As noted the other day, I’ve started in on a second edition of “River to Rails.” I will be looking inside public buildings, adding any new markers, and expanding the coverage for a mile or two beyond the two historic districts.
As with the first edition, I will post the occasional preview. Today we head inside City Hall and make a great discovery. None other than John Alexander is immortalized with a bronze plaque. Although they are not certain, historians believe that Alexandria is named for the Alexander family. John (1603-1677) was the family patriarch, who emigrated from Scotland in 1653.
A Scotsman, Alexander emigrated to the new world around 1653. In 1669, he purchased the “Howson Tract,” a 6,000-acre patent. The property included modern day Old Town, Parker-Gray, Del Ray, Potomac Yard, Crystal City, National Airport and Arlington Cemetery.
The John Alexander Chapter (DAR) website has a bio on Alexander. He became a surveyor, justice of the peace, sheriff and captain of the Stafford County militia. At that time, the county extended to modern day Alexandria and Arlington.
The interesting thing about the Alexander family is that none of them lived on the Howson Tract, and in fact, preferred to remain landlords.
So why then, was the town named after them?
In 1730, when the Virginia General Assembly authorized the establishment of an inspection station, two groups competed for the prize. One wanted the site to be the tiny hamlet of Cameron. Today, we know this site as a part of Alexandria near the Eisenhower Avenue Metro Station. Another group, led by William Fairfax and Lawrence Washington, half- brother of George Washington, lobbied for West’s Point. The Robinson Terminal North currently occupies the site at the foot of Oronoco Street.
John Alexander’s grandsons, Robert and Philip, owned the land along the Potomac that the Fairfax/Washington group wanted, which was the southernmost portion of the Howson Tract.
In her research, Diane Riker writes:
To sweeten the pot, the conspirators may have agreed early on to name the town after the Alexanders. That the name was a source of pride to that family can be inferred from an indenture John Alexander had recorded Oct. 18, 1763 in Fairfax County giving his son Charles the land between Baldwin Dade Sr.’s and John Alexander’s properties adjoining the new port, “which last land goes by the name of my town.” He may have intended to say “the town of my name.”
In his book, “Historic Alexandria,” Ted Pulliam notes that Philip Alexander sent a petition to the House of Burgess, saying he favored “the Cameron bid.”
The inspection station went to the Fairfax/Washington group and the town of Alexandria was established in 1749. (Riker notes that for a period of time, it was also known as Belhaven).
Some earlier histories of Alexandria have noted that the town was named for John Alexandria. Later ones write it was the Alexandria family. Pulliam, whose research found Howson was a tobacco merchant and not a sea captain, notes the deal was possibly done for Philip Alexander.
Either way, John Alexandria was the patriarch. There is also a marker at National Airport. Alexander’s great grandson, Gerard Alexander I, 1714 – 1761, built Abingdon, a plantation home whose ruins were kept and are located between Garages A and B.
Additionally, a new interpretive marker at Potomac Yard Park will have info on the Alexander family.