In 1790, a year after George Washington took office as president, Congress authorized him to find a site along the Potomac River for the new nation’s capital. It was the first time a country had ever established its permanent capital by legislative action. The president ended up choosing a spot just a few miles upstream from his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia.
Surveyors staked out an area of one hundred square miles straddling the river. The idea was to create a special territory, not part of any state, to contain the capital city. The land came from Maryland and Virginia, and the territory was named the “District of Columbia” (“D.C.” for short) in honor of Christopher Columbus.
George Washington hired French engineer Pierre L’Enfant to plan the city that would lie within the new District. In 1791, the District’s commissioners decided to name that city “Washington” in honor of the first president. The federal government moved there in 1800.
On May 3, 1802, Washington was incorporated as a city, with a city council elected by local residents, and a mayor appointed by the president. People began to refer to the capital city inside the District of Columbia as “Washington, D.C.” – just as they might write “Albany, N.Y.” or “Charleston, S.C.”
For a long time Washington remained a relatively small town, and much of the land inside the District of Columbia lay undeveloped. In 1846 Congress decided it would never need the District’s land on the south side of the Potomac River, so it returned that portion to the state of Virginia. But of course the city did eventually grow, especially after World War II. Today it fills virtually the entire District of Columbia.