District of Columbia Family History Research

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This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny in Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
The District of Columbia Family History Research series.
History of the District of Columbia
District of Columbia Vital Records
Census Records for the District of Columbia
Background Sources for the District of Columbia
District of Columbia Maps
District of Columbia Land Records
District of Columbia Probate Records
District of Columbia Court Records
District of Columbia Tax Records
District of Columbia Cemetery Records
District of Columbia Church Records
District of Columbia Military Records
District of Columbia Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
District of Columbia Archives, Libraries, and Societies
District of Columbia Immigration
African Americans of the District of Columbia
District of Columbia County Resources


Congress created the District of Columbia as the seat of the federal government on 16 July 1790. On 9 September 1791 George Washington appointed three commissioners to lay out the city, although the federal government did not relocate to the District of Columbia until 1801. The area chosen as the seat of government was carved from Fairfax County, Virginia (created in 1742) and from part of Prince George’s (created 1695) and Montgomery (created 1776) counties, Maryland. The area taken from Virginia was returned to that state in 1846.

By 1800 the District’s population was about 14,000, but the federal government was still operating in Philadelphia. In the interim before the government relocated, residents of the District used record-keeping services in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland, until local government offices were established. By 1820, the population had grown to about 33,000 as more government jobs were made available and retail businesses grew to accommodate the populace. Those moving into the area came mainly from surrounding states, but some merchants arrived from Europe. African Americans have always been a major element of the District’s population, and their number increased dramatically during the Civil War and Reconstruction era. Nearly twenty percent of the total population in 1860 was made up of free African Americans; slightly more than four percent were slaves.

Tracing families in the District of Columbia requires a complete understanding of the record periods and jurisdictions and the tenacity to track them down in one of the many repositories. Records for those living in the area created for the District of Columbia before 1801 have to be sought either in Maryland’s or Virginia’s records. When the portion of Virginia originally taken to create the District of Columbia was returned in 1846, the pre-1846 records were returned as well.

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