Figure 1.

The Mysterious Mr. Jenkins of Jenkins Hill:
The Early History of the Capitol Site

John Michael Vlach


The ground on which the United State Capitol now stands was from the earliest moments of English settlement known as the New Troy tract. Granted in 1663 by the Second Lord Baltimore to George Thompson, it was one of three substantial parcels that Thompson would own within the bounds of the future District of Columbia. His holdings encompassed some 1800 acres or slightly more than one-fourth of all the land that would be allotted for the site of the capital city. While the 500 acres that constituted New Troy would change hands six times, it was until 1791 never known by any other name (see Fig. 1). When Daniel Carroll of Duddington finally conveyed this property to the Federal Government, the site for Capitol was still indicated on the official deed as New Troy./ 1 The classical allusion encountered in this name was consistent with other names that other early settlers had assigned to their farms. Thompson's neighbor Francis Pope called his 400-acre farm " Rome" and the stream that flowed along its eastern edge the " Tiber." It was, he must have thought, a much better and more imaginative name than its earlier and more prosaic designation of " Goose Creek." Classical allusions signaled lofty goals and they would prove to be very appealing all across the nation well into the nineteenth century./ 2

Today most guidebooks for Washington, DC describe Capitol Hill as a neighborhood comprising about four square miles with the Capitol building standing at its western edge. In their attempts to be clear about the Capitol's location, the authors of these guides will often add that the site of building is actually called Jenkins Hill. This claim is also encountered on websites posted by various members of Congress, the Library of Congress, the Architect of the Capitol, and the National Park Service. Not one of these authorities specifies who Jenkins was and why his name is so prominently associated with such an important site. Seemingly, the habit of continued repetition and the eminence of those who repeat the claim have combined to make the label credible. A few writers suggest that a Thomas Jenkins once leased a portion of Daniel Carroll's estate near the future location of Capitol in order to pasture his cows and as consequence of this transaction, Jenkins's name became associated with the site./ 3 Given that Christian Hines, the nineteenth-century memorist commonly cited as the authority for the existence of this lease, places two men named Jenkins in the northwestern section of the city between Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenues, the case for the simultaneous presence of one of these men the site of the Capitol seems rather feeble. Further, John Trumbull, painter of several murals in the Capitol rotunda, reported in 1791 that he found the site to be a "thick woods." It was thus an unlikely place for pasturing livestock of any sort./ 4 After almost a century of speculation on the identity of the Jenkins of Jenkins Hill, the judgment made by local historian Margaret Brent Downing back in 1918 still holds: "the exact reason that the name Jenkins is continually associated with this hallowed spot remains to be explained."/ 5

Figure 2. "Capitol Site Selection - 1791," 1973-74, by Allyn Cox, mural, Hall of Capitols, House Wing, U.S. Capitol. The painting shows Washington conversing with L'Enfant as they inspect various locations within the federal district. (Courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol)

It is Pierre Charles L'Enfant who first uses the name Jenkins Hill (Figure 2). Offered the commission to design a seat of government for the fledgling American republic in the spring of 1790, he began to search out the best locations for a meeting place for the Congress, a presidential residence, and several other public offices in January of 1791. Stymied at first by poor weather, on March 11, 1791 he wrote to George Washington that he had at last been able to inspect the "gradual rising ground from Carrollsburg toward the ferry road," the land we recognize today as the southern half of Capitol Hill. Nine days later he wrote again to report that he had mapped out more of the territory between the Anacostia River and Tiber Creek "so much as included Jenkin's [sp.] Hill and all the water course from round Carroll point up to the Ferry landing."/ 6 By June 22, 1791, L'Enfants' vision of a future capital city had matured considerably with respect both to building locations and the potent vista that they might collectively present. About the future site of the Capitol, he brags to Washington "for other eligible situations . . . I could not discover one in all respects so advantageous . . . for erecting the Federal Hse. [as] the western end of Jenkin's Heights [which] stands really as a pedestal waiting for a superstructure." / 7

