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Land and Labor: Dumbarton Oaks prior to 1920

Posted On May 28, 2021 | 16:16 pm | by wayt | Permalink
A landscape history

By James Almeida and Thaïsa Way

As we explore a century in the gardens, we might start with what was here when Beatrix Farrand and Mildred Bliss began to dream. The gardens today fit into their landscape so neatly it is easy to imagine they have always been there—this sense of fitness for the site was a strength of Farrand’s. She designed with the land as she found it while shaping the gardens envisioned by her clients and patrons. In the case of Dumbarton Oaks, Farrand found a place that had been a part of Indigenous landscapes for centuries, followed by two centuries of cultivation by enslaved and later free gardeners working for the property’s European owners.

While humans have inhabited the region we know as Georgetown for thousands of years, archaeological evidence dates the first semipermanent settlements of Indigenous communities to ca. 700 CE. The settlements were primarily along navigable streams, close to the Potomac River and freshwater marshes, ensuring access to necessary resources. Indigenous communities hunted, gathered, and fished, using the settlements as seasonal basecamps. As local populations began to cultivate crops—maize, squash, and beans—fertile soil for agriculture became as important as water access and communities moved to the interior lands, where they developed increasingly sedentary village-based cultures.James D. Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country: From Hunter-Gatherers to the Age of Jefferson (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 20–28. After 1300, shifting climate patterns increased competition in the Chesapeake region, with the Potomac increasingly serving as a natural border between Algonquian and Iroquoian groups.Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country, 30–34. The land that became Dumbarton Oaks was in this boundary landscape, sitting next to Rock Creek. As the creek was not navigable above today’s P Street, it is unlikely major settlements were sited on the property, but it was certainly productive for hunting, gathering, fishing, and perhaps even quarrying quartzite and soapstone.Scott Einberger, A History of Rock Creek Park: Wilderness & Washington, D.C. (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), 17–19. Just north of the property, archaeologists have located a small Piscataway (Algonquian speakers) settlement west of Rock Creek; a trail they used frequently became Wisconsin Avenue.Maureen De Lay Joseph, Kay Fanning, and Mark Davison, Cultural Landscape Report: Dumbarton Oaks Park, Rock Creek Park, Part 1: Site History, Existing Conditions, and Analysis and Evaluation (Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 2000), 10. This was the environment Europeans found when they arrived in the early seventeenth century.Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country, 30–34.

The tract that became Dumbarton Oaks had been claimed and granted to Cecil Calvert, second Baron Baltimore, in 1632.Walter Muir Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks; the History of a Georgetown House and Garden, 1800–1966 (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 3. At the time, land was being made available for European settlement; colonists could claim large land grants with the expectation they would cultivate tobacco—then the dominant livelihood for Maryland colonists.Rice, Nature and History in the Potomac Country, 114–20. Ninian Beall applied to patent 795 acres of land described as adjacent to that of Robert Mason’s land, beginning at the mouth of Rock Creek where it meets the Potomac and extending north-northwest from there, which was granted by the Maryland Assembly in November 1703.“Land Grant: The Rock of Dunbarton (1),” Maryland Land Office at Annapolis, November 4, 1703, photocopy in Folder 6, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives. Beall had arrived in Maryland in about 1652 as an experienced soldier and indentured servant,Lois Green Carr, Robert Cole’s World: Agriculture and Society in Early Maryland (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 155–65. likely working on tobacco plantations, and by 1667 had earned his freedom and claimed the initial fifty acres due upon release.Bessie Wilmart Gahn, Original Patentees of Land at Washington Prior to 1700 (Silver Spring: Westland, 1936), 36. The sources I have been able to review do not make it clear why it took Beall fifteen years to claim the land grant; perhaps his term of service was extended. He then began accumulating land, including the property he called the Rock of Dumbarton.Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 3; “Land Grant: The Rock of Dunbarton (2),” Maryland Land Office at Annapolis, Liber C.D., folio 121, November 18, 1703, transcription in Folder 6, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives. It is not clear whether the name refers to a Scottish castle of the same name, or as it was spelled on the deed Dunbarton, is a reference to the Battle of Dunbar during the English Civil War (where Beall was taken prisoner). Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 4; William Offutt, “Restoring a Proper Name in Georgetown,” Washington Post, November 20, 2015, Opinions,

In 1717 Ninian Beall’s will left the land to his son George, along with the cattle and hogs being raised on the property, three rental houses, a storehouse for his personal use, and an orchard on the property. Upon Colonel George Beall’s death, the property was divided between his sons George and Thomas. Thomas got the portion to the west of Rock Creek where today’s Dumbarton Oaks sits; George inherited the apparently more developed portion to the east of Rock Creek.

