By the late 1700s, the area that became the District of Columbia was settled by European farmers. Native American communities that occupied those lands in centuries past had been driven away by war and disease. Europeans who took over that land owned slaves who raised tobacco, corn, wheat, and cattle. In 1790, the plots that became the Mall were owned by five men: Daniel Carroll of Duddington, David Burnes, Notley Young, Benjamin Oden, and Samuel Davidson. They were compensated for giving their property to the government for the capital city, and became known as Washington's "Original Proprietors."
Who owned the Mall land in the 1790s?
When the US government chose to build a new capital city in its current site along the Potomac River in 1791, officials had to purchase land from its owners. After negotiating with landowners, some of their land was deeded to form the capital, with a portion remaining in their posession. This map marks the boundaries and owners of each parcel of land that later became the National Mall.
This map illustrates how plans for Washington streets crossed into the Proprietors' lands near the Mall. Notley Young's property bordered the Potomac River near the Jefferson Memorial, and contained his two-story house, many outbuildings, long fences, gardens, and quarters for his 260 slaves. As the city of Washington developed, Young expected his house to be torn down to make way for new roads. The slow growth of the city delayed the demolision of the house, which remained in place until after the Civil War.
Some of the Proprietors sold their land unwillingly and continued to assert rights of ownership over the property. Revolutionary War veteran David Burnes did not want to sell his land, that later became the home to the White House and the Treasury Building. Burnes continued to farm his land after the government's purchase, reportedly constructing an illegal fence across Pennsylvania Avenue to protect his crops. His home sat on the Mall until 1894.
Even landowners who were interested in selling land sometimes disagreed with the District's commissioners and the plans for the new city. In 1791, Daniel Carroll of Duddington started building a house when Pierre L'Enfant was surveying the area. Carroll's new house jutted out into a space L'Enfant planned to be a street. L'Enfant wanted the house moved, but Carroll resisted and complained to President George Washington. In this letter Washington tried to arrange a comprise, unaware that L'Enfant already ordered a group of men to tear down Carroll's house.
The proprietors who sold land to make space for the new city of Washington were disappointed in their investment. They expected the new capital to grow quickly into a bustling city, which would have provided them with new sources of income. Other national spending priorities kept the government from building the grand designs envisioned by George Washington and Pierre L'Enfant. For decades after its founding, the city grew slowly and the lands originally deeded to the government for the Mall were left underdeveloped.