Algonkian-speakers were living in what is now the District of Columbia when Englishmen founded the Jamestown, Va., settlement in 1607. The first white person known to have set foot in the Washington area was the English fur trader Henry Fleete, who in 1622 was captured by the Indians and held there for several years. Originally part of Maryland Colony, the region had been carved up into plantations by the latter half of the 17th century.
After the US Constitution (1787) provided that a tract of land be reserved for the seat of the federal government, both Maryland and Virginia offered parcels for that purpose; on 16 July 1790, Congress authorized George Washington to choose a site not more than 10 mi (16 km) square along the Potomac River. President Washington made his selection in January 1791 and then appointed Andrew Ellicott to survey the area and employed Pierre Charles L'Enfant, a French military engineer who had served in the Continental Army, to draw up plans for the federal city. L'Enfant's masterful design called for a wide roadway (now called Pennsylvania Avenue) to connect the Capitol with the President's House (Executive Mansion, now commonly called the White House) a mile away, and for other widely separated public buildings with spacious vistas. However, L'Enfant was late in completing the engraved plan of his design, and he also had difficulty in working with the three commissioners who had been appointed to direct a territorial survey; for these and other reasons, L'Enfant was dismissed and Ellicott carried out the plans. Construction was delayed by lack of adequate financing. Only one wing of the Capitol was completed, and the President's House was still under construction when President John Adams and some 125 government officials moved into the District in 1800. Congress met there for the first time on 17 November, and the District officially became the nation's capital on 1 December. On 3 May 1802, the city of Washington was incorporated (the District also included other local entities), with an elected council and a mayor appointed by the president.
LOCATION: 38° 47′ to 39°n; 76° 55′ to 77° 07′ w. BOUNDARIES: Maryland line, 25 mi (40 km); Virginia line, 12 mi (19 km).
Construction proceeded slowly, while the city's population grew to about 24,000 by 1810. In August 1814, during the War of 1812, British forces invaded and burned the Capitol, the President's House, and other public buildings. These were rebuilt within five years, but for a long time, Washington remained a rude, rough city. In 1842, English author Charles Dickens described it as a "monument raised to a deceased project," consisting of "spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere." At the request of its residents, the Virginia portion was retroceded in 1846, thus confining the federal district to the eastern shore of the Potomac. The Civil War brought a large influx of Union soldiers, workers, and escaped slaves, and the District's population rose sharply from 75,080 in 1860 to 131,700 by the end of the decade, spurring the development of modern Washington.
In 1871, Congress created a territorial form of government; this territorial government was abolished three years later because of alleged local extravagances, and in 1878, a new form of government was established, headed by three commissioners appointed by the president. During the same decade, Congress barred District residents from voting in national elections or even for their own local officials. In the 1890s, Rock Creek Park and Potomac Park were established, and during the early 1900s, city planners began to rebuild the monumental core of Washington in harmony with L'Enfant's original design. The New Deal period brought a rise in public employment, substantial growth of federal facilities, and the beginnings of large-scale public housing construction and slum clearance. After World War II, redevelopment efforts concentrated on demolishing slums in the city's southwest section. The White House was completely renovated in the late 1940s, and a huge building program coincided with the expansion of the federal bureaucracy during the 1960s.
Because it is the residence of the president, Washington, D.C., has always been noted for its public events, in particular the Presidential Inauguration and Inaugural Ball. The District has also been the site of many historic demonstrations: the appearance in 1894 of Coxey's Army—some 300 unemployed workers; the demonstrations in 1932 of the Bonus Marchers—17,000 Army veterans demanding that the government cash their bonus certificates; the massive March on Washington by civil rights demonstrators in 1963; the march on the Pentagon in 1967 by antiwar activists and later Vietnam-era protests; and, in 1995, the Million Man March organized by the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
In recent years, the District's form of government has undergone significant changes. The 23rd Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified on 3 April 1961, permits residents to vote in presidential elections, and beginning in 1971, the District was allowed to send a nonvoting delegate to the US House of Representatives. Local self-rule began in 1975, when an elected mayor and council took office. The District both prospered and suffered in the 1980s and 1990s. In spite of an expanding economy, the city has been wracked by poverty, drug-bred crime, and even gang warfare. In 1989, the federal government mandated $80 million for a program to combat drug abuse in the nation's capital. Crime in Washington has included corruption in high places. In the mid-1980s, the federal government launched an investigation into allegations of bribery, fraud, and racketeering in the award of millions of dollars in municipal and federal contracts. The investigation produced the conviction of 11 city officials. In 1990, the District's mayor of twelve years, Marion Barry, was videotaped smoking crack and was convicted of possessing cocaine. Barry was succeeded that year by Sharon Pratt Dixon, a black lawyer and former power company executive, but reelected in 1994. In 1998 he announced he would not run for reelection, completing four terms of office.
Since the 1970s, many of Washington's residents have supported statehood for the District of Columbia. A proposal for statehood won the majority of votes in a 1980 election, and the name "New Columbia" was approved by voters two years later. In 1992, the US House of Representatives passed a measure approving statehood for the capital, but the Senate refused to consider it.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams was reelected to a second term in November 2002. He pledged to target education, expand opportunities for all district residents, and to keep neighborhoods safe.