Between 1776 and 1800, Congress met in temporary locations in New York City and Philadelphia. When it came time to pick a permanent US capital, however, the Northern and Southern states couldn’t agree. So who ultimately chose the location for our nation’s capital, Washington, DC?
George Washington, of course. In 1791, Maryland and Virginia donated 100 square miles straddling the Potomac. Nov. 21, 1800, almost a year after Washington’s death, Congress met in the new capital for the first time. Today, the Washington, DC, metro area extends far beyond the original territory, and the local economy revolves around the federal government and tourism. Home to major repositories such as the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Library of Congress (LOC) and the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Library, DC is a genealogist’s dream—and one of the nation’s roots research capitals.
Diamond in the rough
To create the District of Columbia (then called the Territory of Columbia), Maryland ceded to the federal government parts of Montgomery County (including Georgetown) and Prince George’s County, and Virginia gave up part of Fairfax County plus the town of Alexandria. The territory was then divided into two counties: Washington County east of the Potomac and Alexandria County west of the Potomac. The city of Washington was incorporated in 1802.
In 1846, Alexandria County went back to Virginia. Alexandria city resumed its independent existence (not tied to a county) in 1870, and the rest of Alexandria County became Arlington County in 1920. On a modern map, the District of Columbia resembles a diamond with a bite taken out of it. The “bite” is Arlington County and part of Alexandria.
Records of early DC settlers might be in Maryland or Virginia. Virginia kept custody of Alexandria’s records, and until the late 1800s, Georgetown’s deeds and wills were registered in Montgomery County, Md. In 1871, the city of Washington annexed Georgetown, and Washington and the District of Columbia became coterminous. Today, residents generally say “Washington” when referring to the metropolitan area, and call the city “DC” or “the District.”
In 1663, English settlers received the first land grants in what’s now the District of Columbia (at the time, Charles County, Md.). In 1751, Scottish immigrants founded Georgetown, which flourished as a tobacco port, thanks in large part to the black slaves who labored there.
Georgetown was the District’s port of entry, but most passenger ships landed in Baltimore or Philadelphia. Arrivals were mostly people from throughout the country who moved to Washington to work for the government.
In the 1860s, DC’s population more than doubled. Runaway and abandoned slaves flooded the capital after slavery was abolished there; after the Civil War, African-Americans made up a third of the city’s population.
Use these records to track your Washington, DC, kin:
Census: Access federal censuses for the area starting in 1800 (1810 and most of 1890 have been lost) at large libraries, NARA and its regional facilities, the Family History Library and FamilySearch Centers, and online at subscription sites Ancestry.com and Archives.com. HeritageQuest Online (free via subscribing libraries) and FamilySearch.org also offer census records.
Remember that in 1790, anyone living east of the Potomac in what’s now DC, would’ve been a Maryland resident. Check the schedules for Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. The 1790 Virginia census, which covered the area west of the Potomac, is missing.
Vital records: Districtwide registration of births and deaths began in 1874; marriage records date to 1811. To order copies of birth and death certificates, contact the Vital Records Division of the Department of Health. You’ll need to contact the Marriage Bureau Section of the Superior Court of DC for marriage records. Note that birth records become public 100 years after the birth occurred; and death records, 50 years after the death. Only immediate family members can obtain these records in the interim.
Some vital records are indexed on FamilySearch.org. The FHL has microfilm copies of some birth (1874 to 1897) and death (1855 to 1965) records, plus DAR transcriptions of marriage records from 1811 to 1858. It also has cemetery records from 1847 to 1938, and marriage and death notices that appeared in the area’s first major newspaper, the Daily National Intelligencer, between 1806 and 1858.
Court records: The majority of the District’s court records reside at the Washington National Records Center in Suitland, Md.; the FHL has some microfilm copies.
Land records: Contact the recorder of deeds for land records. The FHL has microfilm copies covering 1792 to 1886 and a grantor/grantee index for 1792 to 1919. The FHL also has copies of deeds for Alexandria County (1783 to 1865; indexed 1793 to 1870), as well as Prince George’s County (1696 to 1851; indexed 1696 to 1884) and Montgomery County (1773 to 1868; indexed 1773 to 1933). Remember, Georgetown wills and deeds were registered in Montgomery County until the late 1800s.
Washington, DC, is a must-visit for any roots researcher, especially someone with ties to the capital city. Here’s a look at some of the major repositories:
- DAR Library: Founded in 1896, the library has an enormous collection of biographies; genealogies; cemetery, Bible and church records; city directories; manuscripts; and membership applications with supporting files.
- District of Columbia Archives: Part of the Office of Public Records, the archives holds birth, marriage and death records; wills and probates; indentures of apprenticeship; and other records.
- DCPL: The Washingtoniana Division has city directories dating from 1822, newspapers, cemetery records and photos. The Black Studies Division has a wide range of historical materials, as well.
