George Gordon: Naming Historic Georgetown

February 8, 2018

City of Washington from Beyond the Navy Yard by George Cooke, 1833


Visitors to Washington, D.C. today appreciate historic Georgetown for its cobblestone sidewalks, great food, walkable shopping and grand homes. As part of our capital city, it would be easy to assume that Georgetown was named in honor our first President, George Washington, but that is likely not the case since he was a young boy when Georgetown was established. There are a few theories about how the city was named. One of them involves a progenitor of the Seals family, Scottish Immigrant, George Gordon.

Historic homes in modern-day Georgetown.
Laying Out Georgetown

In 1751, a group of Maryland commissioners was empowered to purchase 60 acres of land on the Potomac River in order to erect a new town. The commissioners selected sections of large tracts owned by George Beall and George Gordon as the “most convenient” location for the town. The two men tried to refuse but were ordered to sell in exchange for 280 pounds currency. In addition, each man was allowed to select two lots from the new city.

Plat map of Georgetown, founded in 1751. George Gordon, Esq. is named as the owner of lots 48 and 52 located on Water Street (now Wisconsin Avenue).

With no way to fight the commissioners’ order, George Gordon selected lots 48 and 52. George Beall dug in his heels for a time but eventually responded with the following letter:

“If I must part with my property by force, I had better save a little than be totally demolished… But I do hereby protest, and declare that my acceptance of the said lots, which is by force, shall not debar me from future redress from the Commissioners or others if I can have the rights of a British subject. God save King George!”  -George Beall

Many theorize that Georgetown may have been named after the two George’s who were compelled to give up their land. Others speculate the city was named for King George, as Maryland was a British Colony at the time of the city’s founding.

the early life of george gordon

George Gordon was born in Scotland in the year 1690 and immigrated to the colony of Maryland around 1711. An ambitious young man, George started a mercantile business and began purchasing land and lending money to fellow settlers. On November 13, 1734, he purchased 100 acres known as Knaves Disappointment, part of which would later become Georgetown. His first wife was a Forbes (no record of her first name) and it was through this marriage that John Adam Gordon, of the Seals family line, was born. When his first wife died around 1739, George married Eleanor Smith.

In 1748, when Frederick County was established, George was named the first county Sheriff and served in that role until his death in 1766. Sometime before 1754, George’s second wife, Eleanor, died and he married Christian Black, widow of Richard Williams.

retirement at woodyard
Sales advertisement for George’s Georgetown home in anticipation of his move to Woodyard. The Maryland Gazette August 22, 1754.

George’s third wife, Christian, had a daughter named Hannah from her first marriage. Hannah married the wealthy landowner Colonel Richard West.  In 1754 George sold his property in Georgetown and he and Christian retired to live with Hannah and Richard West on their Woodyard estate. A famous British architect at the time announced Woodyard as the “best piece of Architecture in America”. According to Columbia Historical Society records:

“The house was built in the shape of an L with forty rooms and seventy-two windows. The lawn was shaded by large forest trees and on each side of the general walk leading to the house were box trees so tall and broad as to conceal a carriage and pair.”

Hannah’s husband, Richard West, was a relation of Francis Scott Key and played a small role in Key’s famous anthem:

“The old home [Woodyard] is linked with the Battle of Fort McHenry during the war of 1812. Colonel Richard West owned it and resided there when he learned that his friend Dr. Beanes was under arrest by the British. He hastented to Washington and persuaded Francis Scott Key to go to Baltimore and try to have Dr. Beanes released or exchanged — and the immortal Star Spangled Banner was written.”

The only known representation of Woodyard, which was destroyed by fire in 1868.

George Gordon died in 1766, leaving his property to his wife Christian. His son, John, is also named in the will.


The chart above shows lineage to the Seals family. Click the link above to see George’s profile and source information in the Ancestry tree.
additional sources

Clark, Allen C. “George Gordon of the Two Original Proprietors of George Town, D. C.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., 42/43, 1940, pp. 243–252. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40067581.

JACKSON, R. P. The Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C., from 1751-1878.   R. O. Polkinhorn, printer, 1878.   Disponível em: < https://books.google.com/books?id=VFUUAAAAYAAJ >.

Diller, Corinne Hanna. “George Gordon Sheriff of Frederick County”.

SOCIETY, C. H. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington.   The Society, 1908.  ISBN 0897-9049. Disponível em: < https://books.google.com/books?id=fkILAQAAMAAJ >.

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