The land remained in the Beall family until 1800, when Thomas Beall sold a twenty-two-acre tract that included the Dumbarton Oaks property to William Hammond Dorsey, a local lawyer and Maryland landholder who owned dispersed plantations as well as an ironworks.“Land Indenture between Thomas Beall of George and William H. Dorsey,” District of Columbia Land Book, Liber 5, pp. 401–3, July 12, 1800, transcription in Folder 4, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives; “Land Indenture between Thomas Beall of George and William H. Dorsey,” District of Columbia Land Book, Liber 7, p. 250, May 18, 1801, transcription in Folder 4, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives; Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 11. Dorsey built the first substantial house on the property and the family was settled in by late October 1801. A friend commented on Dorsey’s wife, Anne Brooke Dorsey, being “busy directing the Gardener, & was going to have peas and potatoes planted immediately.”Brodeau Thornton, “Diary of Mrs. William Thornton, 1800–1863,” 198–99. The entry is from March 17, 1800. It is likely the gardener was one of the ten people Dorsey enslaved, who were responsible for domestic service, gardening, driving, and perhaps even small-scale agriculture or continued orchard production on the property. On another occasion a guest mentioned getting “a couple of Jilly Flowers” as the purpose for her visit, suggesting the gardener was also cultivating carnations.Brodeau Thornton, 118. The entry is from October 7, 1800. These entries are both quoted in Colket and Van der Poel’s papers in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives.

Cart and Farm Tool outside the Orangery
Cart and farm tool outside the Orangery, photographer unknown, date unknown (likely late 19th/early 20th century). Garden Archives, LA-GP-25-14

By 1805, after the death of his wife left him with five children to care for, Dorsey sold the land and house to Robert Beverley of Virginia.“Land Indenture between William H. Dorsey and Robert Beverly,” District of Columbia Land Records, M 12, ff. 268–69, April 19, 1805, transcription in Folder 4, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives; Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 18. Beverley’s name is spelled Beverly in this document. The Beverley family was looking to reside in the country but near town, with multiple plantations held farther away. They renamed the property Acrolophos, “grove on the hill” in Greek. Though no documents confirm the date, they are thought to have built the Orangery, modeled after one owned by Beverley’s brother-in-law.Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 19–20. Professor James Grote Van Derpool, “Letter to Meredith B. Colket Jr.,” January 4, 1957, Folder 5, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives. In 1816, Beverley’s son James Bradshaw Beverly tried unsuccessfully to sell the property in an advertisement stating “the House is well built, very spacious and convenient, and very well suited to the accommodation of a large family; a good garden and excellent water, and other usual conveniences.”Whitehilll, Dumbarton Oaks, 19–20, 31. Records confirm there were both gardens and outbuildings on the property, including a plan for fruit production, all of which was likely maintained by a small cadre of enslaved men and women owned by the Beverleys. Bradshaw mentioned the gardener, Dick, and the cook, Kisiah, among four people enslaved on the property in the early 1820s.

