Swamps and the City of Washington

Swamps and the City of Washington


An H-DC thread, begun on H-Urban; with ancillary material


Cross-post from H-Urban/Arnebeck: 6/22/2001


Wendy Plotkin 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 
Posted by Bob Arnebeck 

While Clay McShane is to be congratulated for his list of web sites about urban history, I hate to see urban mythology creep into it. In describing a site on the history of the Mall in Washington, DC ["The Mall," at http://xroads.virginia.edu/%7ECAP/MALL/chron.html], McShane writes: "Well-illustrated history of the Mall in Washington, D.C. from its days as a swamp to the present including discarded plans."

For the past ten years a number of historians of Washington, DC, have been trying to put to rest the idea that the city was built on a swamp. The Mall in particular was not a swamp, though it did have a river with a tidal flow next to it (where today's Constitution Avenue runs). As I read the web site in question, it does not suggest that the area was originally a swamp.

The City of Washington, like every other US city founded in the 17th and 18th centuries along tidewater, did have low ground. But the knee jerk association of Washington with a swamp, on a list on urban history, does a disservice, unless we all want to join forces and begin talking about the New York swamp, and the Philadelphia swamp, and the Baltimore swamp, etc. It bears remembering that to many Europeans in the 18th century all of America was a swamp.

Bob Arnebeck Independent scholar Wellesley Island, NY

Cross-Post from H-Urban/Mcshane & Kolb: 6/22/2001 
Author's Subject: Re: WWW: "The Mall" and "Swamp" Beginnings of D.C.
1) Posted by Clay Mcshane 


Technically, Bob Arnebeck is correct. Its probably more correct to describe it as a tidal marsh, rather than a swamp. Readers can judge this for themselves. I suggest looking at the following: 

At the mall site: 
At American Memory: 
http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/map_item.pl?data=/home/www/data/gmd/gmd385/g3851/g3851a/pm001090.sid&style=gmd&itemLink=D?gmd:13:./temp/~ammem_ZRLp::@@mdb=eaa,aap,aaeo,rbaapcbib,aasm,ftvbib,aaodyssey,hh,gottscho,mharendt,bbpix,bbcards,magbell,lbcoll,rbpebib,calbkbib,tccc,lhbcbbib,cwband,gmd,cwar,cola,consrvbib,bdsbib,coolbib,coplandbib,curt,dag,musdibib,fsaall,papr,aep,papr,papr,fine,dcm,cmns,flwpabib,afcreed,cowellbib,toddbib,lomaxbib,ngp,raelbib,gottlieb,mtj,alad,gmd,wpa,mal,scsm,mcc,gmd,papr,gmd,aipn,papr,ncpm,ncpsbib,omhbib,gmd,pan,vv,wpapos,psbib,pin,presp,lhbprbib,qlt,gmd,ncr,relpet,gmd,papr,papr,dukesm,mussm,mesnbib,denn,amss,fpnas,papr,runyon,wtc,detr,hlaw,lhbumbib,varstg,horyd,mgw,hawp,nawbib,suffrg,papr,nfor&title=The+national+capital, Washington+City,+D.C.+ 

I'd be interested in hearing how other people read those images. 

In passing, I might note that my office in the South End and my home in the West End were once tidal marshes, as was most of Central Boston. Why is that a disservice?

Clay McShane
Department of History
Northeastern University

2) Posted by Carolyn Kolb 

Actually there is an American city founded in the 18th century which indeed had a swamp nearby and which the present city boundaries now enclose -- New Orleans. The city, founded circa 1718, sometimes gets left out of considerations of American 18th century cities (and there are lots of extant records, too), but in this case it has earned a spot!

Carolyn Kolb
University of New Orleans


Jackson: 6/22/2001 
From: Wendy Plotkin 
Author's Subject: Re: WWW: "The Mall" and "Swamp" Beginnings of D.C.
Posted by Kenneth Terry Jackson 


I do not remember if I remember correctly, but did not the powerful speaker of the house, Joseph Cannon of Illinois, or something to that effect, say that he would die and go to hell before he would allow a monument to the Great Emancipator be built in that "God-Damned Swamp." 

[Ed: See 
the Washington Post January 4, 1991 article "How 1902's City of Tomorrow Became the Capital of Today" (by Benjamin Forgey) at 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/local/2000/city0104.htm the Newshouse News Service story "Memorial Sprawl Spurs Ban on More Construction on National Mall" at 
and PRESERVATION's "The Brawl on the Mall" (January, February, 2001) at 
with accounts of House Speaker Cannon's opposition to the placement of the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington mall. 
See also the National Park Service's history of the Lincoln Memorial at 
with reference to the "swampy area along the Potomac River" filled to create Potomac Park. 

In other words, the association of DC with a swamp is not recent. And the mall seems almost below the level of the Potomoc. And isn't the term swamp associated with the water table and humidity rather than the proximity to a river?

I have heard New York and Philadelphia called many things over the years, but never swamps. New Orleans and Houston are also said to be built in swampy country. I say this by way of a question and not as an indication that I know what I am talking about.

Ken Jackson
Columbia University


Arnebeck & Abbott: 6/21/2001 
From: Wendy Plotkin 
Author's Subject: Re: WWW: "The Mall" and "Swamp" Beginnings of D.C.
[Ed: This posting includes responses from Bob Arnebeck, who initiated the discussion, and Carl Abbott, author of POLITICAL TERRAIN: WASHINGTON, D.C., FROM TIDEWATER TOWN TO GLOBAL METROPOLIS (Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Pr., 1999) ]


1) Posted by Bob Arnebeck 
The Mall itself was never a tidal marsh. It was bordered on the north by Tiber Creek which ebbed and flowed with the tides leaving exposed mud. 

Clay McShane is to be commended for pulling together those maps of Washington for us, but the best way to get a sense of what the Mall was is simply to walk down from Mall to Constitution Avenue, cross Constitution Avenue, walk along the level to Pennsylvania Avenue and then up the hill to F Street. 

[Ed: The modern map at 

may be useful to those who are not familiar with the geography of Washington, D.C. ] 

The problem area in terms of drainage was north of Constitution Avenue, originally Tiber Creek, and south of Pennsylvania Avenue. 

The next walk to take is down from Capitol Hill to the Botanical Garden. Here is where the canal, which Tiber Creek was to become, turned south and took advantage of the drainage of St. James Creek to continue as a canal to the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. You can still sense the rising land as you walk up from the Botanical Garden to the Mall. The extension of the Mall which goes from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial was open river in the 1790s. As with many rivers, farming upstream led to silting below the fall line. While President John Quincy Adams swam a few yards from the foot of the White House Grounds, past the point formed where the Tiber met the Potomac and continued to the Virginia shore, that feat soon became problematical. 

The map on the Mall web site to look at is Robert King's 1818 map: 

From that it is easy to see the problematical low ground, which still is not properly called a swamp or marsh. Originally the Mall was probably forested, then became farm fields, then old fields. I think the best way to describe the web site about it is to say that the site describes how L'Enfant's plans for the undeveloped fields west of the Capitol began a process which resulted in the tourist park we have today. 

I searched the Mall web site for the use of the words "swamp" and "marsh" and found neither. Use of those words to describe the web site are a disservice because they immediately raise two questions: why did Washington site the capital on a swamp or marsh? and what engineering measures were taken to develop the swamp or marsh? The questions raise false issues and get students well off on the wrong foot when they try to understand the development of Washington, D.C. 

