I'm interested in learning about the history behind the naming of the United States capital, Washington DC. Why was it named after George Washington, and who made the decision to name it after him?

Additionally, I would like to know if there were any other proposals for names before the final decision was made. Any information or resources on this topic would be greatly appreciated.

  • 4
    Try this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washington,_D.C.
    – Jos
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 9:48
  • 4
  • 3
    The question needs evidence of research, but I don't think it should be closed as too basic as only the 'why' seems basic, not the bits on 'who decided' or 'what process' or 'proposals for other names'. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 11:47
  • 4
    This is rather difficult to nail down. The earliest reference I can find is this, from the Library of Congress Serial Set, stating: "“We have agreed that the federal district shall be called ‘the Territory of Columbia’ and the federal city ‘the city of Washington,’ (commissioners’ letter-book No. 16, page 32, September 9, 1791). The title of the map will therefore be a map of the city of Washington in the Territory of Columbia." Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:08
  • 3
    According to that fount of accuracy and veracity, Wikipedia, that proclamation by the commissioners is the original announcement. As to what discussions occurred, or did not occur, behind the scenes prior, I can find no record. Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 12:31

1 Answer 1


If there is any record of the discussions which led to the decision, then it seems an archive search will be needed, but sources online provide the following. In "Records of the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks of the National Capital" (NARA 1992), Mary-Jane Dowd states:

"The City and Territory were named at a meeting of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Congressman James Madison with the Commissioners on September 8, 1791.", https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.30000038155655&seq=31

She cites the Proceedings of the Commissioners, vol 1, p.23. These proceedings have not been digitized, they are in the National Archives at: https://catalog.archives.gov/id/3033259

The next day, September 9, the Commissioners wrote to Major L'Enfant announcing the chosen name, and the original of this should be found in the same set of records (see Dowd p14, item 23, Letters Sent): https://catalog.archives.gov/id/3033259

That letter is reproduced in a Congressional Serial Set volume from 1877, but unfortunately it seems to be one of the few volumes (no. 1802) from that period not yet available online! The letter is also reproduced in full in the Centennial History of the City of Washington DC from 1892, but unfortunately there isn't any other useful information there: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=5Q81AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA101&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false

Contemporary Congressional records seem unlikely to come up with anything. The second Congress opened formally on March 4th, 1791, but didn't start its first proper session until late October, by which time it seems the decision had been made.

It may be worth searching in the voluminous papers of George Washington himself. It would be reasonable to assume they probably asked him out of courtesy before announcing such a decision. But that, and any other deliberations, could easily have been purely verbal. There may be something there (there certainly are letters between him and the commissioners relating to the Federal district) but I couldn't find anything specific.

It seems the best place to look further would be the archives referred to above, which are also available on microfilm (NARA publication M371), containing the Proceedings, Letter Books and other records of the Commissioners, which might possibly contain further details of the meeting of September 8th or something else which sheds light on the question.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.