History Corner: George Gilpin of Alexandria, Virginia-Part 2

During and following his work on the Potowmack Canal Gilpin continued to be increasingly involved in community activities. In 1790 he was appointed a trustee for the town of Tobacco at the Great Falls of the Potomac. In 1792 he signed a petition calling for the establishment of the Bank of Alexandria, then oldest in Virginia, of which he became a director in 1798. Between 1794 and 1796 he served as Commissioner of the Streets, a position to which he was repeatedly reappointed until 1801. In 1796 he acquired a warehouse at the corner of Prince and Union Streets and in 1797 he was appointed Alexandria's Harbor Master. Gilpin became a member of the Sun Fire Company in 1799 and in 1801 was appointed the first judge of the Orphans' Court of Alexandria, the same year that he was appointed inspector of the Tobacco Warehouse. He became a director of the Little River Turnpike Company in 1803 and served as Weigher and Measurer for the Port of Alexandria in 1806 and 1807. In 1808 Gilpin was appointed Postmaster of Alexandria and maintained the position until his death, when he was succeeded by his son, Thomas Gilpin.

 

Merchant, Builder, Surveyor

Although listed in 1796 as primarily a merchant, Gilpin sold various pieces of property and built two houses on King Street that survive to the present. He was also customs collector and town surveyor. He undertook many surveys of the region, and in 1796 Gilpin was commissioned by Matthew Brown & Co. to survey and lay off the Spring Garden Farm adjacent to the city limits of Alexandria (Figure 1). In 1797 he completed the first draft of a map of the town of Alexandria. In 1798 Gilpin was officially named City Surveyor of Alexandria. On December 12, 1805, the Common Council ordered that Colonel Gilpin and Jonathan Swift be constituted a committee of two to meet with General John Mason and Benjamin Stoddert, a committee appointed by the Corporation of Georgetown, to confer on the subject of a turnpike road to be built between Alexandria and Georgetown and to report back to the Council.

The map was drawn to a scale of 1:9,600 and depicted the city after its substantial enlargement, which had been ordered in 1785 by statute of the Virginia Assembly. It includes 14 east-west streets and 20 north-south streets and shows the "Main Post Road" entering the city by way of Duke Street. It identifies 10 important sites: "1. Mr Fairfaxs House, 2. Camerons Mills, 3. Mr Lees House, 4. Episcopal Church, 5. the Market Square, 6.7. Prisbyterian [sic] & Methodist Meeting Houses, 8. 9. Socites [sic] for a Catholic & a Dutch Lutharian [sic] Church, [and] 10. the Quakers Meeting House."

On September 21, 1797 John V. Thomas, publisher of the Alexandria Advertiser, inserted the following notice in his newspaper:

The subscriber some time since lent to one of his acquaintances a plan of the town of Alexandria, neatly drawn by Col. Gilpin—He cannot at present recollect who it was that borrowed it, but he begs that whoever has it in possession will be kind enough to return it. -John V. Thomas.

The drawing was subsequently recovered and after being sent to New York to be engraved by T. Clarke, it was published in 1798 by Thomas. It is the earliest engraved map of the city. A single copy is presently known to have survived and is preserved in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Gilpin was closely associated with the Washington family at Mount Vernon, not only from shared military and professional experiences, but also because he was himself descended from the Washington family of Hall Head in Westmoreland, England. Furthermore, he was married twice to cousins of Martha Dandridge Washington: first to Catherine Peters, by whom he had two children, and after her death to her sister, Jane Peters, by whom he had seven children. Gilpin was a member of the Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge, was present at the death of General Washington, and was appointed one of the honorary pall-bearers at the funeral.

Gilpin died on December 27, 1813, at the age of 73 and was buried in the church’s section of the Wilkes Street Cemetery, where he had been a vestryman for many years. His obituary noted, "His remains were yesterday attended by a train of weeping friends and interred in the burial ground of Christ Church with masonic and military honors," and praised his "personal exertion towards the improvement of the town," and his "elevated and penetrating mind."

Silvio Bedini is a historian emeritus with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and a Contributing Editor for the magazine.

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