James Bradshaw finally sold the property in 1822 to the Calhoun family, yet another southern planter family, this one with political ties to the capital: John C. Calhoun would reside there while serving as secretary of war and then as vice president of the United States.“Land Indenture between James B. Beverly and James E. Calhoun,” District of Columbia Land Records, WB 7, p. 441, April 1, 1823, transcription in Folder 4, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archive; Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 38–46. Floride Bonneau Calhoun (his mother-in-law and titular owner) wanted to escape the summer heat of downtown Washington.Margaret L. Coit, John C. Calhoun: American Portrait (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 136; Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 39. The Calhouns informally called the place “Oakly” after the many oak trees, though Acrolophos remained the name on the deed. John Calhoun, who had become vice president in 1825 under President John Quincy Adams, sold Acrolophos in August 1829, citing the insurmountable expense of maintaining the home and a busy social calendar on his limited government salary (the Calhouns rented for the remainder of their tenure in the capital).Coit, John C. Calhoun, 173; Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 43–46. The new owner of Oakly was Brooke Mackall, a native of Georgetown. Unlike the previous landed elites, Mackall worked as a customs officer for the US government.“Land Indenture between J. Edward Calhoun and Brooke Mackall,” District of Columbia Land Records, WB 28, p. 68, August 5, 1829, transcription in Folder 4, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives; Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 47–49. Whitehill even questions how Mackall could maintain the property as long as he could (until 1846) on the limited salary of a customs officer. There is no evidence of significant changes to the grounds during Mackall’s tenure. He appears to have maintained the landscape much as it had been, including an apple orchard, likely relying on the labor of enslaved people to do that work. 

By 1846 Mackall had sold the property to Edward Magruder Linthicum, a local resident and head of an established family in Montgomery County, Maryland. At the time of purchase, he lived in Georgetown where he owned an established hardware store.Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 49–51; Meredith B. Colket Jr., “History of Dumbarton Oaks,” chapter VI, manuscript in Folder 8, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives. Linthicum briefly called the property “Monterey” after the American victory in the Mexican-American War, but later settled on “the Oaks,” honoring the magnificent white oak trees on the property.Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 49. Linthicum had long been interested in trees and plants and sold them via a catalogue in his hardware store, including fruit and ornamental trees from local grower Joshua Pierce, whose Linnaean Hill nursery is now part of Rock Creek Park. The Boschke map of 1856­–1859 indicates outbuildings, likely farm buildings as well as housing for enslaved laborers and a double row of large trees along Road Street south of the main house. Linthicum appears to have expanded the agricultural activities on the property, growing hay, potatoes, market garden goods, and sustaining an orchard. For this work he had at least five enslaved people living on the property.James Almeida, “Making ‘A Country House in the City’: Labor and Land at Dumbarton Oaks through 1920,” based on research using the 1850 census and the 1850 agricultural census. “Census Place: Tenley, Washington, District of Columbia,” Census of the United States (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1830), Series M19, roll 14, page 170/Family History Library Film 0006699, National Archives and Records Administration; “Census Place: Washington, Washington, District of Columbia,” Census of the United States (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1840) Series M704, roll 35, page TKTK, National Archives and Records Administration. Linthicum had six enslaved people in his census entry in both 1830 and 1840 and owned enslaved individuals until the abolition of slavery in DC in 1862.

Because of his interest in the gardens, in 1848 Linthicum traveled to Philadelphia to hire a recently arrived English immigrant, J. H. Small, whose family were established gardeners for country estates in Great Britain. Small designed the garden at Dumbarton Oaks and at several other Georgetown estates.“Some Men of Washington,” The American Florist XXV, no. 897 (August 12, 1905), 80; J. G. Fitzpatrick, “Letter to Robert Woods Bliss, Esquire,” July 28, 1922, Folder 6, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives; Colket Jr., “History of Dumbarton Oaks,” 4–5. He likely improved the Orangery, where he may well have planted the great Ficus vine that grows to this day covering the walls and much of the ceiling.Colket Jr., “History of Dumbarton Oaks,” chapter VI, 4. Some of the older trees, including the katsura on the East Lawn, may also have been planted under Small’s direction. Also important was the addition of a low stone retaining wall surmounted by an iron fence along R Street, an elegant wrought iron main entrance gate, and a semicircular carriage drive. These additions were likely in response to the improvement of R Street under Georgetown’s public works campaign. A formal fountain was placed on the East Lawn, evidence of attention to garden design. To accomplish such significant redesign of the landscape, Linthicum would have relied on his enslaved workers to construct and plant the new gardens. District records confirm Linthicum enslaved four women on the property until the abolition of slavery; upon emancipation in the District (1862), Elizabeth, Martha, Jenny, and Peggy received their freedom and the Linthicum family had to hire labor.

