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Maps of the District of Columbia

Guide to maps of Washington D.C. in the Library of Virginia's collection

Overview

detail from map of District of Columbia showing Georgetown and Potomac
Ellicott, Andrew. Territory of Columbia. Paris: Smith, Rue Montmorency, 1815.

This is a guide to nineteenth- and twentieth-century maps of Washington, D.C. held by the Library of Virginia, as well as maps of Alexandria published before its retrocession to Virginia in 1846.

The District of Columbia came into existence when Congress made it the site of the nation’s capital in 1789. The Virginia town of Alexandria was ceded to the District of Columbia in 1789 and remained part of the district until 1846. Alexandria had previously been mapped—John West “laid out” land for Alexandria in 1748, and George West prepared a map in 1763 to aid in the selling of lots, as did James McDermott in 1791. Otherwise, the towns and farms that made up the future District of Columbia had been mapped only in plats and surveys.

Once Congress decided to place the new capital along the Potomac River, President George Washington chose a site near the Maryland settlement of Georgetown. Washington hired Pierre Charles L’Enfant to plan the city and oversee the survey of the district, and Andrew Ellicott was given the task of conducting the survey. 

With the approval of L’Enfant's plan, a published map was needed to advertise the sale of lots in the new city. The Thackara and Vallance firm of Philadelphia was chosen to engrave and publish the first map of the District of Columbia. A reduced-size version of Thackara and Vallance's engraving was published in the March 1792 issue of The Universal Asylum and Columbia Magazine. Washington wanted a larger map and was concerned that Thackara and Vallance would be unable to engrave it in time for planned city lot sales. Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, forwarded the city plan to Samuel Hill of Boston, who engraved and published a larger version of the plan. A Mr. Scott, of Philadelphia, had printed 4,000 copies of Hill’s map by October 8, 1792.

The larger Thackara and Vallance map of D.C. was made available for sale in November 1792. Compared to Hill’s plan, the Thackara and Vallance engraving was larger, more attractive, and better engraved. Their version also included soundings, numbered lots, and a larger, more detailed depiction of Georgetown. The “Philadelphia Plate of D.C.” became known as the official map of the district. 

Andrew Ellicott compiled the first topographical map of the District of Columbia, Territory of Columbia. Drawn by Andrew Ellicott. Engraved by Thackara and Vallance and printed in 1794, it became the most important topographic map of the city until A. Boschke’s map was printed in the 1850s. Other important maps of D.C. that were published in the first half of the nineteenth century include R. T. King’s map of Washington (1818), W. J. Stone’s map of the district (1839), and the William Ellicott Plan published in the 1822 Washington Guide that shows city wards for the first time.

Except as noted, maps are available for viewing in the Special Collections Reading Room. Contact Special Collections to schedule an appointment.

Maps of the District of Columbia Online