The boundary stones that surround the District are some of the oldest (and least known) monuments in the country. But they have survived the test of time, with no small role played by volunteer caretakers.
“People ask me, ‘Who is buried there?’ and I tell them nobody. It’s one of the boundary stones,” a Mt. Rainer resident said as a group of volunteers applied a coat of Rust-Oleum to the fence encasing Northeast No. 6 at 3601 Eastern Avenue.
This weekend, nearly 50 volunteers split into 7 groups to landscape and repaint the fences encircling the North Cornerstone in Silver Spring, NW No. 9, NE No. 2, NE No. 4, 5, and 6, and SE No. 5, downhill of the Southern Avenue metro station. It was the 4th outing organized by advocate Stephen Powers (recently featured on WETA), and the American Society of Civil Engineers’ National Capital Section (ASCE-NCS).
“Having people who live in the neighborhood come up and talk to us is rewarding,” said Marci Hilt, a member of the Eleanor Wilson chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). “People appreciate what we are doing.”
History of the Boundary Stones
After the passage of the Residence Act in July 1790, “that a district of territory, not exceeding ten miles square” be located on the Potomac between the Eastern Branch (now the Anacostia River) and Connogochegue (a tributary of the Potomac in Western Maryland), the clock began ticking to meet the December 1800 deadline to have the capital city planned and ready to inhabit.
Before the city could be built, it had to be surveyed. Returning to his home in Philadelphia to rest after surveying the western boundary of New York, Major Andrew Ellicott received a letter from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Dated February 2, 1791, the letter told Ellicott he was to “proceed by the first stage to the Federal territory on the Potomac, for the purpose of making a survey of it.”
With his younger brothers still in New York, Ellicott moved post-haste to find an assistant with the necessary technical mathematic and astronomic skills to undertake the assignment. Through the recommendation of his younger cousin, Ellicott learned of Benjamin Banneker, a sixty year old free black tobacco planter and largely self-taught astronomer.
After a visit to Banneker’s farm in present-day Baltimore County, Ellicott hired him. They arrived at Alexandria on the evening of February 7, 1791 to begin the project. On April 15, 1791, after taking diligent calculations to determine the location of the southernmost boundary and the “four lines of experiment,”, the apex of the ten miles square was placed at Jones Point.
According to historian Silvio A. Bedini, who wrote on the subject in the Special Bicentennial Issue of Washington History:
Later, after the boundary lines had been established, they were cleared to make a lane 40 feet in width through the woods for the entire ten-mile distance. The original milestones were also replaced by more formal boundary markers; each of those on the Virginia line bore the date 1791 and those on the Maryland side were marked 1792, reflecting the different completion dates. Also inscribed was the exact distance from the preceding corner.
Status of the stones
Of the 40 stones forming the original “ten miles square” of the District of Columbia, 36 remain in the ground. (Fourteen were laid on the Virginia side and twenty-six were laid on the Maryland side.)
Spread out along busy commuter thoroughfares, in front yards, and deep in the woods, the stones have survived. They have outlasted the British invasion in the War of 1812, the Civil War, the swelling of Washington during World War II, the 1968 riots, and the bicentennial of the country and the city.
In the early 20th century, Fred Woodward became a fervent advocate for the Boundary Stones, carefully documenting their condition and location. In the years from 1915 to 1926, his advocacy inspired DAR chapters in Maryland, Virginia, and DC to organize the placement of iron wrought fences around the stones.
SE No. 4, at the intersection of Southern Avenue and Naylor Road SE (most likely passed by John Wilkes Booth as he escaped Washington) was hit by a truck in the mid-1980s. In the early 1990s, when David Doyle of the Maryland Society of Surveyors, was trying to locate SE No. 4, a maintenance worker emerged from the nearby King’s Crossing apartment building. “I think I know what you might be looking for,” he said. “I knew some day somebody would be along.”
In the apartment building’s basement was SE No. 4. Since then, the stone has been maintained in Doyle’s suburban Maryland garage, waiting to be placed back in the ground.
At different varying points in time, the stones have been added to the National Register of Historic Places. However, only Southwest No. 9, is currently a National Historic Landmark.
“They are the first national monuments that we have,” says Gayle Harris, Registrar of the District of Columbia Daughters of the American Revolution. “We try to make a lot of noise so people recognize the stones.”