The Port of Alexandria in Northern Virginia lies on the southwestern banks of the Potomac River just south of Washington DC. The Port of Alexandria is part of the Chesapeake Bay Waterway. The Port of Alexandria is located about five nautical miles (9 kilometers or 5. 4 miles) southwest of the Washington Navy Yard. In 2010, almost 140 thousand people lived in the Port of Alexandria, but the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan area was home to over 5.5 million.
The Port of Alexandria is largely defined by its proximity to the United States capital. Most of its residents are Federal civil servants, US military, or employees of government contractors. The Port of Alexandria largest employers are the US Department of Defense, the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Center for Naval Analyses, and the US Patent and Trademark Office. Even though it's primarily a residential community, the Port of Alexandria has some manufacturers and large commercial and freight-rail operations. The Port of Alexandria is home to many buildings from the United States' colonial days, and the city's Old Town is a very popular tourist destination. George Washington's Mount Vernon is just 15 kilometers (nine miles) to the south of the Port of Alexandria's Old Town.
Before European colonists came to the future Port of Alexandria area, as many as 20 thousand Powhatan people lived in the eastern Virginia region. The Powhatan were a confederation of Algonquian-speaking tribes organized by Chief Wahunsunacawh (later known as Chief Powhatan by colonists) in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries.
Captain John Smith's arrival at what would become the Colony of Virginia in 1608 began a period of conflict with the Powhatan that lasted until 1677 when the Treaty of Middle Plantation established Indian reservations. The first war began in 1610, ending four years later in a peace settlement. Chief Powhatan died in 1618, bringing new conflicts with the colonists. Trying to drive the English out of their lands, the Powhatan attacked the colonists. In return, English military actions almost eliminated the tribe in the 1640s. European diseases further decimated the Powhatan people.
Over the first century of European settlement, black slaves and white indentured servants escaped colonial plantations and became part of the Powhatan confederation. After the 1676 Bacon's Rebellion, the colonists enslaved many Powhatan. Virginia's House of Burgesses (the first elected assembly of representatives in the British colonies) outlawed Indian slavery in 1691, but colonists continued to enslave Powhatan people well into the 18th Century. Powhatan and English cultures were mixed with marriage and unions between the two, the most famous being that of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. Many of Virginia's First Families have both Powhatan and English ancestors.
As of the early 21th Century, the Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes eight tribes as descendants of the Powhatan confederation. While there are as many as 14 thousand people eligible for tribal membership, as many as 3500 are enrolled. The Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes still hold their 17th Century reservations in King William County, Virginia. In early 2011, the Powhatan in Virginia started the process of gaining Federal recognition after several earlier attempts. While the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved the necessary proposed legislation, the bill has not yet been brought to the main body.
The first settlement at what would become the Port of Alexandria was established in the English Colony of Virginia in 1695. The Tobacco Inspection Law of 1730 required that all tobacco grown in Virginia had to be inspected at a designated public warehouse, and one of the sites selected was a warehouse on the Potomac River in today's Port of Alexandria area.
In the middle 1700s, Captain Philip Alexander II established a 500-acre estate south of what is now Duke Street in the Port of Alexandria. Around the same time, the residents of Fairfax (county) petitioned the House of Burgesses to establish a town at the site of the Hunting Creek warehouse. The petition was submitted by Lawrence Washington (older brother of George) and the son-in-law of William Fairfax. Young surveyor George Washington sketched the shoreline to demonstrate the advantages of the site for a new town. Alexander opposed the proposal, since the town site was in the middle of his estate. When petitioners offered to name the new town Alexandria, Philip and a cousin, John, gave land to the new city, securing recognition as Port of Alexandria founders. The House of Burgesses approved the town site in 1749, and the town founders named it Belhaven. The Town of Alexandria was incorporated in 1779.
In 1785, the states of Virginia and Maryland met at Mount Vernon near the Port of Alexandria to talk about mutual commercial relations. The Mount Vernon Conference ended with an agreement for free trade and navigation on the Potomac River. The conference led to the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
George Washington identified the area including the Port of Alexandria to become the District of Columbia in 1791. Virginia ceded all of the current Arlington County and the Port of Alexandria's Old Town to the US Government, but those areas were returned to Virginia in 1846 when the District's borders were redrawn. The modern Port of Alexandria was re-chartered in 1852.
During the War of 1812, the British raided the Port of Alexandria, which surrendered immediately without conflict. According to the terms of surrender, the British looted Port of Alexandria stores and warehouses containing mostly flour, cotton, tobacco, sugar, and wine.
Before the Port of Alexandria was returned to Virginia, competition with the port in Georgetown and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal brought the Port of Alexandria's economy to a standstill. At the time, the Federal government had little use for the lands south of the river like the Port of Alexandria. Further, residents of the District of Columbia had no representation and no right to vote at any level of government.
The Port of Alexandria was home to the Franklin & Armfield Slave Market, one of the largest in the United States, from 1828 until 1836. At this time, the Port of Alexandria was sending over one thousand slaves to Natchez and New Orleans each year. During the American Civil War, the slave pen at the market was converted to a jail by the Union.
The abolition movement was growing in the Nation's capital, and the Port of Alexandria's economy would be decimated if slavery were abolished. The Commonwealth of Virginia was sharply divided on the issue, leading to the later formation of West Virginia. Voters petition the US Congress to return the Port of Alexandria area to Virginia, and it was returned to the Commonwealth in 1846, adding two new pro-slavery representatives to the US Congress.
The Port of Alexandria was the site of the first fatalities for both the North and South during the American Civil War. A month later, the Battle of Fort Sumter signaled the beginning of the war. Union troops occupied the Port of Alexandria in May 1861, and it was under occupation until the end of the war. Fort Ward, one of the ring of forts built around the capital by the Union, is located within the Port of Alexandria boundaries today. From the time West Virginia was established as a state in 1863 until the end of the Civil War, the Port of Alexandria was the seat of the Restored Government of Virginia, or the Alexandria Government.
The Union used the Port of Alexandria's Virginia Theological Seminary and the Episcopal High School buildings as hospitals. The Port of Alexandria's Christ Church came under the control of army chaplains. Occupation by the Union attracted many escaped African American slaves to the Port of Alexandria where they could find relative freedom and work. They were then labeled "Contrabands" to prevent their return to their former masters. Many Contrabands joined the Union army as construction workers, hospital personnel, longshoremen, wood cutters, teamsters, painters, cooks, laundresses, gravediggers, and personal servants. Many also became sailors and soldiers. The Port of Alexandria grew in population to 18 thousand by the fall of 1863, largely as a result of the incoming Contrabands.
Many Contrabands were destitute. They were housed in shantytowns and barracks. Overcrowded and with poor sanitation, typhoid outbreaks were frequent. A parcel of undeveloped land was seized by General John P. Slough in 1864 to create a cemetery for Contrabands. When Congress took away most of the Freedmen's Bureau authority in 1868, the cemetery was closed. It is believed that as many as 1800 Contrabands and freedmen had been buried in this Port of Alexandria cemetery. In 2008, the Port of Alexandria created a memorial Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery park that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
In 1969 and 1976, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla visited the Port of Alexandria, hosted by a Polish Catholic priest from the Port of Alexandria's St. Mary's Catholic Church. In 1978, Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. In 1999, the Port of Alexandria celebrated its 250th Anniversary.