A History of the Boundaries of Arlington County, Virginia online

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Office of the County Manager
Arlington, Virginia

1791 1801 1846
1870 1875 1915 1929 1936 1946 1966]


This collection of documentary references to the boundaries of
Arlington County was first published in 1957. This new edition
contains revisions made in the light of fuller knowledge, and brings
the story up-to-date by taking account of the change in the common
boundary with the City of Alexandria which went into effect on January
1, 1966.

This pamphlet can serve as a guide for those who need to know what
jurisdiction covered this area at any particular time. It provides
information for the student as well as the title searcher - in fact,
for anyone interested in the history of what is now Arlington County.

[Illustration: Signature of Bert W. Johnson]

Bert W. Johnson
County Manager

A History of
The Boundaries of
Arlington County, Virginia



Introduction - Arlington County Today 1

1608-1789 2
The Charters of James I to the Virginia Company
Charles I Charter to Lord Baltimore
The Counties of the Northern Neck of Virginia

1789-1847 3
Into the District of Columbia:
Cession of 1789
Location of the Federal District
Out of the District:
Acts of 1846
In Virginia Once More, 1847

Establishment of Alexandria as a Town
Territorial Accretions of Alexandria to 1870
County-City Separation, 1870
Annexations by Alexandria from Arlington, 1915 and 1929
Readjustment of Boundaries, 1966

Boundary of Commission of 1935
Acts of 1945 and 1946

The Town of Falls Church
The Town of Potomac
No More Towns



A History of
The Boundaries of
Arlington County, Virginia

It is one of those paradoxes so characteristic of Arlington that the
area composing the County did not exist as a separate entity until it
was ceded by Virginia to form part of the District of Columbia. The
Act by which the Congress of the United States took jurisdiction over
this area directed that that portion of the District which had been
ceded by Virginia was to be known as the county of Alexandria.[1] (It
was not until 1920 that it received the name of Arlington.)[2]

[1] Acts of Congress, February 27, 1801 and March 3, 1801. U.S.
Stat. at Large, Vol. 2, pp. 103, 115.

[2] Acts of Assembly, 1920, Chapter 241.

The present boundaries of Arlington may be described as: Beginning at
the intersection of Four Mile Run with the west shore line of the
Potomac River, westwardly, in general along the line of Four Mile Run,
without regard to its meanders, intersecting the south right-of-way
line of the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, then 1,858.44 feet
to where the center line of Shirlington Road intersects the said south
right-of-way line; thence south and slightly east to the center line
of Quaker Lane, then following the center line of Quaker Lane to a
point short of Osage Street in Alexandria where it moves to the north
line of Quaker Lane; thence to the east right-of-way line of Leesburg
Pike (King Street); thence with this line to the east side of 30th
Street, South, in Arlington, northeast on 30th Street, South, to the
circle; around said circle to the north side of South Columbus Street,
along this line to 28th Street, South, returning for a short distance
to Leesburg Pike, jogging east and north to 25th Street, South, and
then back to Leesburg Pike; thence along the Pike to the common
boundary of Alexandria and Fairfax; thence northeast along the former
Alexandria-Fairfax boundary until it intersects the original boundary
between Arlington and Fairfax; thence due northwest to a stone and
large oak tree approximately 200 feet west of Meridian Avenue (North
Arizona Street); thence due northeast to the shore of the Potomac;
thence along the mean high water mark of the shore of the Potomac
River, back to the point of beginning. This line encloses roughly
16,520 acres, or approximately 25.7 square miles, thus making
Arlington the third smallest county in the United States in respect to

[3] The smallest is Kalawao County, Hawaii, and the second
smallest, Bristol County, Rhode Island.

