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What Is the Oldest House in Alexandria?

Posted on Nov 19,2007
Filed Under News , Community,

The following is one of a series of excerpts we’re featuring from Robert Madison’s book, “Walking with Washington”.

The Dalton House today

The John Dalton house at 207 North Fairfax Street is believed to be the oldest house in Alexandria still on its original lot.  The original clapboard house, built by John Dalton (d. 1777), is behind the modern brick front; and you can get a better idea of how it appeared originally by looking down the driveway.  George Washington slept here on several occasions in 1769 and 1770, according to tradition in the room with the dormer windows. 

Dalton House

John Dalton was a partner of John Carlyle for more than 25 years, and they imported rum, sugar, slaves, and general merchandise.  They also acted as George Washington’s agents in selling his tobacco and wheat on a number of occasions.  Dalton became a town trustee in 1750 and served for a time as overseer of the town.  In 1776, Dalton was involved in building armed vessels and procuring arms, food, and supplies for Revolutionary War troops.  Dalton’s great-granddaughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham (1816-1875), organized the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1853, and, as its first regent, conducted the successful drive for funds to purchase Washington’s home.

The Ramsay House today

According to tradition, Ramsay House (the Alexandria Visitors Center) at 221 King Street is the oldest house in Alexandria.  The legend holds that the house was originally built elsewhere as early as 1724, probably near Dumfries, and then barged up the river by William Ramsay (1716-1785) to its present site.  Unfortunately, no documentation has been found to substantiate the legend; and, in reality, this 1956 reconstruction is based on early photographs of the house. 

The Ramsay House in the '30s

The Virginia Assembly established the town of Alexandria by an act approved May 11, 1749, and William Ramsay, who occupied this house, was a founder and trustee of Alexandria.  In 1761, he was elected honorary Lord Mayor.  At various times, he also served as census taker, postmaster, colonel of the militia regiment, and member of the Committee of Safety.  He knew George Washington well enough to borrow 150 pounds from him in 1757.  His wife, Anne (c1730-1785), who was a cousin of Washington, was praised by Thomas Jefferson for having raised over $75,000 in funds to support the American Revolution.  When William Ramsay died in 1785, his good friend George Washington walked in his funeral procession.  Two months later, Washington attended Mrs. Ramsay’s funeral. 

William Ramsay’s son, Colonel Dennis Ramsay (1756-1810), then owned this house; and George Washington dined here both father and son.  Dennis Ramsay, a captain in the Virginia Continental line during the Revolutionary War, was a merchant who sold mostly hardware, but also carried stocks of men’s and women’s gloves and shoes, leather breeches, felt hats, and pipes.  While mayor of Alexandria in 1789, Dennis Ramsay delivered the farewell address from the citizens of Alexandria at Wise’s Tavern (201 North Fairfax Street) when George Washington left Alexandria to be inaugurated first President of the United States in New York City.  Dennis Ramsay is believed to be the first official to address Washington as “Mr. President.”  Also, Dennis Ramsay participated with Washington in laying the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol building and was a pall bearer at Washington’s funeral.  Later, Dennis Ramsay was one of the “Midnight Justices” appointed by President John Adams, whom President Thomas Jefferson refused to seat.  This resulted in the famous Supreme Court case of Marbury vs. Madison, which established the concept of “judicial review” allowing the Supreme Court to declare actions of Congress unconstitutional.

Today, Ramsay House is Alexandria’s official visitor’s center, where you can obtain brochures on Alexandria’s historic attractions, special events, restaurants, accommodations, and shops.  Open 9:00 AM until 5:00 PM every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.  Free. 

(Adapted from "Walking with Washington", available in Alexandria museum gift shops. For more on Alexandria's history, visit The Alexandria Historical Society.)

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