Who Settled Georgetown?


In 1751 the Maryland Assembly authorized the acquisition of sixty acres to be the site of the future city of Georgetown (of which the eastern half of Glover Park was once part). The city’s founders, it is generally agreed, were agents for the Scottish merchant houses that dominated the tobacco trade in Maryland during the colonial period. One of the very first to establish himself in the business of exporting tobacco, was Robert Peter, who is often spoken of in old records as “George Town’s pioneer business man.”  As a young man of about twenty he had come from Crossbasket near Glasgow, first to Bladensburg and thence to George Town, and in 1752 established himself in business, and in 1790 became its first mayor. He represented the firm of John Glassford & Company of North Britain, Glasgow, well known both in England and in Scotland. Of course, not everyone in town was a “merchant prince and land owner”, and there clear evidence that other nationalities participated in the settlement. Georgetown’s first church, for example, built in 1769, served a congregation of German Lutherans.

(Grace Dunlop Ecker, A Portrait of Old George Town, 1951, pp.14, 69; Rev. Luther Hess Waring, Ph.D., History of The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Georgetown, D. C., 1769-1909, 1909)


Reliable statistics that might clarify the picture do not exist. The first United States census, which took place in 1790, just one year after Georgetown was incorporated, contains no information about ethnicity other than whether a person was white or not. A further inconvenience for the would-be demographer is that the census of 1790 does not distinguish clearly between the city of Georgetown and adjacent areas. To judge by names that can also be found on Georgetown tax rolls, however, the page that corresponds to Georgetown is the one that begins with Benjamin Stoddert, who lived on Prospect Street. This page lists 289 heads of household, and counts 2135 persons: 1402 whites, 69 free blacks (called “Other Free Persons”), and 664 enslaved persons.

About 40 white heads of household in the 1790 census have surnames that appear to be Scottish, such as Douglass and Magruder; perhaps 30 white heads of household have surnames, such as Reintzel and Kurtz, that are likely to be German. But, of 289 households, only 70 show surnames that are unambiguously Scottish nor German. This is not surprising: in Maryland, the ethnic origin of the population was estimated in 1931 as being 40% English, 9% Scottish, 7% German, and 7% Irish (northern and southern), and 3% other. (That the 1931 surname left entirely unmentioned that a full third of the population of Maryland was of African origin will come as no surprise.)

(Surnames in the United States Census of 1790: An Analysis of National Origins of the Population. Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1931, pp.211, 235, 273, 307)


Assuming that Georgetown resembled Maryland as a whole (and adjusting for Scots who had English surnames, and Germans whose surnames had been anglicized), a rough estimate of the ethnic or national origin of the population of Georgetown in 1790 would be that more than two thirds were either of English (34%) or African origin (34%), and that the remainder were 11% Scottish, 9% German, 9% Irish (northern and southern), and 3% other.








Heads of Families at the First Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1790 for the State of Maryland, p.85

Surnames in the United States Census of 1790: An Analysis of National Origins of the Population. Annual Report of the American Historical Association, 1931, pp.211, 235, 273, 307


See also:


The City of Washington, An Illustrated History, 1977, pp.36-8

Washington, City and Capital, 1937, p.716

Grace Dunlop Ecker, Portrait Of Old Georgetown, 1933

Evening Star, April 1, 1893, p.11




Carlton Fletcher

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