Alexandria is an independent city in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As of the 2010 census, the population was 139,966, in 2013, the population was estimated to be 151,218. Located along the western bank of the Potomac River, Alexandria is approximately six miles (9.6 kilometers) south of downtown Washington, D.C.
Like the rest of Northern Virginia, as well as central Maryland, modern Alexandria has been shaped by its proximity to the nation's capital. It is largely populated by professionals working in the Federal civil service, in the U.S. military, or for one of the many private companies which contract to provide services to the federal government. One of Alexandria's largest employers is the U.S. Department of Defense. Others include the Institute for Defense Analyses and the Center for Naval Analyses. In 2005, the United States Patent and Trademark Office moved to Alexandria.
The historic center of Alexandria is known as Old Town. With its concentration of boutiques, restaurants, antique shops and theaters, it is a major draw for tourists. Like Old Town, many Alexandria neighborhoods are compact, walkable, high-income suburbs of Washington, D.C. It is the 7th largest and highest-income independent city in Virginia.
A portion of adjacent Fairfax County, Virginia, is named Alexandria, but it is under the jurisdiction of Fairfax County and separate from the city; the city is sometimes referred to as the City of Alexandria or Alexandria City to avoid confusion. In 1920, Virginia's General Assembly voted to incorporate what had been Alexandria County as Arlington County, Virginia to minimize confusion.
The first European settlement was established in 1695 in what was then the English Colony of Virginia. Virginia's comprehensive Tobacco Inspection Law of 1730 mandated that all tobacco grown in the colony must be brought to locally designated public warehouses for inspection before sale: one of the sites designated for a warehouse on the upper Potomac River was at the mouth of Hunting Creek. However, the ground being unsuitable at that location, the warehouse was established a half-mile up river, where the water ran deep near the shore.
Following the 1745 settlement of the colony's 10-year-long dispute with Lord Fairfax over the western boundary of the Northern Neck Proprietary—the Privy Council in London finding in favor of Lord Fairfax's expanded claim—some of the gentry class of Fairfax County banded together to form the Ohio Company of Virginia. Their intent was to establish trade into the interior of America and for this they required an entrepot close to the head of navigation on the Potomac. The Hunting Creek tobacco warehouse offered the best location for a trading port which could accommodate sailing ships. However, many of the local tobacco planters wanted a new town to be sited up Hunting Creek, away from the "played out" tobacco fields along the river.
Around 1746, Captain Philip Alexander II (1704–1753) moved to what is south of present Duke Street in Alexandria. His estate, which consisted of , was bounded by Hunting Creek, Hooff's Run, the Potomac River, and approximately the line which would become Cameron Street. At the opening of Virginia's 1748–49 legislative session, there was a petition submitted in the House of Burgesses on November 1, 1748, that the "inhabitants of Fairfax (Co.) praying that a town may be established at Hunting Creek Warehouse on Potowmack River," as Hugh West was the owner of the warehouse. The petition was introduced by Lawrence Washington (1718-1752), the representative for Fairfax County and, more importantly, the son-in-law of William Fairfax and a founding member of the Ohio Company. To support the Company's push for a town on the river, Lawrence's younger brother George Washington, an aspiring surveyor, made a sketch of the shoreline touting the advantages of the tobacco warehouse site.
Since the river site was amidst his estate, Philip opposed the idea and strongly favored a site at the head of Hunting Creek (also known as Great Hunting Creek). It has been said that in order to avoid a predicament the petitioners offered to name the new town Alexandria, in honor of Philip's family. As a result, Philip and his cousin Captain John Alexander (1711–1763) gave land to assist in the development of Alexandria, and are thus listed as the founders. This John was the son of Robert Alexander II (1688–1735). On May 2, 1749, the House of Burgesses approved the river location and ordered "Mr. Washington do go up with a Message to the Council and acquaint them that this House have agreed to the Amendments titled An Act for erecting a Town at Hunting Creek Warehouse, in the County of Fairfax." A "Public Vendue" (auction) was advertised for July, and the county surveyor laid out street lanes and town lots. The auction was conducted on July 13–14, 1749. Almost immediately upon establishment, the town founders called the new town "Belhaven", believed to be in honor of a Scottish patriot, John Hamilton, 2nd Lord Belhaven and Stenton, the Northern Neck tobacco trade being then dominated by Scots. The name Belhaven was used in official lotteries to raise money for a Church and Market House, but it was never approved by the legislature and fell out of favor in the mid-1750s. The town of Alexandria did not become incorporated until 1779.
