Plans of
Washington, D.C.
1792 to 1800

In the immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War, one of the many problems faced by the new government was where to make its permanent seat, to be the capital of the new republic.  Two cities, in particular, claimed the honour, New York and Philadelphia.  However, neither city was sufficiently pre-eminent to claim the prize by right, and neither would give way to the other.

After much discussion, it was determined that a new city should be built, and an Act of Congress signed into law by Washington on 16th July 1790 enacted that a site on the Potomac River would become the new capital.  Having chosen the site, Washington appointed an American engineer, Major Andrew Ellicott to survey and lay out the boundaries of the new Federal district.  Ellicott received his instructions from Jefferson in a letter dated 2nd February 1791, and the course was completed by about September of the same year.  It was intended that the plan should be published, but publication was not effected until 1794.

In the meantime, Washington appointed the French engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to survey the land designated for the city, and to produce a ground plan worthy of the new country, intended to be compared with any of the great European cities.  To this end, Jefferson supplied L’Enfant with plans of several European cities, so that he could extract the best features of each.

However, while the survey work continued, L’Enfant proved a difficult character, exasperating both Washington and Jefferson with his headstrong approach to solving problems, and dealing with interests of individuals affected by his grand scheme.  One problem was that part of the construction costs were to be met by selling parcels of land within the city boundaries, and yet the sales started before the ground plan had been completed, and the boundaries of these parcels of land properly established on the ground.

In the end, Washington lost patience with L’Enfant, who was dismissed in 1792.  L’Enfant was replaced by Ellicott.  However, in picque, L’Enfant refused to hand over any of his survey work, so Ellicott was forced to reconstruct the plan from his own working notes and recollections.  Ellicott’s manuscript plan of the city is in the Library of Congress, although it is credited in the title to L’Enfant.  It is thus difficult to know what parts of the finished plan is due to L’Enfant and how much credit is due to Ellicott.


J.Good. 1793, Item 7
Once the plan was completed, to general satisfaction, Ellicott was asked to arrange for its publication.  Once a printed plan was in circulation, Washington and Jefferson felt it would be easier to encourage the necessary sale of land.  Ellicott approached two engravers in Philadelphia, James Thackara and John Vallance, who agreed to engrave the plate.  However, apparently for political reasons, the two men dallied on their commission.  They originally promised delivery in eight weeks, but did not produce proofs until July, and completed impressions until November.  While they may have been extremely dilatory in producing the full-size version, Thackara and Vallance were quick to engrave a small version of the plan, which takes precedence as the first printed plan of Washington, issued in the Universal Asylum And Columbian Museum in March 1792

Whether as a precaution or in frustration with the delay, Jefferson asked Samuel Blodgett Jr. to arrange to have a second version engraved. in May, Blodget employed Samuel Hill, a Boston engraver, to do the work.  Hill also took the opportunity to engrave a smaller version for his own account, published in the Massachusetts Magazine, in May, but completed the folio plate by 25th June, when impressions were sent to Jefferson.  The plate was sent to Washington in July, but miscarried, and mislaid until the middle of August.  Hill’s plan was sent to a printer, and examples were in circulation for the second sale of land within the city, in October.  The Thackara and Vallance plate was completed in November, and from then on examples were circulated widely, not only within the United States, but also in Europe, in the hope of stimulating overseas investment.

It is clear that the construction of Washington attracted widespread interest.  With the two Philadelphia and two Boston maps (the ‘official’ folio version and the smaller ‘pirate’ version) acting as prototypes, a series of derivatives were issued, ranging from New York to London, Amsterdam, Gotha and Vienna. 

The, in 1800, when Washington officially became capital, two commemorative plans were issued printed on cloth, again drawing on Ellicott’s work, but printed from plates specially prepared for the occasion.


This short note, and checklist, are based on Coolie Verner. Surveying and mapping the new Federal City: the first printed maps of Washington, DC (Imago Mundi, XXIII, 1969), p.59ff), where more detail is given about the background to the construction of Washington, L’Enfant’s survey work, and relations with the 

Further background is given in Nelson R. Burr, The Federal City Depicted 1612 - 1801, in Walter Ristow (ed.) A La Carte Selected Papers on Maps and Atlases (Washington, Library of Congress, 1972), p.126ff.