Figure 3. Duddington Manor, home of Daniel Carroll of Duddington. Construction of the house within the city block bounded by First and Second, and E and F streets, SE, began in 1791 and was completed in 1797. The house was demolished in 1886. (Fine Arts Commission photograph courtesy of the National Archives)

After L'Enfant fixes the name Jenkin's Hill on the Capitol site, both Washington and Jefferson follow his lead. However, because L'Enfant offered alternate renderings of the name -- sometimes as "hill" and other times as "heights" -- it would seem that he was not entirely sure just what the prominent ridge at the western end of Capitol Hill should be called. Further, he was apparently unaware that the site, which had belonged to a branch of the prominent Carroll family since 1758, was already known as New Troy. / 8 In the midst of the public enthusiasm for the emerging capital city only a brief mention that appeared in the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser on July 5, 1791 recalled the deeper history of the Capitol site: "It appears that the buildings of the Legislature are to be placed on Jenkin's Hill on the land of Daniel Carroll, esq. of Duddington . . .." / 9 This was the last time the name of the property owner who conveyed his land to the federal government would be publicly linked with the Capitol site. While Carroll would serve with distinction as City Commissioner and gain a reputation as both a successful businessman and a committed supporter of Washington City, his connection to the Capitol has been almost completely forgotten (Figure 3). / 10 There is today little public awareness that the ground appropriated as the site for one of our most celebrated symbols of liberty was, in the last analysis, actually Carroll's gift to the nation.

Beyond recognizing a certain irony in the fact that the land that once belonged to Daniel Carroll is now assigned to a mysterious man named Jenkins, one also wonders just how it was that L'Enfant came to choose this particular name. While L'Enfant supplies no explanation, for eight months -- from October 17, 1790 to June 1, 1791 -- a Thomas Jenkins did own fifty-four acres on Capitol Hill. His parcel was located about seven blocks to the east of the Capitol building (See Fig. 1), roughly a mile from the site that is now regularly called Jenkins Hill. Since this was most likely the same Thomas Jenkins who also owned an apple orchard in the northwestern quadrant of Washington, his brief acquisition of an additional small plot in the more sparsely settled part of the District suggests his plan to cut down trees either for building timbers or for firewood. / 11

Figure 4. Map showing the location of Thomas Jenkins' 54-acre tract on Capitol Hill and the probable path of the old " Ferry Road" across Capitol Hill. (Base contour map with locations of various property holdings and public roadways are from Don A. Hawkins, “Topography of the federal city, 1791”, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress; boundaries of Thomas Jenkins' property as determined by Priscilla McNeil [see Fig. 1] were added by John Michael Vlach.

In the Federal Census of 1800 the household of Thomas Jenkins was recorded as consisting of a white male and four male slaves, a crew sufficient to turn a quick profit on a fifty-four-acre plot. The presence of such a gang of hands is important to the naming of Capitol Hill because the path of the ferry road mentioned by L'Enfant in his letters to Washington ran right over Jenkin's parcel (Fig. 4). Given that there was no other way, at that time, to travel across Capitol Hill, L'Enfant almost certainly encountered Jenkins or one of his slaves. While such a meeting can only be conjectured, it does suggest why, of all the possible labels that one might assign to a relatively untamed wooded plateau, L'Enfant would fasten on the name Jenkins.

