Stop 2: The History of Washington D.C.

How and why was Washington, D.C. chosen to be where it is now, and what happened to the area as the new city developed?

Although Washington, D.C.’s geology played an important role, it was largely a political compromise that determined the location of the new capital city. The founding fathers of our government had much to consider when choosing where the new government would be seated. A location that would please both Southern and Northern states was important. The geology of Washington D.C. created flat land that was good for farming and building. Also, the Potomac River was nearby, and through a system of canals, it could connect the new city to other rivers for trade and transportation. Go back in time and imagine a fictional conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regarding the location of Washington, D.C. After that, you can help George Washington decide where to put the capital.

Once the location was chosen, Pierre L’Enfant designed the layout of Washington, D.C.’s buildings and streets. In 1792 construction began. A reclamation project in the late 1800s added over 700 acres of land to Washington, D.C. This extra land could have been used for farming, housing, or government buildings. Instead, the McMillan Commission of 1902 adapted L’Enfant’s original design to set aside space for future monuments and memorials.

With more building and more settlers, how do you think things changed for the area’s plants, animals, and waterways? Explore how the development of the capital city affected the local environment.



This is a fictional conversation between George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. They are talking about where the new capital city of the United States should be located. What sorts of things can you think of that would influence their decision?

TJ: Hey, George, congratulations on becoming the first President of the United States under our new form of government. (George Washington was unanimously elected the first President under the Constitution in 1788, but there were 7 other presidents who each served one year terms under the Articles of Confederation between 1781-1788. John Hanson of Maryland was actually the first first President of the U.S.)

GW: Thanks, Tom. When I was out with the troops (Chosen by the other delegates at the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, George Washington was the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army from 1775 to 1783) I wasn’t sure if we could defeat the British. Your Declaration of Independence sure gave us inspiration to keep fighting. (Against all odds, 13 colonies gained independence from the English Empire, not because the U.S. had better fighters, but because they had so much to fight for. George Washington’s army was poorly trained, and poorly funded, but fiercely resilient against the far more experienced British Army.)

TJ: I just tried to capture the American Mindset in words…writing the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson was appointed to a committee, along with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston, in June of 1776 to write an official statement of separation from the British crown. After submitting the document to the Continental Congress in early July, Jefferson’s draft was debated and edited for several days before the final version was accepted and signed by all 56 colonial delegates.) was the easy part, getting all the colonies to agree to declare independence was the hard part (The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence committed treason, punishable by death, against the King of England. It was a very difficult decision, made worse by the sweltering Philadelphia summer heat.).

GW: I have the feeling that this is just the beginning of difficult agreements for us, but working together will make the U.S. stronger. Now that we are free from the British and are starting our own government (Under the Articles of Confederation (1781 to 1788), state governments had the most power; under the Constitution (1787 to the present), the Federal Government became much stronger.), where shall we seat it to make everyone happy? (The Hamilton Compromise called for the southern states to assume the Revolutionary War debt of the northern states in exchange for a capital city that was further south. Previous capitals had been in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.)

TJ: Well George, you’re in charge now (The Residence Act of 1790 gave the president the authority to choose the exact site for the new capital.), where do you think our new capital should be?

Choosing of Possible Sites

How did George Washington choose the site for the new capital of the United States? See why seven of these eight possible sites were not chosen by reading some of the President's possible thoughts on the sites.

Impact of Development

People have been drawn to this area for thousands of years. Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans who lived along the Potomac River had an abundance of natural resources that provided them with food, shelter and other materials for trade. They used the river for trade and transport. When European settlers claimed the area, they did so for many of the same reasons. They cleared fields for farming and grazing, and cut down trees and gathered materials to make buildings and bridges. Farms and domesticated animals, and later city streets and buildings, took over the existing natural habitat.

What happened to the plants, animals, and waterways of the area as the city of Washington, D.C. developed?

Impact on Plants

Up until the 1700s, the area that was to be developed into the United States’ new capital city was a wilderness of rolling forested hills with sycamores, sugar maples, and red maples. The Potomac River shoreline was a swampy, wild area dominated by plants like cattails, wild rice, and green willow trees. The forests were cleared, hills leveled, and swamps and mudflats were eventually filled in. Most native plants were removed to make room for development and landscaping with decorative trees and plants from other places. What once was forest and swampland is now a combination of manicured green lawns, beautifully landscaped flower gardens, and long straight rows of elms, oaks, and poplars that shade sidewalks and streets. Video Gopaul trees.
It is almost impossible to find native swampland plants on the National Mall today, but the sycamores, sugar maples and red maples that were here when George Washington surveyed the area in 1790 can still be found. Yet most visitors pass right by the native trees in search of Washington, DC’s most famous trees that ring the Tidal Basin with white and pink blossoms every spring. The Japanese cherry trees were a token of friendship from Japan in 1912.