In 1755, General Edward Braddock organized his fatal expedition against Fort Duquesne at Carlyle House in Alexandria. In April 1755, the governors of Virginia, and the Provinces of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York met to determine upon concerted action against the French in America.
In March 1785, commissioners from Virginia and Maryland met in Alexandria to discuss the commercial relations of the two states, finishing their business at Mount Vernon. The Mount Vernon Conference concluded on March 28 with an agreement for freedom of trade and freedom of navigation of the Potomac River. The Maryland legislature, in ratifying this agreement on November 22, proposed a conference among representatives from all the states to consider the adoption of definite commercial regulations. This led to the calling of the Annapolis Convention of 1786, which in turn led to the calling of the Federal Convention of 1787.
In 1791, Alexandria was included in the area chosen by George Washington to become the District of Columbia. A portion of the City of Alexandria---known as "Old Town"--- and all of today's Arlington County share the distinction of having been originally in Virginia, ceded to the U.S. Government to form the District of Columbia, and later retroceded to Virginia by the federal government in 1846, when the District was reduced in size to exclude the portion south of the Potomac River. The City of Alexandria was re-chartered in 1852.
In 1814, during the War of 1812, a British fleet launched a successful Raid on Alexandria, which surrendered without a fight. As agreed in the terms of surrender the British looted stores and warehouses of mainly flour, tobacco, cotton, wine, and sugar.
Over time, a movement grew to separate Alexandria from the District of Columbia (the District of Columbia retrocession). As competition grew with the port of Georgetown and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal fostered development on the north side of the Potomac River, the city's economy stagnated, together with the loss of representation and rights to vote and failed expectations for economic benefit from the new district. Alexandria was also an important port and market in the slave trade, and there were increasing talk of the abolition of slavery in the national capital. Alexandria's economy would suffer greatly if slavery were outlawed. After a referendum, voters petitioned Congress and Virginia to return the area to Virginia. Congress retroceded the area to Virginia on July 9, 1846. Ultimately, the City of Alexandria became independent of Alexandria County in 1870. The remaining portion of Alexandria County changed its name to Arlington County in 1920.
The first fatalities of the North and South in the American Civil War occurred in Alexandria. Within a month of the Battle of Fort Sumter, where two died, Union troops occupied Alexandria, landing troops at the base of King Street on the Potomac River on May 24, 1861. A few blocks up King Street from their landing site, the commander of the New York Fire Zouaves, Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, sortied with a small detachment to retrieve a large Confederate flag displayed on the roof of the Marshall House Inn that had been visible from the White House. While descending from the roof, Ellsworth was killed by Captain James W. Jackson, the hotel proprietor. One of the soldiers in Ellsworth's party shot Jackson immediately thereafter. After Ellsworth's death, he was publicized as a Union martyr. The incident generated great excitement in the North. Jackson's death caused a lesser, but similar sensation in the South.
Alexandria remained under military occupation until the end of the Civil War. One of the ring of forts built during the war by the Union army for the defense of Washington, D.C., Fort Ward, is located within the boundaries of modern Alexandria. After the establishment of the state of West Virginia in 1863 and until the close of the war, Alexandria was the seat of the Restored Government of Virginia also known as the "Alexandria Government." During the Union occupation, a recurring point of contention between the Alexandria citizenry and the military occupiers was the military's periodic insistence that church services include prayers for the President of the United States, resulting in incidents such as the full arrest of a minister in his church.
Escaped African American slaves poured into the military occupation of Alexandria. Safely behind Union lines, the cities of Alexandria and Washington offered not only comparative freedom, but employment. Over the course of the war, Alexandria was transformed by the Union occupiers into a major supply depot and transport and hospital center, all under army control. Because the escaped slaves were still legally property until the abolition of slavery, they were labeled as contrabands to prevent their being returned to their masters. Contrabands took positions with the army in various support roles. According to one statistic, the population of Alexandria had exploded to 18,000 by the fall of 1863 – an increase of 10,000 people in 16 months.
As of ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, Alexandria County's black population was more than 8,700, or about half the total number of residents in the County. This newly enfranchised constituency provided the support necessary to elect the first black Alexandrians to the City Council and the Virginia Legislature.
In 1930, Alexandria annexed the Town of Potomac. That town, adjacent to Potomac Yard, had been laid out beginning in the late 19th century and incorporated in 1908. By the late 20th century, Alexandria had become a key portion of the urban agglomeration of Northern Virginia.