A Brief History of Arlington

A Brief History of Arlington

First visited by Captain John Smith, the once rural village is now an urban community.

<bt>The recorded history of Arlington begins in July, 1608, when Captain John Smith and a scouting party of 14 English colonists sailed north from James Fort to explore the Potomac region. According to "Historic Arlington," by historian Ludwell Montague, Smith landed at an Algonquin village on the western shore of the Potomac River. The village's name — at least as Smith pronounced it — was Nameroughquend, and it stood, Montague states, near where the railroad bridge reaches Arlington's shores today. According to Montague, more than a dozen prehistoric Native American sites have been discovered in Arlington and the Washington metro area, many dating back 4,000 years.

Arlingtonians in 1608 were members of the Nacotchtanck, a Native American tribe whose name was later abbreviated by colonists to sound like Necostin.

Smith later sailed to the larger settlement across the river in modern-day Anacostia and was able trade with the Nacotchtanck. He guessed, based on the number of warriors in the settlement, that the tribe's local population was about 500 people.

Two years later, a trading expedition under the command of English captain Samuel Argall brought about the destruction of that same village. Argall had sailed up the coast to purchase corn. The Nacotchtanck, perhaps because they had none or very little, refused to sell. Argall's men, according to Montague, raided the village and burned it to the ground. The relationship between the colonists and the Nacotchtanck was, from that point on, a hostile one. During a skirmish around that same time, the Nacotchtanck took prisoner a young English boy named Henry Fleet who befriended them and lived with them for the rest of his childhood. When Fleet was a young man, this relationship enabled him to monopolize the fur trade along the Potomac. His diary offers one of the earliest descriptions of what became Arlington and the area surrounding Washington, D.C.

"This place, without question, is the most pleasant and healthful place in all this country and most convenient for habitation, the air temperate in summer and not violent in winter," Fleet wrote in 1631. "As for deer, buffalo, bears, turkeys, the woods do swarm with them and the soil is exceedingly fertile."

In 1669, the first section of land within the bounds of modern-day Arlington was purchased by Captain Robert Howson. The price: 672 pounds of tobacco. Howson's land stretched from Rocky Run, just south of Alexandria, north to what is now Arlington Boulevard.

A war with the Iroquois drove the Susquahannock Indians south into Northern Virginia years later in 1675, which led to a general Indian war in the area along with Bacon's Rebellion. Montague writes that the Iroquois entered the area around 1680, forcing other tribes out, and that they used the Occoquan area as a hunting ground until 1722, when they surrendered all land south of the Potomac to the Virginia colonists. Around 1740, an Englishman named John Alexander began construction on Abingdon, the first mansion within the modern bounds of Arlington. The city of Alexandria was becoming a center for trade at the same time, and by 1801 its population totaled more than 6,000. Only about 1,000 people lived in the rural outlying areas, according to Montague, and of those, about a third were slaves.

IN 1778, JOHN PARKE CUSTIS, George Washington’s stepson, bought the Abingdon Estate. George Washington Parke Custis, son of John Custis and step grandson of George Washington inherited the northern 1100 acres of that land and began construction of a mansion in 1802 on the high hills rising above the Potomac River and Washington. According to the Arlington Historical Society, the building was finally completed in 1817. At first named Mount Washington, it was soon renamed Arlington after the original Custis estate established before 1680 in Northhampton County, Va.

In 1831 Mary Anne Randolph Custis, the heiress of Arlington, married her third cousin, Lt. Robert Edward Lee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Born at Stratford in Westmoreland County, Robert Lee had grown up in Alexandria. After his marriage, he spent some part of almost every year on leave there and lived there during a three-year tour of duty in Washington.

In 1861, after returning from a campaign in Mexico, Lee was ordered back to Washington, where in April he was offered command of the newly levied Union army. He refused, saying that he could not take part in an invasion of the southern states, although he disapproved of the South's course of political action. Lee resigned his commission in the U.S. Army and took command of Virginia’s secessionist military forces. Summoned to Richmond, he left Arlington on April 22. He never returned to the mansion alive.

Lee's Arlington estate was occupied by federal troops after he departed, and three years later the estate was confiscated by the government after Lee refused to pay taxes. The area also saw the creation of several forts during the war to defend the capitol from a Confederate advance.

On December 4, 1863, The Freedman’s Village settlement was established by the federal government on the Arlington Estate, south of the cemetery and the mansion. The village was created to provide homes and employment opportunities for slaves who had gained their freedom by fleeing from Maryland and Virginia into the District of Columbia after the official abolition of slavery. Freedman’s Village consisted of 100 frame houses, a school with five teachers, and two chapels. The chapels were the predecessors of the Mount Zion Baptist Church at South 19th Street, and Mount Olive Baptist Church now located on 13th Street, South. Most of the residents of Freedman’s Village later moved to other sites in the county.

In 1955 Arlington House was officially designated by an Act of Congress as a permanent national memorial to Robert E. Lee.

THE INVENTION OF THE STREETCAR, first seen in Richmond in 1888, sparked a transformation in Arlington from a rural area to a more developed suburb. Wealthy residents of Washington, D.C., according to architectural historian Dr. David Ames, used the streetcars to tour the county in search of land. Development followed the streetcar lines, creating the first commuter communities in Northern Virginia.

In 1910, Ford began selling the Model T, the first automobile that most Americans of the day could afford. Along with democratized transportation, said Ames, came greater freedom for development. Arlington saw a development boom from 1910 through the 1930s as more people migrated to the county. According to figures from the Arlington Historical Society, Arlington's population went from 57,040 in 1940 to 135,449 in 1950 and 163,401 by 1960.

Streetcar suburbs had to be built within walking distance of the railways. Automobile suburbs could be built further away from them. New people brought new homes, most of them in the design of small bungalows. Prefabricated, four-square homes also became popular, Ames said. This was due, in part, to the fact they could be ordered through Sears and Roebuck and other mail-order catalogues.

Under the New Deal of the 1930s, Ames said, Arlington became a research and development center for the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), a place where prototypes for affordable housing designs got tested. The FHA's goal was to reduce the cost of buying a home and revive the housing industry. One method was to offer mortgage insurance to builders, allowing them to take on larger projects. The result, Ames said, was larger subdivisions and homes on a larger scale.

It was during this time that Arlington saw the construction of many garden apartments, developments that melded the qualities of urban and suburban living — offering greater density alongside noticeable open, green space. The county also saw an increase in affordable single-family homes as builders took advantage of the FHA's new policies.

Following World War II, Arlington's expansion created homes in its extremities to the north, south and west. By the 1960s, Ames said, the county was fully "built out," and developers started building upward with the earliest high-rises and multistory apartments. Housing density, he said, intensified with the completion of Interstate 66 in the 1970s. Yet, although the county's population was increasing along transportation routes, Ames said, it began to slip in the areas around them. It was around this time, as America neared its bicentennial, that the Colonial Revival style took hold in Arlington. Brick or brick veneer homes mimicking the style of the revolutionary period sprouted throughout the county. Arlington's suburbs remain a diverse patchwork of historic buildings from many different eras of its history. Ames and local historic preservationists have cautioned that encroaching modern development is costing the county the color and character of its oldest homes and historic buildings.