- Historical Society of Washington, DC: The society has 100,000 photographs from the 1860s to the present; more than 400 maps; histories of neighborhoods, families and businesses; and more.
- Loc: The Local History and Genealogy Reading Room has more than 50,000 genealogies, 100,000 local histories and a huge collection of city directories.
- NARA: Records of interest for African-American research include slave emancipations and manumissions (the FHL has some of these on microfilm). NARA also has naturalizations from 1802 to 1906, Civil War service and pension records, WWI draft registration cards and more.
• Planned: 1791
• Incorporated: 1802
• Nicknames: DC, The District, DMV (for DC, Maryland, Virginia)
• Federal District: District of Columbia
• Parent counties: Montgomery and Price George’s, Md., and Alexandria, Va.
• Area: 68 square miles
• Motto: Justitia Omnibus (Justice for All)
• Primary historical ethnic groups: African-Americans, English, Jewish
• Primary historical industries: government, defense, tobacco
• Famous residents: Stephen Colbert, Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, J. Edgar Hoover, Pete Sampras, Diane Sawyer, John Philip Sousa
- Cyndi’s List: District of Columbia
- DCGenWeb Project
- The Freedmen’s Bureau Online
- Tombstone Transcription Project: District of Columbia
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-1989 (Government Printing Office)
- Official Register of the United States, Containing a List of Officers and Employees in the Civil, Military, and Naval Service, 37 volumes (Government Printing Office)
- Washington History journal, published semiannually by the Historical Society of Washington, DC ($50 membership)
- Washington, Past and Present, 3 volumes, by John Clagett Proctor (Lewis Historical Publishing Co.)
Organizations and Archives
District of Columbia Archives
Office of Public Records, 1300 Naylor Court NW, Washington, DC 20001,
District of Columbia Public Library
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library,
901 G St. NW, Washington, DC 20001,
Historical Society of Washington, DC
801 K St. NW, Washington, DC 20001,
The Library of Virginia
800 E. Broad St., Richmond, VA 23219,
Maryland State Archives
350 Rowe Blvd., Annapolis, MD 21401,
Office of the Register of Wills
Probate Division, 515 Fifth St. NW, Third Floor, Washington, DC 20001,
Recorder of Deeds
515 D St. NW, Washington, DC 20001,
Privacy restrictions: Records from the past 100 years are open only to the person named in the record, and his or her parents and legal representatives.
Research tips: Order copies for $23 from the Department of Health Vital Records Division by printing the application online and mailing it with payment.
Research tips: The historical society has annual directories covering 1862 to 1943, plus earlier and later years with some gaps, on microfilm. Fold3 offers online access to directories from 1822 to 1923 by subscription.
Privacy restrictions: Records from the past 50 years are open only to the person named in the record, and his or her parents and legal representatives.
Research tips: Order copies for $18 from the Department of Health Vital Records Division by printing the application online and mailing it with payment.
Research tips: Access microfilmed land records (1796 to 1886) with an index (1792 to 1919) through the FHL. Washington, DC, deeds include slave manumissions.
Research tips: Find microfilmed records and indexes on FHL microfilm. Certified copies from the Superior Court of DC’s Marriage Bureau (202-879-4840) cost $10; you must provide the groom’s full name, bride’s full maiden name and the marriage date.
Top 5 historic sites
Arlington, VA 22211, (703) 607-8000
More than 300,000 people—including veterans of every US war since the Revolution—are buried at this historic cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, DC.
2. National Museum of American History
14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest on the National Mall, Washington, DC 20001, (202) 633-1000
This Smithsonian museum boasts more than 3 million artifacts ranging from agricultural tools and machinery to clothing and accessories.
3. US Capitol
First Street Southwest, Washington, DC 20001, (202) 225-6827
In 1793, George Washington laid the cornerstone for the US Capitol. Visit the Capitol Guide Service kiosk, located near the intersection of First Street Southwest and Independence Avenue, for free tickets to tour the building.
4. Washington Monument
15th Street Northwest and Constitution Avenue Northwest on the National Mall, Washington, DC 20024, (202) 426-6841
Construction on this monument began in 1848 but stopped in 1855 due to lack of funds. When it resumed, the original quarry had run out of marble, so the color of the monument’s top 500 feet doesn’t match the lower 55 feet.
5. The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20500, (202) 456-2121
Public tours are available for 10 or more people. You also can tour the White House virtually online.
1800 Washington, DC, becomes the US capital
1814 British troops burn most of Washington’s public buildings and records
1846 Smithsonian Institution is founded
1864 Arlington National Cemetery is established
1867 Congress establishes Howard University
1899 Jazz legend Duke Ellington is born in DC
1954 Washington integrates its schools
1961 DC residents gain the right to vote for president
1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech near the Lincoln Memorial
1970 DC gains an elected nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives
1976 Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority opens its first subway stations
1992 House of Representatives approves statehood for Washington DC; Senate does not