The boundaries of this area have been changed many times since it was
first sighted by Captain John Smith on his voyage up the Potomac in
1608 - the year which can be said to mark the beginning of Arlington's


The circumstances which placed Arlington in Virginia began to take
shape even earlier than 1608. The two companies organized to colonize
Virginia were granted their first charter by James I of England on
April 10, 1606.[4] This was styled "Letters Patent to Sir Thomas
Gates, Sir George Somers, and others, for two several Colonies and
Plantations, to be made in Virginia, and other parts and Territories
of America." The patentees were authorized "... to make habitation,
plantation, and to deduce a colony of sundry of our people into that
part of America, commonly called Virginia ..." between 34° north
latitude and 45° north and within 100 miles of the coast. Within this
area the spheres of operation of the two companies (which came to be
known as the London and Plymouth Companies because their principal
backers hailed from one or the other of these English towns) were
delineated. To the former was given the right to plant a colony within
the area from north latitude 34° to 41°, and to the latter within the
area from 38° to 45° inclusive. The overlapping area from 38° to 41°
was open to settlement by either company, though neither might
establish a settlement within 100 miles of territory occupied by the
other. The actual jurisdiction of each company was limited to 50 miles
in each direction from the first seat of plantation. This last
restriction was not carried over into the second charter. (Map I.)

[4] Hening, Vol. i, p. 57. Cf. also Title 7.1, Sec. 1, _Code
of Virginia, 1950_.

[Illustration: MAP I
Bounds Set by First Two Charters of the Virginia Company
Drafted by W. B. Allison and B. Sims]

Although the Plymouth Company sent out ships in the spring of 1607,
the settlement attempted by them on the coast of Maine was abandoned
the following year. The first settlement which was to prove permanent
was made by the London Company whose ships, sailing from London in
December 1606, reached the mouth of the James River in Virginia in
April 1607. The founding of "James Cittie" provided a point of
reference for the second charter of the London Company (which came to
be known as the Virginia Company). This charter,[5] granted in 1609,
gave it jurisdiction over

"all those lands, countries, and territories, situate, lying, and
being, in that part of America called Virginia, from the point of
land, called Cape or Point Comfort, all along the sea coast, to
the northward 200 miles, and from the said Point or Cape Comfort,
all along the sea coast to the southward 200 miles, and all that
space and circuit of land, lying from the sea coast of the
precinct aforesaid, up into the land, throughout from sea to sea,
west and northwest; and also all the islands lying within one
hundred miles, along the coast of both seas of the precinct

[5] Hening, Vol. i, p. 80. Cf. also Title 7.1, Sec. 1, _Code
of Virginia, 1950_.

This grant reflects the view of the best geographers of the day that
the Pacific Ocean lapped the western side of the as yet unexplored and
unnamed Appalachian Mountains.

The third charter of the Virginia Company,[6] granted in 1612,
extended the eastern boundaries of the colony to cover "... all and
singular those Islands whatsoever, situate and being in any part of
the ocean seas bordering upon the coast of our said first colony in
Virginia, and being within three hundred leagues of any the parts
heretofore granted ..." This was done to include Bermuda which had
been discovered in the meantime. The charter of the Virginia Company
was annulled in 1624 by King James I, and its lands became a Crown
Colony. By this time, however, the Virginia settlements were firmly
established on and nearby the James River, and the Potomac River to
the falls was well known to traders with the Indians.

[6] Hening, Vol. i, p. 100.

The first limitation upon the extent of the "Kingdom of Virginia," as
it was referred to by King Charles I, who succeeded his father in
1625, came with the grant to Lord Baltimore of a proprietorship over
what became Maryland. This patent was granted in 1632; the first
settlers reached what became St. Mary's on the Potomac in 1634. That
part of the grant which is pertinent to the boundaries of Arlington

"Going from the said estuary called Delaware Bay in a right line
in the degree aforesaid to the true meridian of the first fountain
of the river Potomac, then tending downward towards the south to
the farther bank of the said river and following it to where it
faces the western and southern coasts as far as to a certain place
called Cinquack situate near the mouth of the same river where it
discharges itself in the aforenamed bay of Chesapeake and thence
by the shortest line as far as the aforesaid promontory or place
called Watkins Point."[7]

[7] Report of the District of Columbia-Virginia Boundary
Commission, 74th Congress, 2nd Session, _H.D. 374_, p. 3.
Cf. also, Hall, _Narratives of Early Maryland, 1633-1684_,
p. 102.

