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When European settlers first visited the area that is now Washington D.C., Piscataway Native Americans lived in the area. During the late 1600s, many of the Native Americans moved west and white farmers and plantation owners settled the new colony of Virginia. In 1749, Alexandria was established as the first town in the area.
The United States of America won its independence in 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War. Several different cities served as the national capital until the late 1700's. Congress then wished the nation’s capital to be permanent. Disagreements rose as to which state it would be a part of. In 1790, Alexander Hamilton proposed a solution that established the new permanent capital on federal land rather than in a state. President George Washington, raised in the Potomac area, was chosen to pick the site. Both Maryland and Virginia gave up land along the Potomac River that became the District of Columbia, established in 1791.
George Washington chose Pierre Charles L’Enfant to plan the physical layout of Washington D.C. He placed the Capitol at the center of the city. In 1800, the federal government moved from Philadelphia to Washington, even though construction on the Capitol had just begun. In 1802, Congress created a local government to help run the district. By 1820, Washingtonians could elect their own mayor, but could not vote for members of Congress or the President.
During the War of 1812, English troops burned the Capitol, White House and other federal buildings. Reconstruction of these buildings began after the war and was finished in 1819. Washington remained a small city, with only 52,000 in 1850. As a result, in 1846 the district returned the land given by Virginia. Today, the district covers 68 square miles instead of the original 100.
Much of Washington’s growth has taken place during times of calamity. During the Civil War (1861-1865), the district’s population doubled from 60,000 to over 120,000. Thousands of Union troops came to Washington to protect government buildings from destruction by the Confederate Army. Many came to fulfill government positions and help the war effort. Others came to establish new businesses. After the war, thousands of newly freed blacks rushed to live in Washington D.C.
Great population growth brought housing and water shortages. To help meet the needs of the expanding district, in 1871 the elected city council became a territorial government. A huge rebuilding and expansion program included new streets, housing and better public facilities. In 1874, the territorial government ended and the president appointed three officials to run the local government. During the late 1800s, construction began on the Library of Congress and the Lincoln Memorial; the Washington Monument was also completed.
Thousands of people came to Washington between 1917 and 1945. The federal government grew larger during World War I. Many government workers were also required to establish the New Deal program during the Great Depression (1929-1939). As the federal government continued to increase during World War II, many jobs were created to construct housing, schools, and public facilities for families moving into Washington. During this time, the Supreme Court Building and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials were completed.
As the federal government continues to grow steadily, so does the population of Washington. The city’s population reached a peak of 800,000 in 1950 and then declined as the suburb population began to increase dramatically. Between 1950 and 1980, the metropolitan area grew faster than that of any other large city, increasing from 1.5 million to more than 3 million.
District residents won the right to vote in a presidential election on March 29, 1961, to elect a board of education in 1968 and, in 1970, to elect a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. In 1973 Congress gave Washingtonians the right to elect local officials for the first time in 100 years. Recently, some residents have wanted to make the District of Columbia the 51st state. However, Congress denied the request. In 1997, Congress appointed a control board to oversee efforts in solving growing city problems such as street repair and school expansion.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacked the United States. It began that morning, as two hijacked airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center Towers in New York. Later that morning, at 9:45 a.m. hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. The capital was placed on emergency alert. Congressional leaders were taken away in hiding, all federal offices, national monuments, and streets were cleared of people. This event began a war on terrorism within the United States and the world, that continues today.