The grounds, as Linthicum had hoped, became known for their elegance. George A. Gordon, a friend who visited the Oaks, wrote that “the east parlor opened into a bright, sunny dining room, which in turn looked out upon a well-filled greenhouse, with flower gardens on the east, wooded lawn in front, grove of forest trees on the west, and gently sloping well-sodded hills in the rear, all of which were kept in perfect order.” He noted that “during the life of Mr. Linthicum ‘The Oaks’ was the show place of the District.”As quoted from the archives in Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 50.

 Back of the House from what is now the North Vista
Back of the Main House from what is now the North Vista, photographer unknown, likely late 19th century. Garden Archives, LA-GP-25-15

Edward Linthicum Dent, the grandson, divided the property and sold the quarters between 1891 and 1894. At that time, Observatory Place (today part of 32nd Street) was built to run north from R (today’s S) Street; and Linthicum Place (today S Street) traveled east from Wisconsin Avenue to meet Observatory Place at what was then the center of the property. The southeast quarter with the house and an additional 6 acres were sold to Henry F. and Lucia Eames Blount, while the northeast quadrant was divided into thirds and sold to others, including one for the new Home for Incurables, an institution for those with noncommunicable but terminal illnesses initially built in 1892.

Henry F. Blount had made a fortune as a financier and manufacturer of farm implements, and the couple relocated to Georgetown after living in the Midwest and France. Lucia Eames Blount was a founding member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and was interested in developing the grounds further as gardens. Their household included a German immigrant, Henry Zollner, who worked as a gardener on the property during the 1890s and then was replaced by Edward Middleton, a Black man who lived on the property with his wife Catherine (a cook) and daughter Ruth. Later Oswald Edart, a German-born florist, was employed on the property.“Census Place: Washington, Washington, District of Columbia,” Twelfth Census of the United States (Washington, DC: Bureau of the Census, 1900), Page 5, Enumeration District 002 (FHL microfilm 1240158)/NARA T623, 1854 rolls, National Archives and Records Administration. The Blounts with their gardeners improved the grounds, creating a working farm with barns as well as a country estate with flowerbeds, a rose garden, and a row of cedars leading from the main house northward and culminating in a teahouse.Washington Post Company, A History of the City of Washington: Its Men and Institutions, ed. Allan B. Slauson (Washington, DC: copyright by the Washington Post Co., 1903), 188–89; Meredith B. Colket Jr., “[Notes Regarding the Blount Family],” ca. 1956, Folder 2, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives; Walter E. Blount, “Letter to Meredith B. Colket Jr.,” December 13, 1956, Folder 5, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives. A brick stable, a bluestone graveled driveway, and a tenant house and garden were added, and the stone retaining wall along Lovers Lane was built during this era. Lucia Blount collected older boxwoods and trees from nearby property owners;Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 57. she likely imagined transforming the grounds into a colonial revival-style garden imitating the plantation landscapes along the James River in Virginia.

Henry F. Blount died in 1917, and Lucia sold the property to Robert and Mildred Bliss, in two transactions between 1920 and 1922.“Deed Lucia E. Blount to Robert Woods Bliss,” District of Columbia Land Records, Liber 4431, f. 377, October 15, 1920, transcription in Folder 4, Colket and Van der Poel Papers, Dumbarton Oaks Archives; Whitehill, Dumbarton Oaks, 57. The Blisses expanded the property to fifty-three contiguous acres by purchasing the site of the Home for Incurables and the property known as Clifton, lying on 37½ acres immediately north of the Oaks along Massachusetts Avenue.“BUYS OLD CALHOUN ESTATE. Robert W. Bliss Pays $750,000 for Plot in Washington.,” New York Times, April 12, 1925. They debated several names for their estate, eventually deciding to combine two of the old names into what we now know as Dumbarton Oaks. The many changes in ownership have distanced us in time, but not in responsibility, from understanding the landscape before it was Dumbarton Oaks, and anniversaries like the centennial of Farrand’s designs are opportunities to recognize the transformations of landscape and architecture, often through enslaved labor, before the Blisses arrived.


This history is based on the research of James Almeida, “Making ‘A Country House in the City’: Labor and Land at Dumbarton Oaks through 1920.” We also want to acknowledge the work of Walter Muir Whitehill and the extensive archives for Dumbarton Oaks compiled by James Carder and Linda Lott.


James Almeida was 2019–2021 Tyler fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies and Thaïsa Way is resident program director of Garden and Landscape Studies.