Mapping Early Washington

Washington DC is a planned city with a unique and fascinating history. Its brilliantly conceived founding seems to have been a fiasco upon execution. I am giving early Washington’s ample historical resources the digital value-added treatment and finding new ways to understand and tell an old story.


This is a one-to-one dot density map of assessments of buildings on the dates shown. There is a dot for every building, placed randomly within the square in which it was recorded because that is as accurate as the resource allows. A “frame” is a building supported by a wooden framework.

The Division of Squares and Lots of the City of Washington might reasonably be considered the beginning of the planned city’s physical development and population, so I’m starting there, more or less. This momentous process is not represented sufficiently online, so I offer no link, but a promise to rectify that situation.

But before I began mapping the Division, I mapped what the land ownership looked like before the Division. A Capitol Hill Study area is shown with a purple boundary.


Owners of the land that would become the City of Washington, layered over a map of the early city. A Capitol Hill Study area is shown with a purple boundary.

For that Capitol Hill Study area I drew the original Squares and lots and attributed them according to the Register of Squares, found in Record Group 42 at the National Archives. The red lots went to the government for sale to the public. The greenish lots remained with proprietor Daniel Carroll, who resided at his Duddington Estate house immediately south of the study area.

I then drew the subdivisions of lots and attributed all government/sale lots according to their sale to third parties, as recorded in the Sale Book, Record Group 42, Entry 33. Separately, these static maps represent parts of value-added historical resources. Together, they begin to tell the story of the neighborhood’s development.

My Division maps are not the first time the Divisions have been seen in map form. The source itself includes maps of each Square, along with a full description of the agreement between the US Government, represented by the city commissioners, and the proprietor. An example is shown below. I assume these very simple maps are not the oldest maps of their sort, in which the features are symbolized according to their most relevant attribute, but they are the oldest I’ve seen or heard of.


Such a map has not been made of the entire Old City (I intend to be the first to do that), but the Library of Congress (LOC) map collection includes several such maps of particular sections of the Old City. This LOC map caught my eye. It is identified only as “[Cadastral map of part of the West End, Washington D.C.].” The Squares are numbered, the waterway is Rock Creek, and the circle is now Washington Circle.

To begin interpreting the map, I turned the entries for these Squares in the Register of Squares into data and mapped them. The series below shows that most of that land had been owned by Robert Peter and that the colored lots on the LOC map had been taken by the government in the Division in order to be sold. I outlined such lots in black in the third map, lower left. The fourth map shows the original lot owners by color, most of whom were groups, most of which included Robert Peter. Apparently Peter made some private deals between the division agreement and the actual division.

The LOC map, then, is probably a representation of what I will find in the Sale Book for those Squares, such as I mapped for the Capitol Hill Study Area, shown above. The different colors represent the parties who bought those respective lots at one or more government sales.

This map of Daniel Carroll’s Hop Yard is easily explained as a Division map once you are familiar with the process that was the Division of Squares. I georeferenced it and layered the original proprietors over it, as shown below. The red/pink lots are evenly spread throughout, so they were the government lots for sale. The yellowish lots are Carroll’s, and the darker-but-faded colors represent Prout’s, Walker’s, and Morris & Nicholson’s lots, respectively.


I wanted to make a value-added resource that covered the entire city, so my first online product for Mapping Early Washington is a visualization of Elliot’s 1822 Directory for Washington City in the form of a story map. This was apparently the first directory for the city.

Elliot’s 1822 Directory for Washington City

I have also translated Boyd’s 1858 city directory into data and have set the points for the section of the city east of the Capitol. That is about 2,200 points, each representing a directory listing, out of over 13,000 for the entire city. That directory uses an old house addressing system that makes it generally more geospatially accurate than the 1822 directory.


This draft map includes most of the points I set representing all of the 1858 directory listings for the eastern sections of Washington City. The old-system house numbers, when used in the directory, generally lined up nicely with the buildings shown on the 1857 Boschke map. It was clear that some development had happened between the compiling of the map and of the directory.

The 1858 directory aligns nicely with the Boschke Map of the Old City, published in 1857. I would like to combine these resources and others, including period rooftop photographic vistas, to create a unified visual document of late pre-Civil War Washington. I don’t know what technology would work best, so I’m all ears.

My larger vision for all of this is to apply similar value-added GIS treatments to all historical resources for early Washington, then to carefully combine them to create a data synergy in which each resource informs and refines the others. For instance, my use of the Boschke map was key in setting the points associated with the directory listings. Those resources are extremely complementary of each other, as can be seen on the map above. We understand each better because of the other, if we use them together.

Including property tax assessment data will further refine locations and inform regarding ownership. Census data will flesh out the the households. Court records, wills, and newspapers can provide rich life details. Having data from a series of directories will show us the movement of families and individuals into, out of, and around the city. & c.

The careful combination of value-added historical resources yields true historical knowledge and begins to tell stories of our history. We can do this en masse and not just one subject at a time. Then, a fact-based history of our city can be accessible to all and serve as an unprecedented resource, a base of knowledge, and a context for broader storytelling.