What's in a Name?
D.C. Facts
  • Motto: Justitia Omnibus (Justice to all)
  • Bird: Wood Thrush
  • Tree: Scarlet Oak
  • Song: The Star-Spangled Banner
  • Before 1800, Congress met in several different locations. In 1785 Congress voted to create a permanent "Federal town," but the exact site was not selected until five years later. At that time, Congress passed a law allowing George Washington to pick the location of our nation's capital someplace along the Potomac River. He chose a diamond-shaped, 10-square-mile (25.9-square-kilometer) plot situated between Maryland and Virginia. Located approximately halfway between New England and Georgia, this served as a compromise between southern and northern interests. And, it happened to be located not too far from Washington's estate at Mount Vernon.

    As you might have guessed, Washington, D.C. is named after our first president. But what you may not have realized is that the district ("Columbia") is a reference to Christopher Columbus. Some of the founding fathers wanted to honor Columbus because the 300th anniversary of his famous voyage would happen soon, in 1792. But others wanted to recognize the President.


    Photo courtesy The Architect of the Capitol
    Present-day aerial view of the U.S. Capitol and grounds from the west

    After some discussion, a compromise was reached and the three commissioners appointed by Washington to oversee the city's development decided the Federal district was to be called the "Territory of Columbia" while the Federal City was to be the "City of Washington." Years later, the more popularly used term "District" replaced "Territory," when the capital was officially incorporated into the Union in 1871.

    The suggestion to call the city Washingtonople was rejected.