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A History of Arlington County, Virginia

4-Session Weekend Course

Saturday, February 6, 2021 - 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. ET
Code: 1NVS34
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Soldiers gathered near a log blockhouse near Fort Corcoran in Arlington, ca. 1862, Barnard & Gibson photographer (Library of Congress)


  • This program is part of our Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.
  • Platform: Zoom
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The essence of Arlington County, Virginia, goes beyond today’s highways, corporate headquarters and high-rises and reaches deep into the past. More than a dozen prehistoric Native American sites have been discovered within the present boundary of the county, and in the early 17th century Captain John Smith found a large, thriving Necostin village on what is now the site of the Pentagon. From the Revolution to the Civil War to the postwar boom and the tech boom, Arlington County has always been a canvas for American history. Historian Kathryn Springston follows its story through four centuries of social and economic change.  

FEB 6  First Residents and Colonial Days

Once an indistinguishable corner of the Virginia wilderness populated by scattered Native Americans, by the 1690s there were numerous European settlers in what was to become Arlington County. After the Revolutionary War, it became part of the land given to the United States for the new capital city, and as part of the Federal District of Columbia was known as Alexandria County. After retrocession returned it to Virginia in 1847, the area, despite an influx of residents from other areas of the country, remained mostly small farms and a few country crossroads.

FEB 13  The Civil War and Reconstruction

Springston follows the story of Alexandria County from the arrival of federal troops in May 1861 through the postwar era. The wartime construction and occupation of the area, including 22 forts, miles of trenches, and dozens of camp sites, changed the face of the land. Springston examines the impact of these years on the county’s farms, canal, turnpikes, railroads, and the growth of its small rural villages. She also surveys the major families who owned land here—including ex-slaves, slaveholders, and small farmers—as well as the establishment and expansion of many of the county’s still-prominent communities.

FEB 20  New Growth in a New Century

Always closely tied to the national capital, Arlington grew slowly until the expansion of public transportation including railroads, and in the 1920s, bus lines. In addition, the arrival of private auto transportation due to improved roads enabled residents to work in the District and live in the “clean, pure country” of Alexandria County. The expansion of the federal government workforce, especially in the 1920s through ’40s, brought thousands of new residents to the area. Just as an influx of non-Virginians had shifted the county’s demographics in the 1840s, these early decades of the 20th century saw an impact on the school system, the way residents governed themselves (in 1932, Arlington was among the first wave to adopt the new county manager form of government), and changes in the area’s rural image. In 1920, this growth prompted the U.S. Post Office to request a change in name to Arlington County to delineate its separate status from the town of Alexandria. The session explores these years of rapid growth and the great wars.

FEB 27  Mid-Century Arlington

Springston delves into some of the changes that defined mid-20th century Arlington: its boom as a bedroom community, the continued growth of the federal government, the arrival and impact of the Metrorail subway system, and an even more pronounced shift in character from suburban to urban. She examines how the second-smallest county in the nation played a major role in the struggles against the Jim Crow laws and also covers some of the current issues facing the county in the 21st century.

4 sessions

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This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.