John Alexander, Patriot

John Alexander, 1605 – 1677, emigrated from Scotland to the colony of Virginia around 1653.  Alexander became a surveyor, justice of the peace, sheriff and captain of the Stafford County militia.  Although these accomplishments were significant, he is perhaps known best for his purchase of a large land parcel along the Potomac River, part of which, in 1749, became the town of Alexandria. 

The 6,000 acre tract Alexander purchased from an English ship captain, Robert Howson, on October 21, 1669, was named the Howson Patent.  It extended along the Potomac River from Hunting Creek in the south to Little Falls in the north.  Today, Chain Bridge crosses the Potomac River at Little Falls.  In return Howson received 6,000 pounds of tobacco and the cask it was held in.  The tract was located in then Stafford County (1664-1730), followed by Prince William (1731-1741), and then Fairfax County.  A portion of the tract encompassing a smaller Alexandria City and all of Arlington County was annexed during the creation of the District of Columbia in 1791 and remained part of the “Federal District” until 1847.  At that time it was returned to Virginia as the independent county of Alexandria.  Later it was split into Alexandria City and Arlington County. 

Surprisingly, the Alexanders were not the moving force in establishing the town of Alexandria.  Rather, a group of northern Virginia entrepreneurs and members of the Ohio Company, including Lawrence Washington, George William Fairfax, William Fairfax, John Carlyle, Hugh West, Augustine Washington, Nathaniel Chapman, and others, petitioned the colonial government for establishing a town on the Potomac that would facilitate western development and serve as a mercantile center for northern Virginia.  The site’s mercantile prospects were excellent because of the tobacco inspection station built in 1738 at the foot of Oronoco Street and the Potomac River.  Since tobacco provided the primary currency for the area, and all tobacco had to be inspected before being shipped to England for sale, the area’s economic prospects were excellent.   However, there was another site, the village of Cameron that was being considered for the new town; it was further south along the Potomac. 

At that time John Alexander’s grandsons Robert and Philip owned the 60 acres of land that became the town of Alexandria.  The Alexanders rented out their acreage to tenant farmers.  They were not enthusiastic about having their land become a town and preferred to continue to receive income from their tenants.  It is said that to “sweeten the transaction,” the Alexanders were told that the new town would be named Alexandria.  And, in July 1749 the town of Alexandria was established.

Neither John Alexander, his sons or grandchildren lived on the Howson tract.  But, in the mid-1740s, John’s great grandson, Gerard Alexander I, 1714 – 1761, built a substantial home on a bluff overlooking the Potomac.  Gerard called it Abingdon.  The site today is between Garages A and B at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

According to the Reagan National Airport Authority, the home was one-and-a-half stories, with an oak framework, side brick chimneys and a steeply pitched roof, a style typical of early colonial homes.  Although Gerard’s brothers may not have been enthusiastic about the birth of Alexandria, Gerard was a founding trustee for the town of Alexandria, a burgess serving Fairfax County from 1751 to 1755 and a justice of the peace.

After Gerard died, his heirs sold Abingdon in 1778 to John Parke Custis, the son of Martha Washington and her first husband.  Custis moved his family to Abingdon in 1779 and his daughter Nelly was born there.  Custis died in 1781, his wife remarried and eventually the property reverted to Robert Alexander III.  Alexander’s son Walter leased the home to various people and by the late 1800s and early 1900s the surrounding acreage had changed from agricultural to industrial.  By 1920 Abingdon was abandoned and deteriorating.  And, on March 5, 1930, it burned to the ground.  The Washington Branch of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities stabilized the ruins and commemorated the location with a plaque in 1933.

Visitors today will be surprised by the idyllic park-like area surrounding the stabilized ruins of Abingdon plantation. To enjoy the park and see the stabilized ruins and the markers which tell the history of the site look for the signs in parking structures A and B.  The newest marker, placed by the John Alexander Chapter, on April 25, 2009, commemorates both John Alexander and Abingdon.

 In addition, artifacts and an exhibit about Abingdon are housed nearby in Terminal A, the original terminal built in 1941.



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Last updated May 7, 2010