The most significant words of this grant, from the point of view of
Arlington, are "the farther banks of the said river." They explain why
the boundary between Arlington and the District of Columbia runs along
the Virginia shore of the river and not in midstream, and why
Roosevelt Island, which lies nearer Arlington than to the District, is
not a part of Arlington. The Constitution of Virginia adopted in 1776
acknowledges this grant:

"The territory contained within the charters erecting the colonies
of Maryland ... are hereby ceded, released, and forever confirmed
to the people of those colonies ..."[8]

[8] Paragraph 21, Virginia Constitution of 1776. Hening, Vol.
i, p. 56. Cf. also, _Code of Virginia, 1950_, Title 7.1, Sec.

Although at the time Charles I gave this grant to Lord Baltimore
Virginia was a Crown Colony and thus it could not be contended that he
was giving away lands he had no power to cede since they already had
been given to others, the Maryland-Virginia boundary became a subject
of controversy as soon as the first Maryland settlers arrived, and has
continued so until almost the present time. Indeed, one might say that
the ghost has been laid only temporarily since echoes of the dispute
appear in today's newspapers: "Maryland and Virginia Start New Round
in Oyster War" - "Pentagon Area a No Man's Land." These headlines
derive in a direct line from the grant of King Charles I to Calvert,
Lord Baltimore, in 1632.[9]

[9] Conway, _The Compacts of Virginia_, p. 8.

To leave, for a time, the Potomac boundary of Arlington, let us turn
to the narrowing of the boundaries of the landward side of the County.
In the development of governmental administration, counties began to
be created in Virginia in mid-17th Century. The area which became
Arlington was successively in Northumberland, Westmoreland, Stafford,
Prince William, and finally, Fairfax counties. (Map II.) Consequently,
the history of land tenure and legislation for Arlington must be
sought in the records of these counties for the relevant period.

[Illustration: MAP II
Development of Northern Neck Counties
Drafted by W. B. Allison and B. Sims]

Northumberland County was definitely created in 1648 by an Act of the
General Assembly[10] which provided

"that the said tract of land ['Chickcoun and other parts of the
Neck of land between Rappahonock River and Potomack River'] be
hereafter called and knowne by the name of the county of

[10] Hening, Vol. i, p. 352. Northumberland was first mentioned
by name in an Act (IX) of February 1645, and sent its first
representative to the Legislature for the session of November

and was given power to elect Burgesses. A later Act[11] declared:

"_It is enacted_, That the inhabitants which are or shall be
seated on the south side of the Petomecke River shall be included
and are hereafter to be accompted within the county of

[11] Act III, October 1649. Hening, Vol. i, p. 362.

Settlement was pushing north, however, and in July 1653, Westmoreland
was carved out of the then existing Northumberland. It was decreed:

"ordered by this present Grand Assembly that the bounds of the
county of Westmorland be as followeth (vizt.) from Machoactoke
river where Mr. Cole lives: And so upwards to the falls of the
great river of Pawtomake above the Necostins Towne."[12]

[12] Hening, Vol. i, p. 381.

Conditions on the frontier, however, made it necessary in 1662 to
unite Westmoreland and Northumberland counties for administrative
purposes "until otherwise ordered by the governor."[13] There is no
record of the date of his later decision to separate the two counties
but he must have done so.

[13] Hening, Vol. ii, p. 151.

Similarly, there is no definite record of the establishment of
Stafford County. The first legislative reference to Stafford is in an
Act[14] exempting the inhabitants of Stafford because of the "newnesse
of its ground" from a general requirement laid upon counties to employ
a weaver and set up a public loom. In this year of 1666 Stafford sent
a delegate to the General Assembly. The County, however, must have
been in existence earlier since there is a record of the Stafford
County Court Book which on page one relates to a meeting of the Court
for the County on May 27, 1664.[15] The boundaries of the County are
nowhere set forth at this early date, but that they encompassed the
Arlington area is clear from a direction of the Legislature in 1676
that a fort be established "on Potomack river at or near John Mathews
in the county of Stafford."[16] John Mathews' land was on the lower
side of Great Hunting Creek[17] but there would have been no reason at
that time to erect a separate county to the north.

