prosperity came to a halt when the Union army arrived in Alexandria the day after Virginia seceded from the Union. During that invasion, the first Union army officer killed in the Civil War was shot as he descended the steps of a hotel in Alexandria after removing a Confederate flag from the hotel’s roof. His slayer, the hotel’s proprietor and a hot-headed Southern sympathizer, was gunned down immediately afterwards. These events began four long years of Alexandria’s occupation by the Union army. During that time, Alexandria not only became one of the largest military logistical centers in the U.S., but also a safe haven for thousands of self-emancipated African Americans from the region. Through the tenacity of these men and women, African American residents changed Alexandria's racial status quo, demanding the abolition of slavery and equal treatment under the law.
Reconstruction to World War II
At the end of the war, the city faced two major tasks: bringing new life to the city’s economy and determining how African Americans and whites would live together. Alexandrians sought economic recovery by increasing the production of their existing manufacturing concerns and attracting new, large manufacturers who would produce goods for shipment to extensive markets. Slowly they were successful. Between 1899 and 1909, manufacturing in Alexandria increased by the largest percentage of any city in Virginia, led by large producers of fertilizer, leather, bottles, and beer (in one year, 1895, the local Robert Portner Brewing Company produced roughly 3.1 million gallons of beer.). The Great Depression hurt Alexandria’s economy, but its proximity to Washington, D.C. pointed to new ways of prospering. Starting in the 1890s, northern Virginia's streetcar suburbs facilitated the migration of federal workers to neighborhoods such as Del Ray and St. Elmo, which eventually incorporated into the Town of Potomac in 1908. In 1930, the Town of Potomac was annexed, and it's large number of civil servants, many of whom had moved to the region for federal employment, became Alexandrians. Those numbers expanded in the 1930s to help implement President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. As a result, some federal workers bought old houses in what soon would be called Old Town. To attract tourists, city boosters expanded advertisements of their city’s colonial heritage, historic buildings, and connections to George Washington.
The second task was much more difficult. During the years immediately after the Civil War, African American residents demanded complete equality in both law and custom; however, many local whites, who supported the Confederacy, wanted to create a racial hierarchy that kept them in positions of power. Nevertheless, African American residents, with support from the federal government, made profound changes to Alexandria's political, social, and economic landscape. In 1869, George L. Seaton was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, the first African American to represent the city in a state-wide office. A year later, George A. Parker won a seat on the city's Common Council, while T. B. Pinn was elected magistrate. Unfortunately, the palpable changes that Alexandria's African Americans residents made to improve the city's race relations could not be sustained, and white conservatives rolled back many African American successes. By the end of the nineteenth century, Alexandria was firmly a Jim Crow city of separation of the races in public facilities from schools to drinking fountains. A new wave of civil rights activists, however, emerged in the late 1930s who embraced civil disobedience as a means of questioning the racial status quo. In August 1939, African American attorney Samuel W. Tucker orchestrated a sit-in at Alexandria's all-white public library, the nation’s first sit-in civil rights demonstration.
In December 1941, the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, and Alexandria, like the rest of the United States, went to war. The city’s first casualty was a seaman aboard a Standard Oil tanker torpedoed by a German submarine off the North Carolina coast in February 1942. During the war, 101 Alexandrians were lost to enemy action. With one of the nation’s largest railroad marshaling yards and a factory producing torpedoes within its boundaries, Alexandria was especially active during the war. From as far away as Mississippi and Wyoming, people poured into the city to work on the railroad and in the factory.
Post-World War II
When the war ended, racial segregation was a part of city life that some citizens strongly wanted to change and others vehemently wanted to preserve. An effort began at the end of the 1950s to integrate Alexandria’s schools, an effort that did not end until the mid-1970s. Along the way, it produced the memorable high school championship football team of 1971 that became the subject of the movie “Remember the Titans.” The NAACP also helped residents register to vote, while CORE and NAG organized sit-ins at restaurants that refused to serve African Americans. In May 1963, Alexandria's City Council also ended racial discrimination at all municipal, public facilities and agreed to promote the hiring of African Americans outside of the departments of Public Works and City Welfare.
In the meantime, large numbers of immigrants from throughout the world made Alexandria their home in the post-World War II period. Many federal employees married men and women whom they had met overseas, bringing them back to northern Virginia once their deployment ended. The overthrow of Batista's government in Cuba also led to the arrival of the first large number of refugees to the region. Simultaneously, American Cold War policies brought refugees from Ethiopia, Iran, Vietnam, and Afghanistan to Alexandria in the 1970s and 1980s. The most prominent group of new arrivals came from Central America, especially El Salvador. By the mid-1980s, Alexandria's northernmost neighborhood was renamed "Chirilagua," in recognition of the Alexandria's growing Salvadoran community, many of whom had fled their country's civil war.
Conflicting movements to modernize or preserve elements of the city center and waterfront also stirred Alexandrians’ emotions and led to frequent contests before the city’s Board of Architectural Review, City Council, and local and federal courts. Those movements produced Alexandria as it appears today. Alexandrians have faced all of these challenges – occupying armies, commercial failures, and social upheaval – and overcome them. It now is a flourishing city that values its historic waterfront, its old and historic buildings, stories of its eventful past, and its social, artistic, and economic vitality.
To find out more details about the story of Alexandria read our Alexandria Chronicle, view other Alexandria historical publications, visit the related links page, and click on the Office of Historic Alexandria.