The chief attraction of the site to Washington and others was its combination of several points of easily developed high ground combined with a commodious and protected harbor along the Anacostia River. L'Enfant did not place the Mall where he did with the idea that placing his most significant avenue there would prompt drainage and development, nor was it a long range plan. As I read his letters, he first wanted to terrace the Capitol grounds which would have shown the significance of the Grand Avenue (the Mall) where he envisioned the palatial residences of ambassadors and perhaps a grand theatre, all to be in place within ten years which even he would have realized was impossible if the area was marsh or swampland. 

Finally, we never are sure what the uses of history will be. What Clay McShane has written might prompt a developer with an eye on some wetlands, to point to the Mall as a living example of what wonderful things can be done once a wetland is bulldozed over. It would not be the first example of Americans claiming as a birthright some myth perpetrated by historians.

Bob Arnebeck

2) Posted by Carl Abbott 

In evaluating the swampiness of early Washington, it is important to differentiate between the original site and land created later in the city's development.

The original site was carefully chosen to be dry land -- Capitol Hill and the lands sloping south and southeast toward the Eastern Branch of the Potomac (Anacostia River); the White House on another piece of high ground, the land that rose northward from the route of Pennsylvania Avenue. Tourists who hike around Washington still encounter this topography. South of Pennsylvania Avenue, and roughly parallel to the northern edge of the modern Mall, ran Tiber Creek, which drained low lands that can also still be perceived in the area between Union Station and the Capitol. The creek was originally navigable by small boats but gradually silted up over time, turning into an unpleasant backwater.

The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and Tidal Basin are the result of engineering efforts a century and more after the founding of the city. One of the results of extensive agricultural and mining development in the Potomac drainage area upstream from Washington was erosion and the washing of substantial amounts of soil downstream. Some of this soil settled out as the river's current slowed below its falls -- that is, right in front of Washington. By the 1880s or so, substantial mud flats had accreted in front of the original site. It was these flats that were engineered and beautified into the contemporay waterfront. 

It is also worth noting that Bladensburg, Maryland developed in the mid-18th century as a tobacco port at the head of navigation on the Anacostia River. Erosion resulting from heavy tobacco cultivation also silted up the Anacostia, turning Bladensburg into an inland town. 

Carl Abbott
Portland State University


Simon: 6/22/2001 
From: tony.simon@ncpc.gov 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

One strand of the "swamp" correspondence discusses Rep. Cannon's reference to the Lincoln Memorial site as a swamp, with the suggestion that this early-20th-Century comment tells us something about the original conditions of the area (more than we'd sense from looking today).

But I'd note that the conditions of this area changed very much between L'Enfant's time and Cannon's time. In addition to ongoing silting that another writer mentioned, there was also the river dredging in the late 19th Century , which dumped much river-bottom mud in this area. This newly-made land wasn't really shaped (or built upon with temporary buildings) until the 1910s. So in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the harsh descriptions may well have been justified -- but this doesn't tell us the area's character in the 1790s.

Tony Simon

Eig: 6/22/2001 
From: Emily Eig 
List Editor: H-DC Editor

If my memory serves me correctly there is a circa 1920-22(?)photograph of the Lincoln Memorial (looking from the Mall towards Virginia)that would indicate a watery setting for that monument. Perhaps that is what Mr. Cannon was referring to when he made his remarks years earlier?

Emily Hotaling Eig
EHT Traceries, Inc.

Eig: 6/23/2001 
From: Emily Eig 
List Editor: H-DC Editor

The 1884(?) Sachse map of "The National Capital Washington DC (see Reps, Washington On View, p.213) shows the watery area (i.e. the Potomac River)beyond (to the west and southwest of) the Washington Monument. At this area, the map is labeled "Line of the Plan for the Reclamation of the Potomac Flats." Upon seeing this map, Rep. Cannon's exclamation (regarding the area beyond the Washington Monument not the Mall) makes a lot of sense.

An undated photo showing this area, owned by the National Park Service, is published in An Illustrated History of The City of Washington (Junior League of Washington,pp.348-49) is captioned using Rep Cannon's famous "quote." The photo is quite persuasive as to the questionable appearance of this area at the time (probably 1920s)when the Memorial was new.

Emily Hotaling Eig
EHT Traceries, Inc.

Richards: 6/22/2001 
From: Mark David Richards 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

Tobias Lear wrote "Observations on the River Potomack, the Country Adjacent, and the City of Washington," published by Samuel Aloudon and Son, NY, 1793, reprinted in the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 8, 1905, pps. 117-140.

He wrote, "... the President fixed upon the spot upon which the city has since been laid out, as the most proper for erecting the public buildings which are authorized to be prepared by the foregoing act. ...The whole area of the City consists of upwards of four thousand acres. -The ground, on an average, is about forty feet above the water of the river. Although the whole, when taken together, appears to be nearly a level spot, yet it is found to consist of what may be called wavy land; and is sufficiently uneven to give many very extensive and beautiful views from various parts of it, as well as to effectually answer every purpose of cleaning and draining the city. Two creeks enter the City, one from the eastern branch, the other from the Potomack, and take such directions as to be made to communicate with each other by a short canal. -By this means a water transportation, for heavy articles, is opened into the heart of the City. No place has greater advantages of water, either for the supply of the City or for cleansing the streets, than this ground. The most obvious force is from the head waters of a creek which separates the City from George-Town. -This creek takes its rise in ground higher than the City, and can readily be conveyed to every part of it. -But the grand object for this purpose, which has been contemplated by those best acquainted with the country hearabouts, and the circumstances attending it, and which has been examined with an eye to this purpose, by good judges, is the Potomack. The water of this river above the Great Falls, 14 miles from the city, is one hundred and eight feet higher than the tide-water. ..."

Perhaps Lear was exaggerating the benefits of the area for the federal city to drum up support, but he obviously didn't focus the least bit of attention on problems associated with standing water, rotting trees, or swamps that would need to be filled to make the venture successful. To say the capital was built on a swamp is a very different statement than to say the capital was built in an area with many advantages related to water ...

Lear predicted that the arrangement made with local landowners for establishing the federal city in this area would make Washington residents "forever free from a heavy tax, which is unavoidable in other large cities" The landowners early on felt there would be significant benefits also, such as never having to pay for street maintenance since those lands were given to the feds ("public"), so he wasn't the only one to be so optimistic!

Constance McLaughlin Green's description of the canal linking the Potomac to the Eastern Branch (Congressional sewers draining into it, etc.) causes me to think maybe "the swamp" was created after Congress arrived !?! The swamp imagery may also have related to "stigma effects" put on locals by those coming from other areas ("this area was NOTHING until the federal government made it into something valuable!"). I'll admit that on some hot humid summer days when the air is so thick I can see it, I feel I am living in a swamp!

Cheers, Mark Richards

Richards: 6/23/2001 
From: Mark David Richards 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

I was asked a question about Green's description... here are some excerpts...

In Green's book "Washington: Village and Capital 1800-1878," in the chapter on the "Jacksonian 'Revolution' and After," Green writes about growing health problems associated with faulty drainage and the muggy heat of summer ... she wrote, "The swampy stretches along the Washington Canal had become such an obvious menace to health in the 1820's that the city fathers begged the federal government to let them use any money derived from sales of publicly owned lots to drain the area. Congress ignored the plea. In the summer of 1832 an epidemic of Asiatic cholera took heavy toll, first among workmen on the C&O Canal and the laborers engaged in laying the water mains for government buildings and then among citizens generally. The board of health did what it could, forbidding the importation of fresh fruits and vegetables, 'abolishing' hog sties within the city limits during the emergency, prohibiting public entertainments, and annulling licenses to sell liquor for ninety days. The only treatment physicians prescribed was bleeding, doses of calomel, and abstention from all stimulants. City funds and private subscriptions provided a staff of doctors and three temporary hospitals in rented houses, but for weeks the 'dead carts' made the rounds every morning while the mournful sound of drivers' horns and the call 'Bring out the dead' echoed in the streets."

