Every City Has Its Limits: The Story of D.C.’s Boundary Stones

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Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia, site of the first boundary marker

If you’re traveling to Washington, D.C., it’s good to know that the oldest federal monuments are not located on the National Mall, but rather at one-mile increments along a 10-mile square beginning at Jones Point, Virginia. Laid in 1791 and 1792, they are simple in form, but of great historical significance. They are the 36 surviving boundary markers of the original District of Columbia and the oldest federally placed monuments in the United States.

The Boundary Stones

The milestones came into being as a result of the Residence Act of 1790, which gave President George Washington the power to choose a location for a permanent capital of the United States. The Act set strict parameters. The site had to be located on the Potomac River between the areas of Alexandria, Virginia (the capital at the time) and Williamsport, Maryland and encompass no more than “ten miles square.” Washington was given until Monday, December 1, 1800 to choose the territory, hire surveyors to map it, and construct sufficient office space to house the Congress and government in the new capital.

A top priority for Washington was to make sure that all of Alexandria (one of four major ports at the time) fell within the borders of the new capital city. Accordingly, he selected the southernmost corner of the 100-square mile site as the starting point, and hired Major Andrew Ellicott, a prominent U.S. surveyor to start mapping out the territory.

Screen Shot 2014-12-23 at 2.41.49 PMIn February of 1791, Ellicott began the survey of the diamond-shaped quadrant. To assist him in pinpointing the south corner, he hired Benjamin Banneker, a free Afro-American, who was self-taught in math and astronomy. Banneker made on-site measurements and round-the-clock astronomical calculations and finally placed the first marker along the shoreline at Jones Point.

The story goes that Banneker fixed the position of the first stone by “lying on his back to find the exact starting point for the survey … and plotting six stars as they crossed his spot at a particular time of night.”

After installing the first marker, the surveyors, led by Ellicott, embarked on a forty-mile journey that took nearly two years. The team mapped out the new capital along ten-mile lines, heading first to the northwest and then clockwise along the diamond shape and back again to the starting point, clearing 20 foot corridors of land as they went. They set boundary stones at the four corners and placed slightly smaller markers at intervals of approximately one mile.

photo 1 (3)The boundary stones are simple in form and roughly hewn from sandstone quarried near the Aquia Creek in Virginia. The original markers stood approximately three feet high. On the side of the stone that faces the District is inscribed “Jurisdiction of the United States” and the number of the milestone. The opposite side is marked with the name of the border state in which the stone is located, either “Virginia” or “Maryland.” The third and fourth sides display the year in which the marker was laid as well as its compass reading.

While some of the boundary stones have been moved or damaged over the centuries, incredibly 36 of the original markers still survive in or near their original locations. Iron cages have been built around many to protect them. Other boundary stones are just barely visible poking out of the ground. I found one marker in a metal cage in the corner of a front yard in suburban Old Town Alexandria.

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First boundary stone with inscription still legible

The first boundary marker and south cornerstone authorized by Washington can still be found in the seawall of Jones Point Lighthouse, one of the last remaining river lighthouses in the country. You can faintly make out parts of the inscription (see left.) Other boundary stones are less easy to find but equally rewarding to discover. It’s hard not to feel moved when standing before one of these silent testaments to our capital city’s beginning.

For a great interactive view of the boundary stones and their exact locations along the quadrant, go to boundarystones.org.


Enjoy the hunt!

Posted by Carole Funger




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