Cherry Trees
There are twelve different kinds of cherry trees in Washington, DC but the most abundant and most popular is the Yoshino Cherry. The Japanese culture celebrates the fleeting beauty of life by gathering with friends for picnics under blossoming cherry trees to welcome spring. Hundreds of thousands of people try to time their springtime visits to Washington, DC to see the trees covered in pink and white blossoms. Each single blossom only lasts a few days, but with almost 2800 Yoshino trees, and about 1000 cherry trees of other species, there are usually trees in bloom for a week or two every spring around the Tidal Basin, Washington Monument grounds, and East Potomac Park. Watch a Yoshino Cherry Blossom Bloom. (slide show of the buds in bloom, with the picture of the cherries w/Jefferson in the background and then the purple bird splat on the nice white marble…he,he,he. Caption: Once the cherry blossom flower is pollinated, and the petals fall off, a small sour cherry with a big seed grows in its place. Who do you think eats the cherries?) Visit

Impact on Animals

Different kinds of birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals need different environments to survive. When an environment changes, animals must either adapt to their new surroundings or move. Washington, DC is no longer home to bears or mountain lions, but you may be surprised by the abundance of wildlife still found in the city. So far, 111 bird, 12 mammal, 23 fish, and 2 reptile species have been documented either as residents within park boundaries or migrants passing through. Local predators include fox, osprey, red tailed hawks, and occasionally bald eagles. Other species include bats, butterflies, dragonflies, mosquitoes, wasps, raccoons, opossum, migratory songbirds, waterfowl, and of course, pigeons, squirrels, mice, and rats.
In addition to the mammals and birds, Constitution Gardens Lake, the Tidal Basin, and other ornamental pools provide habitat for a variety of fish species. The Potomac River and Tidal Basin are popular places to fish for largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish and American eel. Natural habitats may have been destroyed with the development of the city, but many animals have adapted to their man-made environments. Visit Constitution Gardens Lake.

Constitution Gardens Lake
Constitution Gardens was designed for the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration. It has trees, a lake, and a small island on its north side with the 56 Signers of the Declaration of Independence Memorial, dedicated in 1984. At first, Constitution Gardens Lake was seen as simply a pretty place to get away from the busy city. But more than just a decorative pool, Constitution Gardens Lake is home to many different plants and animals. Because this environment is completely man-made, natural cycles need to be managed carefully.

Impact on Waterways

Development of Washington, DC altered the watershed of the Potomac River in many ways through erosion, sedimentation, and reclamation. What started as swampland, farms, and big piles of river mud became one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world. Increased erosion and sedimentation in the Potomac River caused problems for the developing city. To remedy the situation, a large reclamation project was undertaken to create the land that became East and West Potomac Park and the Tidal Basin.

Erosion caused big problems for the Potomac River. With increased development of the land came increased runoff. Before George Washington chose the site for the new capital city there were already several farms in the area. Most of the native trees had already been cleared for crop fields, cow pastures, and orchards. Once the construction of Washington, DC began, rapid development of roads and buildings created even more soil erosion. Since the trees and grasses that help to hold soil in place were removed, sediment ran off into the river at a faster rate than it naturally would.

Water can carry sediment, especially when it is moving fast. When the water slows down, it can’t carry as much sediment, so it falls to the bottom of the stream. Upstream of Washington, DC the Potomac River moves quickly downhill through narrow channels in the Piedmont. But at Georgetown the river enters the Coastal Plain and becomes very broad and shallow. The water slows down, and the sediment carried by it settles out. For the same reason, a jar of muddy water will eventually become clear as all of the muddy sediment settles to the bottom over time. Visit the Tidal Basin.

By the mid-1800’s the river had so much sediment deposited into it that mud flats grew and the Potomac resembled a swamp more than a river. This became a huge problem for the new city as increased sedimentation clogged the Potomac River. Because there were no airports, highways, or railroads in the earliest part of American history, waterways such as rivers and creeks were relied on heavily for transportation. In order for ships to make it to Washington, DC ports, the river needed to be deeper.

Big machines, called dredgers, scooped up sediment from the bottom of the Potomac River and piled it on top of the shallowest, swampiest areas of the Potomac shoreline. Sea walls built around those areas in 1882 still hold that sediment in place today. The piled up sediment, or reclaimed land, added over 700 acres to Washington, DC that eventually became East and West Potomac Park. Over time, on the new land from the late 1800s reclamation project, memorials were erected to honor presidents and war veterans and the areas around them were landscaped.

Tidal Basin
The Washington Channel is a narrow strip of water between the land of Washington, DC and the reclaimed land of East Potomac Park. Washington, DC’s waterfront development began along the Potomac shoreline in the late 1700s. When erosion and sedimentation threatened to close access to the waterfront in the late 1800s, the reclamation project added a simple design to keep the Washington waterfront open. The Tidal Basin was constructed to flush water through the Washington Channel to keep it free of extra sediment and to wash away smelly sewage brought to the river through the sewer system. Like the name implies, the Tidal Basin is affected by the tides of the Potomac River. At high tide water flows through the Inlet Bridge from the river to the basin. While the water is in the Tidal Basin, sediment has time to settle to the bottom before it travels through the Washington Channel. At low tide water flows through the Outlet Bridge from the basin to the channel. Night panorama of Tidal Basin.

Continue your Tour of the National Mall

Stop 1: The Geology of the Washington D.C. Area

Stop 2: The History of Washington D.C.

Stop 3: Finding D.C.’s Foundation

Stop 4: A Watery Past

Stop 5: GeoStory of the Lincoln Memorial

Stop 6: Remembering War

Stop 7: Stories in Stone at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

Stop 8: Thomas Jefferson Memorial - A Place of Controversy

Stop 9: Washington Monument - The Nation’s Most Unique Rock Collection

Stop 10: Who Cares for the National Mall








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