Later in the chapter "The City and the Hill," she writes, "While looking forward to the introduction of acqueduct water, officials made no preparations for a city-wide system of sanitary sewers. Certainly the scheme the federal government had introduced provided no useful model. The sewers from the Capitol emptied underground near the brow of the Hill and from there drained harmlessly down toward the Mall, but the sewage from the White House and the departmental offices nearby debouched in the low-lying ground between the Executive Mansion and the canal; what is today the Ellipse thus became a fetid marsh. The later extension of the pipes to discharge into the canal was a very minor improvement. From the Patent Office and Post Office the sewers fed into a branch of the Tiber Creek that cut between 9th and 10th Streets and emptied into the canal. In that shallow waterway the sewage which had been carried out into the river at ebb tide was washed back in at high. Accumulated sediment at times stopped the flow altogether and turned the canal into a stagnating open cesspool." ... Alexander "Boss" Shepherd took care of the problem once and for all after the Civil War ... :) Speaking of which, the remnants of the canal (stone pillars) that are along Constitution Avenue don't look terribly durable... hope we don't let these decay too much.
Mark Richards 

LaRoche: 6/23/2001 
From: "George S. LaRoche" 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 


There are two entirely independent reasons to lay this urban legend in its grave. 

First, there is the historical fact that there was no actual swamp here. Some people may not discern the difference between a tidal marsh and a swamp, but there are differences and there's no reason to ignore them because they might seem "small" to casual observers. As John Adams said, "facts are stubborn things," and these facts cannot and should not be discarded. 

Second, the alleged physical "swampiness" of "the District" has been used more as a way to attack or condemn either the federal government, the local government, and/or the District itself -- which means as well the people here -- than it has been used as a way of describing the geography of the District. 

Joe Cannon's remark, in the context in which it was made, is more an attack on putting the monument in the vicinity of what he saw as political corruption than it was an attack on putting it on physically wet ground. Joe Cannon wasn't stupid and it's probable that he knew a swamp might be drained and wet land made dry, so why take such an extreme position, if "wet ground" was all he thought was at stake? 

Maybe Congress is properly described as a "swamp" and maybe local government of the District has been through "swampy" periods, but the real sting of these attributions hurts not Congress and not the local government -- it hurts the half million people who live in the District, most of whom have little or nothing to do with the federal government and almost none of whom have any power to change it. When some pundit in Birmingham, Alabama (to pick a place at random) slams "that swamp, the District of Columbia," you can bet that the pundit is really after Congress, but thousands of people who have nothing to do with Congress and who have less power to do something about it than the good citizens of Alabama (who, after all, vote for Senators and Representatives, unlike those of D.C.) are swept up into the slander. This tendency to take all who reside within the boundaries of the District as co-conspirators in whatever foibles can be laid at Congress' feet is no small part of the reason the people of the District are still prevented from exercising their political rights. Thus, whether the District ever was a swamp or not, the attribution is still damaging because most of those making it are less concerned with recounting history than they are interested in making political points, even at the expense of innocent people.

George LaRoche


Kraft: 6/23/2001 
From: WeLiveInDC@aol.com 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 


The stone pillars along Constitution Avenue are not remnants of the canal, but former capitol gateposts. The following is from the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites:

U.S. Capitol, Bulfinch Gatehouses and Gateposts On Constitution Avenue at 7th, 15th, and 17th Streets, NW Former gate structures of the Capitol, built in 1814 at the foot of the west Capitol grounds; part of the reconstruction of the Capitol after the War of 1812; designed to harmonize with the building’s basement story; generally attributed to Charles Bulfinch, architect in charge of the restoration; removed 1874, reconstructed at present locations in 1880; restored 1940; two one-room gatehouses of rusticated Aquia sandstone; classical facades in the style of Roman Triumphal arches with Doric columns, arched doorways, guilloche frieze, and heavily foliated scroll of acanthus leaves and rosettes; four rusticated gateposts similar, topped with acanthus motifs and volutes; DC listing 11/8/64, NR listing 11/30/73;

Regarding swamps: enough already! Joe Cannon was a politician making a point, not a purveyor of truth. I knew the swamp myth was out of control when, as a tour guide, I took a group of people to the National Cathedral, where the docent, at some 380 feet above the Potomac, went on about how "Washington was built on a swamp." 

Let's all agree never to whisper the s-word again and this nasty myth will disappear.

Brian Kraft

Ogilvie, Fletcher, Pitch, Bowling: 6/24/2001 
From: H-DC Editor

[a few more wading in--Ed.] 

Don't neglect the ca. 100 acre swamp at DuPont Circle, "Slash Run Swamp." 

Phil Ogilvie


I'm sorry, but it's too early to put the baby to bed. This may not be a myth. Pardon me for bringing an Attorney General into the fray but here's A-G Richard Rush writing to John Adams, 5 Sept. 1814 (see Richard Rush Papers, Library of Congress): 

The city was still ..."a meagre village, a place with a few bad houses and extensive SWAMPS." (my caps). 

anthony pitch


Re: the suggestion that we never whisper the s(wamp) word again, and it will disappear. 

There was a recommendation, recently made at this site, that it might be a good idea to compile all the baseless legends of local history that deserve to die but won't. The Built On A Swamp Myth would surely enjoy pride of place in such a collection. 

A writer with the calling to do good, could probably turn such a wealth of material into many newspaper feature articles. 

Repeating the facts, at frequent intervals, to the widest possible audience, is probably the only chance you have to kill a cherished myth. 

Carlton Fletcher


Yes, the myth is a nineteenth century one. And early at that if Bob Arnebeck is correct. He once told me that he thought it started with the petitions to Congress from local residents requesting services. They painted the conditions as badly as they could. 
Though certainly some of you electobibliomaniacs could go word searching and start a record of the use of the word "swamp" for The City of Washington," or rather the area of the original city of Washington.

Ken Bowling


Dante: 6/25/2001 
From: "Mary L. Dante" 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

When Bob Arnebeck first wrote that DC was never a swampy area, I was puzzled because it seemed to fly in the face of the direct experience of members of my family.

My grandmother (b. 1874) remembered Tiber Creek as an open sewer producing a foul odor. My father always said that Potomac Park,the Mall, and National Airport were built on "made land" because the areas had once been below the level of the Potomac River. And many buildings in downtown DC, he said, have sump pumps in their basements or sub-basements because they are below the level of the water table.

In addition, we have the complaints of foreign diplomats, such as Augustus John Foster, secretary to the British ambassador, who wrote home in 1805 about the "sweltering city" from which residents of Washington escaped, if possible, during the summer. This aspect of Washington has not changed.

I think the post of Carl Abbott goes far towards explaining why it is that Bob Arnebeck denies the appellation, and why it is that others insist on it. They are speaking of different eras in the history of the city. Perhaps "swamp" is not the proper technical terminology, but it is what the ordinary citizen might have called the conditions near the River.

Old pictures (drawings & paintings) of the city do indicate that before the trees were cut down to build the houses and shops, this was a forested area. And before the rivers silted up, the tidal marshes could well have been described by the "laity" as swamps.

The heat, the humidity, the transformation of the Ellipse area into a "fetid marsh" by its de facto use as a septic field for the White House, the silted up areas, the dredging and the mudflats, the malaria and yellow fever, probably combined to give Washington the reputation of being a swamp, both among its own citizens and its visitors, and by politicians with something to gain by so describing it.

Mary L. Dante 

LaRoche: 6/25/2001 
From: "George S. LaRoche" 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

At the risk of beating a dead horse (but because our editor is compiling a list of considerations about the "swamp myth") . . . 

