Mapping Early Washington

Washington DC is a planned city with a unique and fascinating history. That history is not mine to tell. Rather, I aim to facilitate its telling in the most accurate and detailed manner. I am giving early Washington’s ample historical resources the digital value-added treatment and finding new ways to understand and tell an old story.

I wanted to make a value-added resource that covered the entire city, so my first online product for Mapping Early Washington is a visualization of Elliot’s 1822 Directory for Washington City in the form of a story map. This was apparently the first directory for the city.

Elliot’s 1822 Directory for Washington City

I got a bit more ambitious and mapped Boyd’s 1858 directory.

Boyd’s 1858 Directory for Washington City

I put those together with some other early historical resources into the…

Atlas of Early Washington DC

My larger vision for the project is to apply similar value-added GIS treatments to all historical resources for early Washington, then to carefully combine them to create a data synergy in which each resource informs and refines the others. For instance, my use of the Boschke map was key in setting the points associated with the directory listings. Those resources are extremely complementary of each other. We understand each better because of the other, if we use them together.

Including property tax assessment data further refines locations and inform regarding ownership. Assessor John Sessford’s records of new buildings help to place names and build dates to specific buildings.

To this end, we received a Preservation Initiatives Grant in 2019 from the DC Preservation League to continue and expand work we had started in Capitol Hill with help from the Capitol Hill Restoration Society. We now are working across what we call our Capitol Hill/Navy Yard study area to better understand the development of these very early Washington Neighborhoods. Work done specifically for this grant can be seen here.

Census data will eventually flesh out the the households. Court records, wills, and newspapers can provide rich life details. Having data from a series of directories will show us the movement of families and individuals into, out of, and around the city, the ebb and flow of different professions over time, and more.

The careful combination of value-added historical resources will yield true historical knowledge and begin to tell stories of our history. We can do this en masse and not just one subject at a time. Then, a fact-based history of our city can be accessible to all and serve as an unprecedented resource, a common basis of knowledge, and an accurate context for broader storytelling.