NB: For some reason the plan did not photograph well; in person its appearance is excellent.
Gilpin’s plan depicts Alexandria at a period of rapid growth, when as the lone port of entry on the Potomac it was one of the country’s busiest ports. The simple rectilinear street plan is shown with street names indicated, including several on newly-filled land along the river, and a legend identifies several houses of worship, the central market, and the Fairfax and Lee estates and Cameron’s grist mill outside of town. It’s worth noting that none of the streets has a point of termination; Gilpin apparently anticipated the city expanding to the west and north, and even into the Potomac by a process of landfill. Comparison with a modern map shows that the city has indeed expanded in all directions, though the rectilinear grid was entirely abandoned in the process.
Another interesting feature is the dotted line indicating the boundary of the District of Columbia, terminating at Alexandria’s southernmost point on Jones Island. The stone marking that point was set by African-American surveyor Benjamin Banneker in 1791.
The map was drawn by Thomas Gilpin (1740-1813), a native of Maryland who had moved to Alexandria before the Revolution. During the war he served as Colonel of a Fairfax, Virginia regiment. In 1785 he became a Director of the Potomac Company, which constructed canals to improve the navigability of the Potomac. Also in 1785 he was appointed Commissioner for improving the streets of Alexandria, which must have led to his production of this plan. Later he was a pallbearer at George Washington’s funeral.
Engraving and publication were arranged by John V. Thomas, publisher of the Alexandria Times And District Of Columbia Daily Advertiser. In this regard Thomas ran the following amusing advert in the Advertiser for Sept. 26, 1797:
“THE subscriber sometime since, lent to one of his acquaintances, a Plan of the Town of Alexandria, neatly drawn by Col. Gilpin – He cannot at present recollect who it was that borrowed it, but begs that whoever has it in his possession will be kind enough to return it.” (p. 1)
Thomas either recovered the plan or obtained a new one from Gilpin, as it was engraved by Thomas Clarke of New York City and its publication announced on page 1 of the Dec. 4, 1799 Advertiser, price $1.50.
The copper printing plate engraved by Clarke somehow beat the odds and survived into the 20th century, when it was acquired by Mangum and Josephine Weeks of Alexandria. In 1944 they commissioned a limited-edition restrike, likely on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Alexandria Library. A penciled note below the plate mark at lower right reads: “Alexandria. An edition of 165 impressions from the original copper-plate. Published 26 June 1944 by Mangum and Josephine Weeks. No 118.” The plate has since gone missing, and efforts to trace its location have proven unsuccessful.
As mentioned above 18th-century impressions of the plan are extraordinarily rare. I know of impressions only at the Library of Congress and the Albert Small Collection at George Washington University.
Phillips, List of Maps of America, p. 97 (the original). Phillips, List of Maps and Views of Washington and District of Columbia, p. 23 (the original). Stephenson, Cartography of Northern Virginia, plate 21. Wheat and Brun, Maps and Charts Published in America before 1800, #539 (describing both the original and the restrike). OCLC lists at least 16 institutional holdings of the restrike (as of Aug. 2021).
Minor foxing largely confined to margins, a framer’s light pencil guidelines in outer margins, pencil annotation to lower right of plate mark. Very good overall.