None of the conditions which Ms. Dante lists are present in the early District (heat, humidity, transformation of the Ellipse area into a "fetid marsh" by its use as a septic field for the White House, silted up areas, dredging of mudflats, malaria, or yellow fever) were particular to swampts. In fact, in the middle of a large swamp such as those which run (and more ran) down the coast of South Carolina and into Georgia, it's actually cooler than outside the swamp and there is less risk of malaria because there are fewer mosquitoes because there are fewer warm-blooded animals for them to dine upon. Malaria and yellow fever were not uncommon in all cities when the District was in its infancy, and a poorly laid out septic field is always going to be a stinking mess. 

Our forebears, who lived closer to the land and closer to the natural conditions of the land (not having air conditioning and all the other amenities of modern life to insulate them from those natural conditions) certainly had a more finely attuned sense of the quality and condition of a piece of land than we do today. But like us, they were less inclined to always speak the strict truth than they were to speak in whatever terms would shape the response of their audience to their ends. So when diplimats wrote home about the terrible conditions in the District, they wanted their governments to take pity on them and recall them or send them to more popular posts. And when a politician referred to some aspect of the District, it probably had more to do with the politician's agenda than with the facts of the situation. 

So we need to study whatever evidence there is of what was here, physically, apart from these representations, and I gather that this evidence shows tidal marshes, mud flats, shoals, some scattered small bogs, and lots and lots of very nice, gently rolling wooded land with fairly good dark topsoil. 

Also, recall that George Washington worked hard to make sure that the jewel in his crown of achievements would be a grand and wonderful city, drawing people and attention from all corners; I seriously doubt he would have started it off to those ends in the middle of a swamp. 

George S. LaRoche



Cormeny: 6/25/2001 
From: Sara Cormeny 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

A lot of the discussion on this topic seems to have rested on the technical/scientific definition of a swamp; I'd like to submit that the fact that Washington may not rest on an ecologically-correct "swamp" does not mean we can't say it replaced "swampy ground" which, essentially, makes it a swamp from the perspective if the non-scientists in the room.

In what way might observers realistically have called the land around the mall a "swamp" in certain seasons at a certain point in history?

- it was sufficiently muddy and mucky that a person could not safely/comfortably walk across it; a swamp, to many people, is that odd space between solid ground and body of water.

- the fetid smell was distinctive -- stagnant water is a frequent feature of (ecologically-correct) swamps, and whether the stench came from human and animal waste or vegetable stagnation, it probably amounted to the same nasty olfactory experience.

- it was (and is) absurdly hot and humid in the summertime compared to most of the rest of the mid-Atlantic, and therefore reminiscent of the southern US swamps and swamp surroundings like those around New Orleans and in central Florida, which some visitors knew by first-hand experience or reputation.

Webster's defines a swamp first by comparison to other wet, forested locations, "A seasonally flooded bottomland with more woody plants than a marsh and better drainage than a bog." (I leave you to look up marshes and bogs yourselves). Webster's also gives a broad secondary definition that seems to qualify it in DC's 19th-century incarnation: "A lowland region saturated with water." (http://www.dictionary.com/cgi-bin/dict.pl?term=swamp)

So I would submit that rather than "debunking the myth" that Washington was built on a swamp, we can actually "contribute to the understanding" of the environmental state of Washington and how it changed over time. Certainly we can point to a period when non-scientists would objectively react "yuck, what a swamp!" when confronted with the state of the land between the Capitol and the White House -- and political correctness aside, why should this not be enough to invite a deeper understanding of why many say Washington was built on a swamp, rather than a stern corrective on the topic?

>From a "psychological history" perspective, it's interesting to observe that the three factors of swampiness noted above adversely affect people, but not plants or animals -- and it's people, after all, who get to do the defining. Has there been a genuine shift in what people might call a "swamp," given greater ecological sensitivity achieved at the greater distance from nature that almost all of us live in today, or would the same circumstances still prompt the quick designation "swamp" from most people?

>From a "history of science" perspective, has the nomenclature and its specificity changed over time? Could you have correctly and accurately called th Mall area a "swamp" 150 or 200 years ago, or has this always been an scientifically "inaccurate" way to describe the area? It seems that this argument that the swamp is a historical "myth" relies on the notion that a scientific definition trumps a non-scientific definition, and in our technologically-obsessed age that may be the case. But assuming scientists had bothered to define these not-solid-ground, not-body-of-water areas with any precision at that time, and assuming that calling DC a "swamp" would have been considered a travesty at the time, would anybody have cared?

As for "swamps" that are not swamps, I point you to: "Congaree Swamp Monument," which "rests on a floodplain of the Congaree River and is not a true swamp ," http://www.nps.gov/cosw/ . This news, if taken seriously by the swamp-naysayers, could be fatal to the reputation of Francis Marion, a military leader dubbed "Swamp Fox" by the British against whom he fought in 1780 -- the name he got because he retreated to the "swamps" around Charleston where the British couldn't /wouldn't follow (probably because they were smelly and mucky, and absurdly hot if you're in full military dress of the era). The "Great Swamp" of New Jersey, "actually a mixture of Marshland, Meadowland, dry Woodland and brush-covered Swampland" (http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/8665/about.html). So perhaps we can be reassured that while people say Washington was built on a swamp, we didn't actually get any closer to officially calling any area of the city a swamp inaccurately -- more than South Carolina or New Jersey can claim! 

Sara Cormeny * web site designer 

Scott: 6/25/2001 
From: Willow Bend Books 
List Editor: H-DC Editor

Quote from Joseph Martin, A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia and the District of Columbia, (1835; reprint Westminster, Maryland: Willow Bend Books, 2000), 472: 

"The composition of the city low grounds, lying below the hights, from the Capitol to Halorama and to the margin of the Potomac, are alluyial, and appear to have been reclaimed but recently. 

Within the memory of many now living, seines have been hauled, and fish taken, where handsome stores now stand, in the part of Pennsylvania Avenue in which most business is now carried on, namely - between 9th and 10th streets. 

The extent of the marshes below Columbia College bears evidence that a part of the stream of Rock creek once found its way across towards the Eastern Branch, along the foot of the hights which flank the northern part of Washington. 

By judicious draining these swamps have been recently limited to a comparatively small space, but their existence has still an injurious effect upon the health of the inhabitants residing in their vicinity. This fact is clearly established by the improvement of the health of all situated in the vicinity of the low grounds from the centre market to Capitol Hill." 

Craig R. Scott, CGRS

Arnebeck & McMahon: 6/25/2001 
List Editor: Wendy Plotkin 
Author's Subject: Re: WWW: "The Mall" and "Swamp" Beginnings of D.C. 


1) Posted by Bob Arnebeck 

In a message dated 6/20/01 9:00:30 AM Eastern Daylight Time, Kenneth Terry Jackson writes: 

<< I have heard New York and Philadelphia called many things over the years, but never swamps. >> 

The point I am trying to make is that during their founding and growth both New York and Philadelphia had to contend with swamps and marshes. Let us suppose, for example, that Philadelphia had tried to persuade Congress to stay by immediately expanding so that, like Washington City, it could have long shorelines along two rivers and offer, like Washington, thousands of undeveloped lots to speculators with which to raise money to build a magnificent capital. And so it annexed all the land south of the city to the confluence of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. That would still have made it, I think, a bit smaller than the City of Washington, and certainly that newly expanded Philadelphia would have a great deal of marsh land. 

