THE GROUND ON WHICH THE UNITED States Capitol stands was known from the earliest moments of European settlement as the New Troy tract. Granted in 1663 by the second Lord Baltimore to George Thompson, it was one of three substantial parcels that Thompson would own within the boundaries of the future District of Columbia. His holdings encompassed some 1,800 acres, or slightly more than one-fourth of all the land that would be allotted for the site of the capital city. While the 500 acres that constituted New Troy would change hands six times, it was never known by any other name prior to 1791. When Daniel Carroll of Duddington finally conveyed this property to the federal government, the site for the Capitol was still indicated on the official deed as New Troy. The name pretentious classical allusion was consistent with the names early settlers assigned to their farms. Thompson neighbor, Francis Pope, called his 400- acre farm Rome and the stream that flowed along its eastern edge the Tiber. It was, he must have thought, a much better and more imaginative name than its earlier and more prosaic designation of Goose Creek. Classical allusions such as these, reflecting the lofty goals of the early republic, would prove to be very appealing throughout the nation well into the nineteenth century.
Today, most guidebooks to Washington, D.C., describe Capitol Hill as a neighborhood comprising about four square miles with the Capitol standing at its western edge. In their attempts to be clear about the Capitol location, the authors of these guides often will add that the site of the building is actually called Jenkins Hill. This claim is also encountered on websites posted by various members of Congress, the Library of Congress, the Architect of the Capitol, and the National Park Service. Not one of these authorities specifies who Jenkins was or why his name is so prominently associated with such an important place. The habit of continual usage and the eminence of those who repeat the claim have combined to make the label credible. A few writers suggest that a Thomas Jenkins once leased a portion of Daniel Carroll estate near the future Capitol site in order to pasture his cows, and as a consequence of this transaction, Jenkins name became associated with the site. Given that Christian Hines, the nineteenth-century memoirist commonly cited as the authority for the existence of the lease, places two men named Jenkins in the north western section of the city between Rhode Island and New York avenues, the case for the simultane-ous presence of one of these men on the site of the Capitol seems rather feeble. Moreover, John Trumbull, artist of four paintings in the Capitol Rotunda, reported in 1791 that he found the site to be a "thick woods," making it an unlikely place for pasturing livestock. After almost a century of speculation on the identity of the Jenkins of Jenkins Hill, the judgment of local historian Margaret Brent Downing in 1918 still holds: "the exact reason that the name of Jenkins is continually associated with this hallowed spot remains to be explained."
It is Peter Charles L'Enfant who first used the name Jenkins Hill. Offered the commission to design a seat of government for the fledgling American republic in the spring of 1790, he began to search out the best locations for a meeting place for Congress, a presidential residence, and several other public offices in January 1791. Stymied at first by poor weather, on March 11, 1791, he wrote to President George Washington that he had at last been able to inspect the "gradual rising ground from Carrollsburg toward the ferry road" - the land we recognize today as the southern half of Capitol Hill. Nine days later he wrote again to report that he had mapped out more of the territory between the Anacostia River and Tiber Creek "so much as included Jenkins Hill and all the water course from round Carroll point up to the Ferry landing." By June 22, 1791, L'Enfant vision of a future capital city had matured considerably with respect both to building locations and the potent vista that they might collectively present. Of the site for the future Capitol, he bragged to Washington: "I could not discover one in all respects so advantageous . . . for erecting the Federal Hse. [as] the western end of Jenkin Heights [which] stands really as a pedestal waiting for a superstructure."
After L'Enfant fixed the name "Jenkin Hill" on the Capitol site, both Washington and Thomas Jefferson followed his lead. Because L'Enfant offered alternate renderings of the name - sometimes as "hill" and other times as "heights" - it would seem that he was not entirely sure just what the prominent ridge at the western end of Capitol Hill should be called. Furthermore, he was apparently unaware that the site, which had belonged to a branch of the prominent Carroll family since 1758, was already known as New Troy.8 In the midst of the public enthusiasm for the emerging capital city, only a brief mention that appeared in the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser on July 5, 1791, recalled the deeper history of the Capitol site: "It appears that the buildings of the Legislature are to be placed on Jenkin Hill on the land of Daniel Carroll, esq. of Duddington."9 This was the last time the name of the property owner who conveyed his land to the federal government would be publicly linked with the Capitol site. While Carroll would gain a reputation as both a successful businessman and a committed supporter of the Federal City, his connection to the Capitol has been almost completely forgotten. Today, there is little public awareness that the ground chosen as the site for one of the nation most celebrated symbols of liberty was, in the final analysis, actually Carroll legacy to the nation.
Beyond recognizing a certain irony in the fact that the land that once belonged to Daniel Carroll is now assigned to a mysterious man named Jenkins, we must also discover just how it was that L'Enfant came to choose this particular name. While L'Enfant supplies no explanation, for eight months - from October 17, 1790, to June 1, 1791 - a Thomas Jenkins did own fifty-four acres on Capitol Hill. His parcel was located about seven blocks to the east of the Capitol site, roughly a mile from the site that is now regularly called Jenkins Hill. Since this was most likely the same Thomas Jenkins who also owned an apple orchard in the northwestern quadrant of Washington, his brief acquisition of an additional small plot in the more sparsely settled part of the District of Columbia suggests that his plan was to cut down trees either for building timber or for firewood. In the federal census of 1800, the household of Thomas Jenkins was recorded as consisting of a white male and four enslaved men, a workforce sufficient to turn a quick profit on a fifty-four acre plot. The presence of such a work crew is important to the naming of Capitol Hill because the path of the ferry mentioned by L'Enfant in his letters to Washington ran right through Jenkins parcel. Given that there was no other way, at that time, to travel across the hill, L'Enfant almost certainly encountered Jenkins or one or more of his enslaved men. While such a meeting can only be conjectured, it does suggest why, of all the possible labels he might have assigned to a relatively untamed wooded plateau, L'Enfant would fasten on the name Jenkins.
John Michael Vlach is professor of American Studies and Anthropology and director of the Folklife Program at The George Washington University.
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