Where Did The Name “District of Columbia” Come From?

Source: Library of Congress, Plan of the city of Washington (1800)

You may hear it called Washington, DC, just DC, or even the District of Columbia, but have you ever wondered what’s behind the name? It turns out, it too was ripped from the pages of history. 

Long before DC became our nation’s capital, Congress met in locations such as New York City, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore. Eventually, Congress decided the capital would be along the Potomac River. It also gave President George Washington the authority to decide on a new location. 

It wasn’t long before President Washington announced a new location and there was an announcement on a new name. A trio of commissioners tasked with overseeing development of the federal city named it after Washington, then named the district where it was located the Territory of Columbia.  

The name Columbia was apparently in reference to Christopher Columbus and was also used as a reference to the original 13 colonies and to the United States during the days of the American Revolution. The president then hired an architect and engineer to start laying out the new capital city. 

The city was planned out so that the Capitol building would be at the center of DC. However, about one-third of the original land slated for DC was given back to Virginia, reducing the city to the size it is today.

Nearly a century after plans were initiated to create a new capital, the name “Territory of Columbia” was replaced by the District of Columbia. By the time Congress met for the first time in Washington, the former president had already passed away.

Congress was put in control of what we now call the District of Columbia, which at the time also included the cities of Georgetown and Alexandria. These days, there are more than 650,000 people who live in Washington DC. The District has its own mayor and its own city council.

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