Of course, Philadelphia of the 18th century did have to deal with low ground in its midst. The covering of Dock Creek was heralded as a guarantee of a healthy city. And then the yellow fever epidemics hit. By 1793 Philadelphia had both a busy enough port and enough alleys crowded with poor people so that yellow fever's origin and spread could be blamed on that. But subsequent epidemics, occurring after those areas were cleaned up, caused some to worry that the marshes south of the city were to blame, just as, after a 1780 Dengue Fever epidemic, Benjamin Rush blamed an increase in fevers on the British for cutting the trees south of the city that protected citizens from the noxious air coming from "the Neck," as the area between Southwark and the confluence of the rivers was called. 

Again, reports on the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s (the founding decade of the City of Washington) helps us pinpoint the swampy ground of New York City. Dr. Elihu H. Smith began his report on the epidemic (published by Noah Webster in "A Collection of Papers on the Subject of Bilious Fever, Prevalent in the United States for a Few Years Past," 1796) by describing the area where the fever was most prevalent. This is a fine piece of writing but I'll only quote a brief sentence to demonstrate my point. Smith wrote: "Much of the ground, in the northern part of this district [from "Long Island ferry to Mr. Rutger's"], is swampy, and abounds with little pools and puddles of stagnant water." Also, early maps of New York City denote an area of "marshy ground" north of the Commons. 

And thanks to Carl Abbott for his insights. I too have written a book, which is still in print: THROUGH A FIERY TRIAL: BUILDING WASHINGTON 1790-1800 (Madison Books, 1991). Kenneth Bowling's THE CREATION OF WASHINGTON D.C.: THE IDEA AND LOCATION OF THE AMERICAN CAPITAL (George Mason U. Press, 1993) also discusses the swamp myth. 

Bob Arnebeck

2) Posted by Michal McMahon

I too appreciated the maps provided by Clay McShane, buy could not readily make out a "swamp" from them. Still, I don't doubt that early Washingtonians used the term "swamp." In response to Ken Jackson's statement, "I have heard New York and Philadelphia called many things over the years, but never swamps," the first settlers in Philadelphia persisted for several decades in labeling the small tidal cove a swamp. This was where Penn and others pulled off the Delaware and landed at the Blue Anchor Tavern. Almost as early, it was called the Dock and later Dock Creek. By 1700, it was described as "an ornament" to the city; around mid-century, Benjamin Franklin sat on a Common Council committee charging with working out a design for restoring it. Before any Europeans had a name for it, the Indians called it the Coocanocon. 

For more on Philadelphia's swamp, see my essay, "'Publick Service' versus 'Mans Properties': Dock Creek and the Origins of Urban Technology in 18th-Century Philadelphia," in J. McGaw, ed., EARLY AMERICAN TECHNOLOGY (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1994). 

Finally, growing up in south Louisiana, I early learned the difference between a marsh and a swamp. Marshes were a kind of open, if watery, country and swamps were covered with cypress trees, in the base of which often lived families of raccoons. I remember joining others to surround such a cypress in the spring, then routing out a family of raccoons and catching baby coons to take home as pets. I wouldn't feel right doing that now, fifty years later, but I participated then with great enthusiasm. 

Michal McMahon
Department of History
West Virginia University


Levey: 6/25/2001 
From: "Levey, Jane" 
List Editor: H-DC Editor

Having enjoyed everyone's postings on the swamp issue, I'd like to echo George LaRoche's take. I'd also like to suggest that the "swamps" were probably situational. That is, at various times large stands of trees and vegetation were cleared for development that didn't happen quickly enough during the city's first 60 years or so. The occasional, widespread patches of bare ground (as well as the unpaved streets) made for marvelous puddles when the weather dictated them, and I would suggest that this was part of the origin of the various "swamp" descriptions.

Jane Freundel Levey

Smith: 6/26/2001 
A swamp is characterized by the presence of trees, a marsh is usually associated with a river or inlet and mainly has grass

Beyond this is the considerable metaphorical difference between the two - lots of bad things happen in swamps whereas marshes are generally regard as far more kindly places.

We had/have marshes and not swamps. . ..

but good luck at trying to convince folks otherwise

sam smith

Lowe: 6/26/2001 
To the editor: It seems that many people who read this list interpret swamp to be a derogatory term rather than a merely descriptive one. I had always thought that a swamp was a fresh-water wetland and a marsh was a salt-water one. Either could be tidal or not. Are there any limnologists out there who could discuss this for us? And how do swamps and marshes differ from fens or morasses?

No matter what one calls it, we must all agree that Washington had extensive wetlands of varying degrees of beauty and smell.

John Lowe

Ogilvie: 6/26/2001 
I guess I have to stick my oar in again. I seem to remember discussing the meaning of swamp in Washington History some years ago. As I remember Dr. Johnson said that it was a word derived from Amerindians and meant land too wet to plow. Today we distinguish marsh from swamp primarily on the basis of the presence of trees in the latter. And, of course, their is a whole classification system for wetlands. It seems pointless to try to apply twentieth-century definitions to eighteenth-century concepts. Surely, we can all agree on the fact that there was a great deal of wet land in the federal city.

Phil Ogilvie

Docktor: 6/26/2001 
I was once told that the angle formed by a line from the White House to the Washington Monument to the Capitol was to be a right angle. However, swampy ground forced the Washington Monument to be offset to the east.

John W. Docktor
jdocktor@cyberia.comv Washington Map Society: http://www.washmap.org/

Clarke: 6/28/2001 
Is it true that the Washington Monument was not built on the site of the Jefferson Stone -- the site which marks the exact cross point between the Jefferson Memorial, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Capitol -- because that site was considered not stable enough since it lay on reclaimed swamp land? 
--Suzanne Clarke

Scott: 6/28/2001 

Webster's dictionary defines swamp as "wet spongy land." The word swamp was a perfectly good word in the 17th,18th and 19th century, when the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia was aptly named. But a swamp is something you want to go out and drain, which is what the Army Corp of Engineers did to the Potomac and Anacostia lowlands around DC from about 1889 to 1912. Then came the environmental movement which strived for the sanctity of wetlands, as well as the post modern "deconstruction" movement which seeks to cleanse and launder language. So the old word swamp just would not do. Something more politically correct like marsh or wetlands replaced swamp, just as "hearing impaired" replaced the old unsavory "deaf and dumb." People who study history should remember that in other eras words often had differing connotations and meanings. 
Gary Scott 

Becker: 6/26/2001 
From: H-DC Editor 

I rather enjoy this discussion about swamps vs. marsh. I would like to share wth you an alternative interpretation, open to discussion and to debate. Let me suggest that almost every marshy/swampy description of Washington, DC, is actually a statement about the city's environmental quality. Most of the which describe a Washington as sickly and rather unhealthy. And though this state of morass is attributed to the natural feature of a swamp or marsh, I assert that - the ill health is - in fact created by the society. There have been times in the past when this area has suffered from ecological shock. Literally reeling from the devastating impact of a rapidly concentrating population, who, from lack of knowledge and greed create periodic environmental crisis and disasters. here's a few examples--just as a starting point for the discussions--perhaps those reading this will come up with other examples.

1) This area, once teaming with wild life was devastated by the onslaught of gun totting settlers.

2) Deforestation. The original old growth forest was burned to make way for plantations, cut for firewood, construction and export trade. There is hardly any original old growth left anywhere in the region.

3) Tobacco growing, which was the regions primary cash crop up until the late 1700's, ruined the soil.

4) Slavery contributed to environmental plunder and over consumption. Rather then build modest energy efficient homes, - it was cheaper and easier to have an enslaved American of African descent, cut more wood, continually stoke the fire day and night, clear more land, build bigger, and plant more.

5) Fires for cooking and heating, especially in the city, contributed to poor air quality and illness.

