In 1774 the First Continental Congress—a group of representatives from the colonies—needed a place to meet. The delegates first gathered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was essentially a capital city, as the capital is wherever the seat of government is. When the first U.S. president, George Washington, took office 1789, the capital was New York City.
But the 13 northern and southern states wanted a capital that would represent them equally—not too far north or too far south. (In those days, all the states were along the East Coast, from Georgia to New Hampshire.) So in 1790 Washington chose a spot in the middle, right between the states of Maryland and Virginia.
America’s founders were concerned that people living in Washington, D.C., might unfairly influence Congress and therefore decided that those residents would not have representation in the House of Representatives or the Senate. Even today, D.C. residents don’t have voting representatives in Congress. (But residents can vote in federal elections.)
The city was nearly destroyed during the War of 1812 against Great Britain. For a while the city’s population remained small, but it suddenly expanded after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, when many newly freed slaves came to live there.
Today Washington, D.C., is a 68-square-mile federal district home to important government buildings, including the U.S. Capitol, where the Senate and the House of Representatives meet; the White House, where the president lives and works; and the Supreme Court Building, where many important court rulings are made. The city is also full of landmarks including the Washington Monument, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial.
WHY’S IT CALLED THAT?
GEOGRAPHY AND LANDFORMS
Washington, D.C., is bordered on the west by the Potomac River, which divides D.C. from Virginia. The Anacostia River runs through its east side.
D.C. also has several islands in the Potomac, such as Theodore Roosevelt Island, which has a number of walking trails and is often visited by locals. You can also check out Kingman Island, a man-made island in the Anacostia River, which is the site of a popular bluegrass festival each summer.
But if you’re looking for a bit of wilderness in D.C., don’t miss Rock Creek Park. About three square miles, the park has over 32 miles of hiking trails, horseback riding, and is home to deer, coyotes, raccoons, and foxes.
Though it’s a bustling city, Washington, D.C., has lots of wildlife. Look for mammals such as Virginia opossums, groundhogs, brown bats, and flying squirrels. You might even spot the U.S. national bird: the bald eagle! Other birds include cardinals, great blue herons, and the official bird, the wood thrush. Look out for amphibians like bullfrogs, tree frogs, and toads, and several types of reptiles such as box turtles, garter snakes, and even venomous copperhead snakes. You’ll also see native trees including maple, cherry, cedar, and oak, and lots of colorful flowers like columbine, bleeding hearts, sunflowers, geraniums, and bluebells.
—Many D.C. residents want the district to become its own state so they would have representation in Congress. If that ever happened, D.C. might be renamed “New Columbia.” It might seem strange to drop the “Washington” out of the name but the first U.S. president never actually lived in the White House. The White House’s first residents were President John Adams and his wife, Abigail Adams.
—Bill Nye, Al Gore, and composer Duke Ellington were all born here and abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived in D.C. the last 17 years of his life. His house is now a National Historic Site open to the public.
—Even back in the days of the early U.S. presidents, D.C.’s wide boulevards reminded some visitors of another famous capital: Paris, the capital city of France. Makes sense— Pierre Charles L’Enfant was influenced by his native Paris when he designed Washington, D.C. Another European, James Smithson, gave Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian Institution. At this group of 17 museums, you can see the Hope Diamond, the plane the Wright Brothers made history in, and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
—Most of the Smithsonian museums line the National Mall, a nearly two-mile-long park that stretches from the Lincoln Memorial on the Potomac River to the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The park is filled with monuments, landmarks, and plenty of green space. The National Mall receives about 24 million visitors each year.
—D.C. is home to another cool institution: National Geographic! The National Geographic Society was founded in D.C. in 1888 and is still headquartered here. Come see us sometime!