[14] Act VIII, October 1666.

[15] Robinson, _Virginia Counties_, p. 87. This court book
may also be inspected at the Stafford County Court House.

[16] Hening, Vol. ii, p. 327.

[17] Stetson, _Four Mile Run Land Grants_, p. 1.

There were no further changes affecting the county within which
Arlington lay until 1730 when Prince William County was formed. An Act
of the General Assembly declared that after March 25, 1731,

"all the land, on the heads of the said counties [Stafford and
King George] above the Chopawansick Creek, on Patomack river, and
Deep run, on Rappahannock river and a southward line to be made
from the head of the north branch of the said creek to the head of
the said Deep run, be divided and exempt from said counties ...
and be made a distinct county, and shall be called and known by
the name of Prince William County."[18]

[18] Acts of Assembly, May 1730, Chapter XVII. Hening, Vol. iv,
p. 303.

It was not many years until Fairfax County came into being:

"... from and immediately after the first day of December now next
ensuing, the said county of Prince William be divided into two
counties: That is to say, all that part thereof, lying on the
south side of Occoquan, and Bull Run; and from the head of the
main branch of Bull Run, by a straight course to the Thoroughfare
of the Blue Ridge of mountains, known by the name of Ashby's Gap
or Bent, shall be one distinct county, and retain the name of
Prince William County: And be one distinct parish, and retain the
name of Hamilton parish. And all that other part thereof,
consisting of the parish of Truro, shall be one other distinct
county, and called and known by the name of Fairfax county...."[19]

[19] Acts of Assembly, May 1742, Chapter XXVII. Hening, Vol. v,
p. 207.

Thus from December 1742 until the District of Columbia was formally
organized by Act of Congress (February 27, 1801) what is now Arlington
was part of Fairfax County.


Maryland and Virginia had agreed to meet in 1785 to discuss the
controversy over the navigation of the Potomac and their joint
boundary. The Commissioners who took part in this meeting did more
than draw up a compact subsequently ratified by their respective
States. From this meeting eventually came the call for the convention
which resulted in the Constitution of the United States and the
decision to set aside a tract of land ten miles square for the seat of
the Federal Government.

The Maryland-Virginia compact on the Potomac was signed on March 28,
1785, and confirmed by the General Assembly of Virginia in 1786.[20]
Although it was designed primarily to settle navigation and fishing
rights, its seventh section provided: "The citizens of each State,
respectively, shall have full property rights in the shores of
Patowmack river adjoining their land...." This has been interpreted to
mean property rights to low water mark. The dispute over this point
became of significance in the 20th Century with the construction of
the National Airport and the Pentagon Building.

[20] Acts of Assembly, 1785, Chapter XVII. Hening, Vol. xii,
pp. 50-55. Cf. also _Code of Virginia, 1950_, Title 7.1,
Section 7, and Conway, _The Compacts of Virginia_, p. 5. The
Potomac River Fisheries Compact of 1958 (Acts of Assembly,
1962, Chapter 406; _Code of Virginia 1950_, Title 28.1, Sec.
203) did not affect Arlington.

Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution of the United States gives
the Congress power to accept a territory not exceeding ten miles
square to be set aside as the seat of the Federal Government. The
story of the compromise which led to the selection of a site on the
Potomac is told in all the history books.[21] These, however, rarely
give the details of how the exact area which became the District of
Columbia came to be chosen.

[21] Cf. for example, Samuel Eliot Morison & Henry Steele
Commager, _The Growth of the American Republic_, Vol. I,
p. 332. New York, 1962. Leon H. Canfield & Howard B. Wilder,
_The Making of Modern America_, p. 148. Boston, 1964.