6) Before plumbing, the settlers stayed close to the rivers and creeks. Early industries, used that same water for industry and power, Dams interfered with fish migration. Early industrial pollution from plaster mills, and tanneries along with human and animal waste - were dumped directly into the water. By the 1830's what had once been an abundant supply of fish were no more. Those who drank the water in some creeks and rivers became ill - many died.

Eddie Becker 

Richards; 6/27/2001 
From: Mark David Richards 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 


It isn't hard to agree that there were marshy lands along parts of the river and along creeks (some of this land is still there today).

Maybe it is more accurate to say THE MALL in front of the White House and Capitol was built on a large stream that was marshy along the edges, and though there were no trees standing in water, many considered it a swamp? Goose Creek, apparently called Tiber Creek by a fellow named Pope who called his land Rome, ran from the front of where the mishmash of highways and the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery are today to it looks like about 7th Street, in front of the Capitol ... most of the mall... (The District/Wilson Building sits on piles on the clay of the Tiber...). The "Tiber" was apparently a substantial body of water, probably didn't flow to well, wasn't too deep ... ran into the St. James Creek east of the Capitol (Canal Street?), which went west beside Carrollsburg and into the Eastern Branch.

Here is an account by Albert J. Beveridge in his "Life of John Marshall," as quoted in "A Manual on the Origin and Development of Washington," by H. Paul Caemmerer, Ph.D. (published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1939 by Senate Resolution No. 280). Was Beveridge describing the "Tiber" as a wide swamp?!

"A strange sight met the eye of the traveler who, aboard one of the little river sailboats of the time, reached the stretches of the sleepy Potomac separating Alexandria and Georgetown. A wide swamp extended inland from a modest hill on the east to a still lower elevation of land about a mile to the west. Between the river and morass a long flat tract bore clumps of great trees, mostly tulip poplars, giving, when seen from a distance, the appearance of a fine park. Upon the hill stood a partly constructed white stone building, mammoth in plan. The slight elevation north of the wide slough was the site of an apparently finished edifice of the same material, noble in its dimension and with beautiful, simple lines, but 'surrounded with a rough rail fence 5 or 6 feet high unfit for a decent barnyard.' From the river nothing could be seen beyond the groves near the banks of the stream except the two great buildings and the splendid trees which thickened into a seemingly dense forest upon the highest ground to the northwest. On landing and making one's way through the underbrush to the foot of the eastern hill, and up the gullies that seamed its sides thick with trees and tangled wild grapevines, one finally reached the immense unfinished structure that attracted attention from the river. Upon its walls laborers were languidly at work. ...

A broad and perfectly straight clearing had been made across the swamp between the eastern hill and the big white house more than a mile away to the westward. In the middle of this long opening ran a roadway, full of stumps, broken by deep mud holes in the rainy season, and almost equally deep with dust when the days were dry. On either border was a path or 'walk' made firm at places by pieces of stone; though even this 'extended but a little way.' Alder bushes grew in the unused spaces of this thoroughfare, and in the depressions stagnant water stood in malarial pools, breeding myriads of mosquitoes. A sluggish stream meandered across this avenue and broadened into the marsh." 

Imagine a construction site after a good rain ... 

Even so, WHEN TALKING ABOUT WASHINGTON CITY OR THE DISTRICT AS A WHOLE ... isn't it more accurate to say the design was laid out or superimposed upon two mapped but mostly undeveloped towns (Hamburgh/Funkstown and Carrollsburgh) and on the land/pastures/plantations/farms/manors/yards/orchards of 19 landowners between Rock Creek and the Eastern Branch, east of Georgetown. The owners had named their lands: Mexico, Widow's Mite, Mount Pleasant, Jamaica, Port Royal, Beall's Levels, Mill Track or Sherwood, Abby Manor, Duddington Pasture, Hop Yard. Retired Naval officers named Mexico, Jamaica, and Port Royal after camps. 

Maybe there is a parallel between people saying "Washington was built on a swamp," (meaning a lot of the Mall/federal area, not most of Washington City or the District) and people saying "Washington is corrupt and out of touch with the rest of America" (meaning "the federal government," rather than District residents). For most, "Washington" is the federal government, a power that touches everyone in the nation. The rest of the District (the non-federal) is inconsequential for most people who do not live here-and is mostly "invisible"!?!

Mark Richards


McShane: 6/28/2001 
List Editor: Wendy Plotkin 

Posted by Clay Mcshane 

Here are the _Oxford English Dictionary_ definitions of swamp and marsh.

Clay McShane
H-Urban WebLinks Editor


1. a. A tract of low-lying ground in which water collects; a piece of wet spongy ground; a marsh or bog. Orig. and in early use only in the N. American colonies, where it denoted a tract of rich soil having a growth of trees and other vegetation, but too moist for cultivation (see quots. 1741, 1766, 1875). 

1624 CAPT. J. SMITH Virginia IV. 163 Some small Marshes and Swamps there are, but more profitable than hurtfull. 1685 PENN Further Acc. Pennsylv. 7 Our Swamps or Marshes yeeld us course Hay for the Winter. 1688 CLAYTON Virginia in Phil. Trans. XVIII. 124 [Musk-rats] build Houses as Beavers do, in the Marshes, and Swamps (as they there call them) by the Water-sides. 1741 P. TAILFER, etc. Narr. Georgia 96 A Swamp is any low watery Place, which is covered with Trees or Canes: They are here of three Sorts, Cypress, River, and Cane Swamps. 1766 STORK Acc. E. Florida 26 note, The word swamp is peculiar to America; it there signifies a tract of land that is sound and good, but by lying low is covered by water. All the forest trees (pine excepted) thrive best in the swamps, where the soil is always rich. 1875 TEMPLE & SHELDON Hist. Northfield, Mass. 21 Swamps.As used by our fathers in the earliest times, this term did not necessarily denote marshy ground; but flat land which from its peculiar location had escaped the ravages of the annual fires set by the Indians, and was covered with an old growth of wood. 


I. 1. a. A tract of low lying land, flooded in winter and usually more or less watery throughout the year. 

c725 Corpus Gloss. (Hessels) C 140 Calmetum, mersc. 971 Blickl. Gloss. 261/1 On s[a]ltne mersc, in salsilaginem. a1250 Owl & Night. 304 Wenestu that haveck bo the worse, Tho crowe bi-grede him bi the mershe? 1382 WYCLIF Gen. xli. 18 Seuen oxen..the which in the pasture of mershe [1388 marreis] the grene leswis cheseden. c1475 Pict. Voc. in Wr.-W=FClcker 796/17 Hoc marescum, a merche. 1523 LD. BERNERS Froiss. I. xviii, There were meruaylouse great marshes and daungerous passages. 1594 SHAKES. Rich. III, V. iii. 345 My Lord, the Enemy is past the Marsh. 1673 TEMPLE Obs. United Prov. Wks. 1731 I. 8 By..the Course of Waters from the higher into lower Grounds..the flat Land grows to be a Mixture of Earth and Water,..which is call'd a Marsh. " 


LaRoche: 6/30/2001 
From: "George S. LaRoche" 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

No one has suggested in this discussion that the word "swamp" is not a perfectly good word to use to describe certain physical places. The question I believe we've been discussing is whether it's accurate to say the Washington was built on or in a swamp. In this regard, I side with those who say "no."

The only original source I've which provides what seems to me to be a description of the vicinity of the City which includes what I understand physical geographers would call a "swamp" was provided by Craig Scott (this list, June 25?), quoting Joseph Martin, A New and Comprehensive Gazetteer of Virginia and the District of Columbia, (1835; reprint Westminster, Maryland: Willow Bend Books, 2000) at 472 (thank you, Mr. Scott), but even this material doesn't describe the "swamp" as being particularly large, certainly not large enough to cover the place where the City of Washington was originally sited.

