Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Pamela Scott – Interview with a Washington DC History Author – “Creating Capitol Hill: Place, Proprietors, and People”

Creating Capitol Hill: Place, Proprietors, and People. US Capitol Historical Society, 2018.

  1. Tell us about the book. Antiquarian Charles Carroll Carter, political historian William C. di Giacomantonio, historian-cartographer Don Alexander Hawkins, and architectural historian Pamela Scott were convened by Carter and Donald R. Kennon, historian emeritus of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society (USCHS), to contribute their various areas of expertise for the society’s first imprint. Carter compiled the definitive genealogy of the Carroll family, untangling decades of misinformation because the males favored as first names Charles, Daniel, and George. Past histories must now be consulted in order that present historians can revise what they believed and future historians of the Chesapeake region must consult Carter’s genealogy in order to determine who among a dozen or so Carrolls was responsible for actions or events.
  2. What’s your thesis? Story arc? Don Hawkins’ maps of the entire District of Columbia traces the evolution of settlement patterns beginning with the “proprietors” of the land in 1791 through houses in 1791 to present-day federal buildings on what was once owned by Daniel Carroll of Duddington, the city’s largest landowner in 1791. di Giacomantonio’s linked the political processes by which Congress settled on a Potomac River site for the Federal City in 1790 to the selection of Jenkins Hill for the Capitol in 1791.
  3. What are the most important influences? Because my essay—Capitol Neighbors—is the book’s principal one, my responses will focus on its content and the forces that drove it. Many historians as well as the city’s large number of history buffs did not believe there was enough primary documentation to write a credible, readable scholarly work that far surpasses the known information on the creation, growth, and survival of the embryonic Capitol Hill community created by the developers Daniel Carroll of Duddington and the English financier Thomas Law. that grew up around the Capitol. In fact I had much more information about many important residents than I was able to include. Moreover I was forced to limit the physical boundaries of my coverage because it would have required much more research and writing than was feasible because I was not being paid for either.
  4. What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject? One myth that I have put to rest is that Daniel Carroll of Duddington was the sole developer on the Hill via Carroll Row, Carroll’s Tavern, the Bank of Washington and several houses. It was Law who convinced George Washington to build an elegant boarding house north the Capitol, enticed early cabinet officers to live nearby, and who built two mansions for his home as well as numerous boardinghouses south of the Capitol as well as decent homes for African Americans on its north side.
  5. What are the classics in field (if any)?  The best classic sources I found were Allen C. Clark’s Greenleaf and Law in the Federal City and his article in vol 39 in Records of the Columbia Historical Society “Daniel Carroll of Duddington,” Margaret Bayard Smith’s First Forty Years of Washington Society, and George Alfred Townsend, “Thomas Law, Washington’s First Rich Man” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society v. 4.
  6. What challenges did you face in this research? The biggest challenge I faced was how to tame the enormous amount of paper I collected from manuscript collections, federal records, newspaper accounts, and some secondary sources. At the same time, each source was incomplete leaving me with many  unanswered questions.
  7. What were the most important resources you found (and where)? An important secondary resource was Perry M. Goldman & James S. Young’s The United States Congressional Directories, 1789-1840. The Daniel Carroll of Duddington Papers in the Library of Congress were unfortunately edited before they were donated. Yet they are still the place to begin. The Law Family Papers at the Maryland Historical Society are a gold mine but difficult to use because the hand writing of many of his correspondents is mostly faded and difficult to decipher. Land records in the National Archives, RG 42.
  8. Are there sources you wish existed but don’t? I wish congressional directories for Congress’ early years existed. I wish ALL of Daniel Carroll’s papers had survived and were at Library of Congress. I wish that all early congressmen had kept daily diaries or wrote home about their lives in Washington; ditto for all the boardinghouse keepers and servants of Congress.
  9. Who’s your audience? I write and rewrite and rewrite many times for I aim to engage an educated general audience at the same time I gain the respect of other historians. I am constantly encouraged by the quality of Washington’s historians with such wide-ranging expertises.
  10. Tell us about you. I retired from teaching in 2008. In addition to this book I researched and wrote a lengthy manuscript on the history of Washington’s maps for the Geography & Map Division for the Library of Congress. The future of that manuscript is currently under discussion. 
  11. What inspired you to write this book?  Like myself, two of my fellow authors discovered far more than they had originally outlined. Once one has discovered new information, it bifurcates, leading down new pathways and new conclusions. We all did far more research and work on our respective chapters than we initially intended. This translated into longer, more complex chapters but also to much more rigorous and meaningful conclusions. I was the biggest offender. And when I want to stop our editor said: “I would like to know more about this.” I really did not want to write yet more on the War of 1812. Yet once I read how varied the contemporary accounts were on something as apparently straight forward as the burning of Robert Sewall’s house, I wanted to see if it was possible to set the story straight. Indeed it was possible but yet another two months was added to my unpaid servitude!
  12. What’s unique about your perspective?  As an art historian I mine the “information” in images, believing it to be as valuable, sometimes, more valuable, than manuscript and printed sources. For example, fig. 4-47 in my essay is a detail from Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s 1815 map of the Mall and plan of Capitol Hill’s brick and stone buildings. He drew hatching to delineate the contours of the land in relation to those buildings. Considering that we have not found elevation drawings of these buildings, Latrobe’s hatching introduced a way of understanding the difference in elevations on which these buildings sat.
  13. What’s your favorite DC history book?  At any one time I have a cast of dozens of favorite books on Washington. It depends on what I am working on at any given moment. Not the kind of question I can answer in any honest way.
  14. What’s next for you? What are you working on? I am finishing two books, the first on Peter Charles L’Enfant, the second on Charles Bulfinch in Washington. I have already collected a lot of documents by and about Thomas Law and his family and will embark on collecting the rest as soon as L’Enfant and Bulfinch are placed with publishers. Having recently moved to Southwest DC, I am gathering information on its early history. I am also contemplating a series of “small guide books” for the Mall and all of its buildings aimed at the tourist audience that wants more interesting factual information about what they are looking at and experiencing.

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