In 1789, the Virginia legislature adopted an Act[22] offering to cede
"ten miles square, or any lesser Quantity of Territory within the
State" to the United States for the permanent seat of the general
government. Section I of this Act recited the motive: "Whereas the
equal and common benefits resulting from the administration of the
general government will be best diffused, and its operation become
more prompt and certain, by establishing such a situation for the seat
of the said government, as will be most central and convenient to the
citizens of the United States at large, having regard as well to
population, extent of territory, and a free navigation to the Atlantic
Ocean, through the Chesapeake bay, as to the most direct and ready
communication with our fellow citizens in the western frontier; and
whereas it appears to this Assembly that a situation combining all
considerations and advantages before recited, may be had on the banks
of the river Patowmack, above tide water, in a country rich and
fertile in soil, healthy and salubrious in climate, and abounding in
all the necessaries and conveniences of life, where in a location of
ten miles square, if the wisdom of Congress shall so direct, the
States of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia may participate in such

[22] Acts of Assembly, 1789, Chapter XXXII, p. 19.

It is clear from the inclusion of Pennsylvania as one of the
participating States, and the reference to "above tide water" that the
Virginia legislators of those days had in mind a tract somewhat higher
up the river than that which was eventually chosen. Indeed, the first
Act of Congress[23] dealing with this subject set the limits within
which the Federal District was to be established "on the river
Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and
Connogochegue" (a tributary of the Potomac some 20 miles south of the
Pennsylvania State line) and authorized the President to appoint three
commissioners to survey and "by proper metes and bounds" define and
limit the district to be accepted by the Congress.

[23] July 16, 1790.

By a proclamation of January 24, 1791,[24] President Washington
directed that a survey should be made.

[24] Richardson, _Messages and Papers of the Presidents_,
Vol. I, p. 100.

"... after duly examining and weighing the advantages and
disadvantages of the several situations within the limits
aforesaid, I do hereby declare and make known that the location of
one part of the said district of 10 miles square shall be found by
running four lines of experiment in the following manner, that is
to say: Running from the court-house of Alexandria, in Virginia,
due southwest half a mile, and thence a due southeast course till
it shall strike Hunting Creek, to fix the beginning of the said
four lines of experiment.

"Then beginning the first of the said four lines of experiment at
the point on Hunting Creek where the said southeast course shall
have struck the same, and running to the said first line due
northwest 10 miles; thence the second line into Maryland due
northeast 10 miles; thence the third line due southeast 10 miles,
and thence the fourth line due southwest 10 miles to the beginning
on Hunting Creek."

Since the tract thus specified did not lie within the limits set by
the Act of July 1790, the Congress was asked to authorize the moving
of the southern boundary point of the "ten miles square" farther south
to include the Eastern Branch and the town of Alexandria. Accordingly,
the Act of July 16, 1790, was amended by an Act approved March 3,

"... it shall be lawful for the President to make any part of the
territory below the said limit [the confluence of the Eastern
Branch with the Potomac] and above the mouth of Hunting Creek, a
part of said district, so as to include a convenient part of the
Eastern Branch, and of the lands lying on the lower side thereof
and also the town of Alexandria...."

No time was lost in establishing definite boundaries for the new
district, and on March 30, 1791, President Washington issued a
proclamation declaring

"that the whole of the said territory shall be located and
included within the four lines following, that is to say:

"Beginning at Jones's Point, being the upper cape of Hunting
Creek, in Virginia, and at an angle in the outset of 45 degrees
west of the north, and running in a direct line 10 miles for the
first line; then beginning again at the same Jones's Point and
running another direct line at a right angle with the first across
the Potomac 10 miles for the second line; then from the
termination of the said first and second lines running two other
direct lines of 10 miles each, the one crossing the Eastern Branch
aforesaid and the other the Potomac, and meeting each other in a

"... and the territory so to be located, defined, and limited
shall be the whole territory accepted by the said acts of Congress
as the district for the permanent seat of the Government of the

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