As for how lay persons use the word swamp, I'm not as familiar with the original work of those writing in the mid-Atlantic colonies/States in the late eighteenth century, as with those writing about Georgia and what became Florida. In all texts I've read, these eighteenth (and seventeenth) century authors were much more likely to label something in the same way as professional physical geographers today would label it than we are today, relatively separated as we are today from the land. And as to "swamp," it was used in particular for LARGE areas, such as the Great Dismal Swamp of Virginia. It was not used to refer to slender strips of land (of less than a mile) bordering a river, howsoever they looked like a swamp.

So the way non-experts might be lax in their use of language seems to be more OUR problem than a problem of those "lay persons" who lived here two hundred years ago. But that doesn't mean that they didn't use terms loosely to heighten their personal or political responses to the situation. Thus, most of what I've seen (apart from the Martin quotation noted above) smacks more of the author's intention to impress the reader with the terrible conditions into which the author has been forced than with an objective desire to describe what's actually here. And yet at the same time, most of these sources, along with Martin, also describe a place with excellent, dry land.

As for what happened between 1889-1912, I've never seen any reference to draining the land, per se, but I have seen many references to filling the land in, which also what happened to make a place for National Airport (recently albeit temporarily renamed something or other). To have dry land after draining it, they would have had to put in a dike along what's now the river bank, for the land was at and below the waterline. But I've come across accounts of trucks and barges being used to bring dry soil and dredged soil to the area -- then called the Potomac Flats -- to raise it above the waterline.

So why is it that this myth persists? Why is it so important to maintain that Washington City was built on a swamp? And why is it that so many people still refer to Washington AS a swamp?

George LaRoche

Schrag: 6/30/2001 
From: "Zachary M. Schrag" 
List Editor: H-DC Editor

>Webster's dictionary defines swamp as "wet spongy land.". . .
>People who study history should
>remember that in other eras words often had differing connotations and

Yes, but we should also recall regional variations. Webster was Connecticut man, who set out to codify the language as spoken at Yale. I attach the Oxford English Dictionary's entry. Note that the 17th and 18th century sources all originate well south of New England and distinguish between marshes and swamps. More recent definitions, such as Webster's and the OED's lead definition, may be the result of increasing unfamiliarity with swamps, and thus their confusion with marshes.


Richards: 6/30/2001
From: Mark David Richards 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

Does anyone know about the accuracy of these descriptions? 

>From "The Avenue of Presidents," by Mary Cable (1969): 

"By the end of the ten-year period allotted by Congress for the creation of the city, Pennsylvania Avenue was still little more than a gash in the landscape. Of the city's 263 private houses - some of brick, more of frame - scarcely a dozen faced the Avenue, and most of these were on the north side. A few lots on the south side had been cleared as lumberyards, but the ground there was low, wet, and swampy, and not an appealing building site. High tide washing into Tiber Creek came to within twenty-feet of the Avenue itself, and storms regularly brought the water clear across it. Receding, the river left catfish in the puddles. When the tide was low, small boys waded about in the Tiber, looking for turtle nests on its reedy banks. Rabbits and squirrels abounded. When the birds were migrating, there were so many wild ducks in the Tiber swamps that a person standing on Pennsylvania Avenue might bring one down with stones. The Mall was a pasture and was generally known as The Commons; people had already forgotten that it was supposed to be (in the words of L'Enfant) 'a public walk ... that will give to the city from the very beginning a superior charm over most of those of the world.' Certainly it is a measure of the optimism of federal America, as well as of the persuasiveness of its leaders, that by 1800 more than 2,500 citizens called this unpromising village home." (pps. 20-22) 

"One stormy night in 1804 (according to this same chronicler), [Christian Hines] the Tiber flooded Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol gate to above 6th Street. A party of workmen who tried to ford the flood found themselves over their heads. 'Some caught hold of and supported themselves by bushes, others by the branches of trees, and others, who were able, climbed them.' Among the crowd that collected was President Jefferson. 'Mr. Jefferson felt such anxiety for these unfortunate men that he offered fifteen dollars for each person saved, and the use of his horse to any one who would make the venture to rescue them, but no one attempted it, and they had to remain in their unenviable positions all night. They could be heard at times calling to each other to know if they were still living and encouraging each other to hold on until day.' Among them was an elderly carpenter named Blewer, whose 'pantaloons were torn nearly from his limbs, the skin rubbed off in attempting to climb a tree or reach a limb, he being so much fatigued that he would slide down again.' At the first light of day, a young man 'carried Mr. Blewer out of the swamp," and collected $15 from the President." (p. 27) 

"By the time of Jefferson's second inauguration, the poplars were flourishing on Pennsylvania Avenue, the drains were working, and enough new homes had been built on both sides so that it was beginning to look something like a street." (p. 28) 

One resident wrote the Washington City Council: "'I find the communications to and from my house intercepted by a ditch adjoining the pavement on Pennsylvania Avenue and by a marsh which fronts me on the East. A carriage, a cart, or a single horse cannot pass from the Avenue to my house. It is even difficult for a person on foot.' (p. 36) 

1819: "Pennsylvania Avenue burgeoned with shops, and although no money was voted for its improvement and the poplars were not doing well, nobody now could deny that it had many of the aspects of a city street. By this time most of the primeval trees in the vicinity of the Avenue had been cut down. Tree-felling was a source of income for industrious woodsmen, who could cut and saw two loads of timber a day, selling the chips and bark for kindling. It was true that L'Enfant's plan necessitated the felling of many large trees, but many that could have been pared were set upon by the poorer inhabitants and used for firewood. 'Beautiful banks of the Tiber! Delightful rambles! Happy hours! How like a dream do ye now appear,' lamented Mrs. Margaret Bayard Smith, a prominent Washingtonian. 'Those trees, those shrubs, those flowers are gone. Man and his works have displaced the charms of nature ... the whole plain was diversified with groves and clumps of forest trees which gave it the appearance of a fine park. such as grew on the public grounds ought to have been preserved, but in a government such as ours, where the people are sovereign, this could not be done." An Englishman who visited the city in 1816 noted how unfortunate it was not to have saved more trees. 'How agreeable would have been their shade along the Pennsylvania Avenue where the dust so often annoys, and the summer sun, reflected from the sandy soil, is so oppressive. The Lombardy poplar, which now supplies their place, serves more for ornament than shelter." (p. 41) 

"L'Enfant had called for connecting Tiber Creek by canal with another creek that debouched into the Eastern Branch below the Navy Yard, but in 1796 the idea had been abandoned as too expensive. However, in 1807 private enterprisers had obtained a charter from Congress permitting a canal from the Eastern Branch to the Tiber at about 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The waterway would enable barges to carry produce to the center of town, particularly to the Center Market, which occupied the area south of Pennsylvania Avenue where the National Archives building now stands. It was opened for business in 1815; however, it was never the stimulating success that its backers had hoped for. It was not deep enough and had to be dredged continually not only for silt but also for refuse dumped into the canal at the Center Market and Fish Market. Meantime, where the Tiber and its tributary creeks crossed Pennsylvania Avenue, substantial wooden bridges had been put up to replace the perilous rough logs of an earlier day. There was no public transportation on the Avenue until 1830. The poor walked, the moderately well-to-do when by hack, and the rich had their own carriages. Nobody, however, was safe from mud, dust, and wind on Pennsylvania Avenue. John Quincy Adams, while he was Secretary of State in the Monroe administration, noted in his diary, 'Our carriage in coming for us was overset, the harness broken. We got home with difficulty, twice being on the point of oversetting, and at the Treasury office we were both obliged to get out in the mud. It was a mercy that we all got home with whole bones.' (pps. 42-43) 

Mark David Richards, Sociologist, mark@bisconti.com 

Hastings: 7/2/2001
List Editor: Wendy Plotkin 
Author's Subject: Re: WWW: "The Mall" and "Swamp" Beginnings of D.C. 


