Bethesda’s Boundary Stones

The Little Farm Women that Could
March 4, 2011
The Western Market
March 12, 2011

Boundary Stone for District of Columbia

Bethesda is an unincorporated town and as such has no official boundaries.  The U.S. Census Bureau defines Bethesda as a Census Designated Place, or CDP, with a southern boundary where Maryland meets the District of Columbia.  This border with the District of Columbia is an interesting story and the subject of today’s blog.

The early history of the United States is one filled with controversy and upheaval.  The location of the Nation’s Capital was a hotly debated topic.  Congress, through the Residence Act of 1790, authorized the establishment of a territory to encompass an area of no more than “ten miles square” on the Potomac River to be the capital of the United States.  Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson enlisted the services of surveyor Andrew Ellicott, who in turn hired astronomer Benjamin Banneker, a free black man, to help layout the Territory of Columbia later known as the District of Columbia.  The District of Columbia was created out of land ceded by Maryland and Virginia.  In 1846 Virginia reclaimed its land from the District.

The 100 square miles of the District was surveyed and 40 sandstone markers were set at one mile intervals.  Thirty seven of the markers remain today and represent the oldest Federal monuments in the United States.  The picture of the stone above is of Northwest Marker Number 6, set in 1792.  You can visit this stone which is located just behind the Metro Bus stop located on Western Avenue near Fessenden Street in DC and Park Place in Maryland.

These sandstone monuments represent not only the geographic location of the District of Columbia, the confines of the United States Government, an experiment in self-government that changed the history of the world, but also they represent the struggle of an entire race for equality.  The skills of Benjamin Banneker, the free black man who helped survey the City, were critical to the accurate placement of the boundary stones.  It’s interesting to note that in the same year he did the surveying for Congress, Banneker wrote Thomas Jefferson a letter and “called him out”, for lack of a better term, on his hypocrisy for keeping slaves (when he himself was the author of such lofty ideals that “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence) and further his violent treatment of them as such.

His letter had an effect on Jefferson who wrote in a letter shortly thereafter referring to Banneker, “I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable Mathematician. I promised him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac, & in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an almanac for the next year, which he sent to me in his own handwriting, & which I inclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems by him. add to this that he is a very respectable member of society. he is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talent observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.”

We are lucky living here in Bethesda.  The rich history of our nation is all around us, some of it quite profound.  Take a walk along Western Avenue and see a part of that history