Figure 5. “View of the City of Washington in 1792,” (1952) by Arthur B. Cutter. (Fine Arts Commission, Record Group 66, Historic Map no. 13, courtesy of the National Archives)

The name "Jenkins Hill" moved quickly from L'Enfant to Washington and then to a host of government officials. Since 1791, no alternative label has ever been seriously considered. The legitimacy of Jenkins Hill as the name for the site of the Capitol would also be confirmed by a map created in 1952 at the behest of the Commission on Fine Arts. Drawn by Arthur B. Cutter, then a member of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the map attempts to capture a sense of the style and feeling of late eighteenth-century cartography. Entitled "View of the City of Washington in 1792," the extensive acreages of the original proprietors stand out very prominently (Fig. 5). While Cutter offers no indications of the city's varied topography, at the center of his map he marks the site of the Capitol with a circle of short pen strokes meant perhaps to suggest a raised elevation. Confined within the circle is the name "Jenkin's Hill." Cutter's map, which combines tinges of antiquity with declarative authority, confirms an unquestioned truth about the location of the Capitol; that it stands on prominent high ground that has always been known as Jenkins Hill. When the force of common usage is supported by visual imagery -- when what is heard can also be seen -- then in the public mind there can be no doubt that what one has heard must certainly be true. Given that the site of the Capitol has been called Jenkin's Hill for more than two centuries, it is unlikely that its name can ever be changed to reflect the actual story of the place. We can only recall that in the richness of time there will always be "truths" that merit our careful review.

Figure 6. "West Front of the Capitol," ca. 1828, by John Rubens Smith. Images such as this sketch of the Capitol west front supported the misperception that Capitol Hill was originally pasture land; the site originally was covered with a dense forest of trees. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

John Michael Vlach is professor of American Studies and Anthropology and director of the Folklife Program at The George Washington University.


/ 1. Bessie Wilmarth Gahn, Original Patentees of Land at Washington Prior to 1700 (Originally Published, 1936; Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1969), p. 26-29, 73-75; Margaret Brent Downing, "Earliest Proprietors of Capitol Hill," Records of the Columbia Historical Society 21 (1918), pp. 1-23, Priscilla McNeil, "Rock Creek Hundred: Land Conveyed for the Federal City," Washington History 30, No. 1 (1991), pp. 36, 44-45.

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/ 2 . See Wilbur Zelinsky, "Classical Town Names in the United States: The Historical Geography of an American Idea," Geographical Review, 57, No. 4 (1967), 463-495.

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/ 3 . For one example, see Paul Herron, The Story of Capitol Hill (New York: Coward & McCann, 1963), p. 19.

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/ 4 . For the earliest description of Thomas Jenkins's farm, see Christian Hines, Early Recollections of Washington City (1866) (Washington: Junior League, 1981), pp. 34-35. For Trumball's description of the Capitol site, see Allen C. Clark, "Sutter's Tavern," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, vols. 42-43 (1942), p. 98.

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/ 5 . "Earliest Proprietors of Capitol Hill," p. 20.

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/ 6 . Elizabeth S. Kite, L'Enfant and Washington (1791-1792) (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1929), pp. 36-37. Charles O. Paulin, "History of the Site of the Congressional and Folger Libraries," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vols. 37-38 (1937), p. 178, n. 4, notes that Capitol Hill was not called Jenkins Hill until after 1790. Federal Hill was alternate name offered by Captain Ignatius Fenwick in a letter to George Washington in 1792; see "George Washington Papers and the Library of Congress, 1741-1799,” Series 4: General Correspondence, Feb. 29, 1792.

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/ 7 . Kite, L'Enfant and Washington, p. 55.

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/ 8 . Rent Rolls for Prince George's County, Maryland indicate that on August 16, 1758 a transfer of 1800 acres was made from Ann Young to Charles Carroll, Jr. [of Duddington]. This large estate included the "New Troy" tract that today encompasses the site of the Capitol. See Maryland State Archives, Land Office Rent Rolls, Vol. 38 PG, p. 75.

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/ 9 . See Allen C. Clark, "Origins of the Federal City," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vols. 35-36 (1935), p. 62.

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/ 10 . See Allen C. Clark, "Daniel Carroll of Duddington," Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 39 (1938), pp. 1-48.

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/ 11 . See Clark, "Origin of the Federal City," p. 94. On June 1, 1791 Daniel Carroll purchased Jenkins's fifty-four acres, for copies of the deed consult the Daniel Carroll Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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Reprinted with the permission of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.