Alexandria is located on the west bank of the Potomac River, six miles below Washington, D.C. and nine miles north of Mount Vernon.
Much of present-day Alexandria was included in a 6,000-acre land grant from Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, which was awarded to Robert Howson, an English ship captain, on October 21, 1669. This land overlapped a 700-acre patent that had previously been issued to Dame Margaret Brent in 1654. The Howson tract extended along the Potomac River from Hunting Creek on the south to the Little Falls on the north. The grant was made by authority of King Charles II in recognition of Captain Howson's bringing 120 people to live in Virginia. Less than a month later, Howson sold the land for 6,000 pounds of tobacco to John Alexander.
By 1732, Hugh West had established tobacco warehouses two miles south of Hunting Creek. The adjacent land has been cleared and farmed as early as the 1720s by John Summers and Gabriel Adams. To facilitate shipping, Scottish and English merchants who owned real estate at Cameron, a small hamlet four miles west, petitioned the Virginia General Assembly in the fall of 1748 to establish a town at West's Hunting Creek Warehouse. In the spring of 1749, this site was selected and the new town was named Alexandria in honor of its original owner, Scotsman John Alexander, who in 1669, purchased the land that included the future site of Alexandria for "Six thousand pounds of Tobacco and Cask". John West, Fairfax County surveyor, laid off 60 acres (by tradition, assisted by 17-year-old George Washington), and lots were auctioned off July 13 and 14, 1749.
Incorporated in 1779, Alexandria became a port of entry for foreign vessels and a major export center for flour and hemp. Its bustling harbor teemed with brigs, schooners, and ships of the line, which traversed the high seas and engaged in international and coastwide trade. The streets were lined with substantial brick houses and the "sound of the hammer and trowel were at work everywhere." In 1796, a visitor, the Duc de La Rochfoucauld Liancourt, commented that: "Alexandria is beyond all comparison the handsomest town in Virginia--indeed is among the finest in the United States." (Quotes by Fairfax Harrison: See Page 417 of Landmarks of Old Prince William County, 1964, Chesapeake Book Company, Berryville, Virginia)
Water (now Lee), Fairfax, and Royal Streets were laid out in a north/south orientation. Fairfax was named for Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax and Baron of Cameron, proprietor of the Northern Neck of Virginia. Duke, Prince, King, Cameron (also named for Lord Fairfax), Queen, Princess, and Oronoco Streets run east and west. Oronoco, a variety of tobacco, was transported to the area's first warehouses at the foot of this street, giving it its name. Pitt Street was named for a British prime minister, and St. Asaph for a Welsh bishop who sympathized with the colonies. Wolfe Street was named for the general who captured Quebec, Wilkes Street for an Englishman who worked for liberty, and Gibbon Street for a writer of history. Columbus* and Alfred* were named after members of the Alexander family. Patrick and Henry Streets honor the Virginia patriot who said, "Give me liberty or give me death." Fayette was named for General Lafayette. Washington and Lee streets were named later to honor these famous Virginians.
In 1789, Alexandria and a portion of Fairfax County were ceded by the State of Virginia to become a part of the newly created 10-mile-square District of Columbia. Formally accepted by Congress in 1801, Alexandria remained under the aegis of the new federal government until it was retroceded to Virginia in 1847. In 1852, it acquired city status and gained a new charter.
At the time of the Revolution, Alexandria was one of the principal colonial trading centers and ports. Alexandria's political, social, and commercial interests were of great importance to many local residents, especially to neighboring George Washington in Mount Vernon. Washington maintained a town house here and served as a Trustee of Alexandria. Washington also purchased a pew in Christ Church, and served as Worshipful Master of Alexandria Masonic Lodge No. 22.** Records reveal that Washington had numerous social and business connections to the town.
From their earliest days, Alexandrians have known war. George Washington drilled militia troops at Market Square in 1754, and the town served as a supply and hospital center during the Revolutionary conflict. English General Braddock made his headquarters in Alexandria and occupied the Carlyle House while planning his campaign against the French in 1755. Captured and held for ransom by the British during the War of 1812, Alexandria's warehouses were plundered by the enemy.
"Light Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War general, and the father of Robert E. Lee, brought his family to Alexandria in 1810. Robert lived here until his departure for West Point in June. 1825. In the years prior to the Civil War, industry grew and flourished and shipping through the Alexandria Canal was prosperous.
During the Civil War, the City was immediately occupied by the Union military forces on May 24, 1861, and became a logistical supply center for the federal army. Troops and supplies were transported to Alexandria via the port and the railroad and then dispersed where needed at the front. Wounded soldiers, brought back on the trains, crowded the available hospitals and temporary medical facilities in and around the town. It was during this era that several forts were constructed in Alexandria as a part of the defenses of the City of Washington. Fort Ward Park contains one of these restored forts. From 1863 to 1865, the City was the capital of the Restored Government of Virginia, which represented the seven Virginia counties remaining under federal control during the Civil War.
Although Alexandria was a slave sale and trading location prior to the Civil War, it also had a history of several free Black communities. African-American life flourished with the establishment of churches, social and fraternal organizations, and businesses. Many early Alexandria African-Americans were skilled artisans.
Alexandria, which is almost 50 years older than the City of Washington, is one of America's most historic communities. It has many authentic eighteenth-century buildings, and the charm of the "Old and Historic District" is carefully preserved by strict architectural and demolition control. Alexandria began its historic preservation and urban renewal projects in the 1960s, achieved through the cooperation of citizen activists and local government. The Civil War centennial restoration of the northwest bastion of Fort Ward was the beginning of Alexandria's official protection of historic sites and landmarks.
The Torpedo Factory was built during World War I and was again used in World War II as a United States munitions factory. Before its renovation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, its ten heavy industrial buildings dominated Alexandria's waterfront. Today, it is an award winning example of adaptive reuse and the centerpiece of a lively waterfront with a marina, shops, public parks and walkways, restaurants, residences, and offices.
Since 1988, Alexandria has experienced unprecedented commercial development. Today the Old Town historic district is known for its array of museums, architecture, special events, fine restaurants and hotels, and other attractions that draw more than 1.5 million international and domestic visitors to it each year. More than two million square feet of new office complexes have been constructed. With this development, the City has become a mecca for divisional, regional, national, and multinational headquarters for operations ranging from research and development to high technology, associations, and professional services.
A cross section of headquarters operations that have expanded or relocated to Alexandria includes the Public Broadcasting Service, the American Diabetes Association, TRW, AT&T, Technology Applications, Capitol Publications, Fokker Aircraft USA, Softec, and the American Society for Training and Development.