Posted by Dorian Hastings 

New Orleans is definitely built in a swamp! The French Quarter was the only high ground (11 feet above sea level), along with a few criss-crossing ridges following a couple of bayous. 

The earliest maps and records portray it thus. Cypress from the swamps "back of town" were used to build houses in town. Following the French and Indian War, France ceded Louisiana west of the Mississippi to the Spanish--and included New Orleans (which primarily lies EAST of the Mississippi) on the grounds that it was an island. (The English got everything east of the Mississippi.) 

Land along the lakefront (including the University of New Orleans campus) was only drained, filled in, and developed in this century, most of it in the 1920s, and following World War II. 

Any map or history of New Orleans mentions these facts. I use the Works Progress Administration (WPA) state guide for Louisiana [U.S. W.P.A., LOUISIANA: A GUIDE TO THE STATE (New York: 1943)] for quickie reference on such basic facts. 

Any number of maps show the swamp, from Adrian de Pauger's 1724 plat 

[see an on-line version of the plat, at http://lsm.crt.state.la.us/lsmmaps/looker.asp?page=320

to Charles Zimple's wonderful map of 1834 to the Zacharie plat of 1891 in the New Orleans Guide [Workers of the Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Louisiana, compilers; _Louisiana: A Guide to the State_ (New York: Hastings House, Publishers,1941), p. 44.] 

. I'm currently doing research on residential development along the lakefront, and September 1 annual economic reports for the city, published each year in the DAILY PICAYUNE of New Orleans usually devote several pages to real estate development. I've looked at the years from about 1899 to about 1909. A very small but helpful book on the city's geography is Peirce Lewis, NEW ORLEANS: THE MAKING OF AN URBAN LANDSCAPE (Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1976). The Sept. 1 report for 1909 mentions the "impenetrable" brush and the sunning alligators that travelers on the excursion train can view on their way to the pleasure palaces along the lakefront. 

Dorian Hastings
Ph.D. Candidate
University of New Orleans

Hawkins: 7/17/2001 
From: ADCHawk@aol.com 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

I'm sorry to be so late entering into the discussion of this subject. I've been studying the locations of the swamps of Washington for over twenty years while reconstructing the region's eighteenth century geography in map form. Though the many literary sources of information are interesting, the ease with which they may be interpreted to fit the analyst's predilections has become obvious in the foregoing exchanges. There is another body of evidence in the form of drawings, maps, plats, surveys and deed descriptions for which the purely textual references may be taken as supplementary. 

The following areas would have fit any or all of the proposed definitions of swamp at the end of the eighteenth century:

1) Northward from 18th and R, nearly to Florida Ave.
2) Northeast from 17th and T St., N.W..
3) A triangle filling the area from 1st and M, N.E. to 2nd and N, N.E. to 1st N.E. between N and O.
4) A small area centered on New Jersey and D, N.W..
5) An extensive area covering the east end of the Mall.
6) Part of the Ellipse at the east end of Black Duck Gut.

These areas add up to a minimum of about 100 acres of swamp in the city. With an original projected urban area of 6100 acres, the swamps were approximately 1.6% of the total. I have left out of consideration the many acres of tidal wetlands on the edges of the rivers and creeks which were either seasonal or peripheral. Those listed were permanent conditions in the natural landscape. The character of the land that would become the city changed radically as it was developed through the nineteenth century. New swamps came into existence and old ones were drained or filled. Eventualy they all disappeared, leaving the question, "Was Washington built on a swamp?" to which the accurate answer is "No, but it was built on a site that included swamps". 

Washington History vol.3, No. 1, Spring/Summer 1991, p.14 contains a map with my preliminary findings.

Don Hawkins

Fletcher; 7/19/2001 
From: Carlton Fletcher 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

Don Hawkins demonstrates the clarifying power of quantification: one hundred soggy acres, six thousand dry. (One question: Black Duck Gut?) 

[text deleted--start of a new thread] 

Carlton Fletcher 


[TheMail--Richards: 8/24/2001] 
From: H-DC Editor 
List Editor: H-DC Editor 

[from http://www.dcwatch.com/themail/2001/01-08-22.htm -- the current issue of theMail] 

Water and Sewer 

Mark Richards, Dupont East, mark@bisconti.com 

In the recent floods, some District residents learned a bit about the water and sewer system. Heres some info, mostly drawn from Wilhelmus B. Bryans A History of the National Capital, from 1914. Until 1831, DC citizens got their water from "the rich gifts of nature of underground springs." At that time, water was brought to federal buildings from a spring two miles north of the capitol and from springs in Franklin Park. As the population grew and water supplies became tighter, some residents tapped into the federal flow. Until 1850, the sewers from the White House and federal buildings in that area drained onto the mall where the flow stagnated and made a marsh. (Now you know the real reason people imagined a "swamp" there.) In 1851, sewers were directed down 17th Street to the canal. The sewers from the post-office and patent office crossed 9th St. and dumped into a branch of the Tiber Creek. City leaders were concerned because the waterways were unfenced and people occasionally fell in. The city first built sewers for drainage purposes by enclosing open streams into brick conduits. In 1860, a third of Washington City sewage drained into the city canal through these surface drains. Luckily, Bryan reported, there was no outbreak of disease until the spring of 1857. . . . It was caused by poisonous gases from obstructed sewers and was confined in its extent to those in the building. Bryan says the relative good health of the city was because residents used the box rather than vault privies. Night soil was dumped away from population concentrations at 15th and R, NW, until in 1855 it was taken to 14th and Florida and Georgia Ave. to be treated for "agricultural purposes." (Yards in these areas may have mighty rich soil!) 

Between 1853 and 1863, the Washington Aqueduct System -- composed of a conduit, two sedimentation reservoirs, and water mains -- was constructed. Montgomery C. Meigs of the US Army Corps of Engineers was chief engineer. The total cost was about three and one-half million dollars, but problems with getting approval for funding, malaria, the Civil War, etc. delayed construction. The Aqueduct System was expected to last 200 years, but capacity was rapidly exceeded. We can thank "Boss" Shepherd was installing sewage services to DC residents. From 1871 to 1873, he and the Board of Public Works built 80 miles of sewers, the B Street Canal and Tiber Creek were covered, and the open trench know as the James Creek Canal was provided to carry sewage from South Capitol to the Anacostia River. The Army Corps added the McMillan Park Reservoir and the Washington City Tunnel (10 meters in diameter and 4 miles long) between 1882 and 1902. In 1905, a slow-sand water-filtration method was added at the McMillan Reservoir, and additional improvements were continually made. In 1918 the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) was formed after DC residents had started complaining about fouling streams within the Nations Capital by waste from Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties (http://www.wssc.dst.md.us/about/history.html). Over the years, a regional system was developed. According to Dr. Myron Uman, until 1938 when the Blue Plains treatment plant (http://www.weta.org/potomac/regions/region8/detail7.html) was completed (for DC and MD suburbs), raw sewage was dumped into the rivers. Even after that, the system was overburdened and raw sewage was and is still dumped into the rivers from time to time. Even so, conditions are better now than before. Uman said that in the 1970s treatment technology was improved and recreational boating and bass fish returned to the river. By the early 1980s, bottom vegetation returned and fish populations increased. 

Matthew Gilmore