President Thomas Jefferson’s visit to Ravensworth on April 1-2, 1804 was arranged in three letters between President Jefferson and Nicholas Fitzhugh.

Fitzhugh’s letter enclosed a map outlining a route leading into and part way through Ravensworth. An interpretation of that map is provided here.

For information about main roads of the era, see Roads Circa 1800.

Nicholas Fitzhugh’s map starts on the “Leesburg Turnpike Road” (today’s Leesburg Pike, VA RT-7). The first landmark cited is “Thomas’s,” a blacksmith near today’s Seven Corners intersection. Clearly Jefferson had an established route, which Fitzhugh knew about, to travel from Washington to this point.

As a first step in interpreting Fitzhugh’s map, let’s see how Jefferson traveled cross country to Thomas’ on Leesburg Turnpike.

From Washington to Leesburg Turnpike

Jefferson crossed the Potomac River on the ferry from Georgetown to Mason’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island). An April 1802 letter, in which Jefferson shares with Georgia Congressman John Milledge his itinerary for traveling to Monticello, provides evidence for tracing his route. The itinerary’s first three steps are: “from Georgetown ferry to Thomas (blacksmith)… 6 miles…Ox road …2-1/2 miles…Rich’d Fitzhugh’s…4 miles. Jefferson explains to Milledge:

“From Georgetown ferry turn down the road half a mile towards Alexandria till you come to an old house on the right just below which, you will see an obscure road turn up a gullied hill side which you are to take–it is impossible to give directions as to right and left thro’ this route–the way must be enquired from one stage to another. Observe that the general course of the road is South West.”1

On today’s map, measuring one half mile toward Alexandria from a point on Roosevelt Island opposite Georgetown reaches an escarpment through which Arlington Boulevard (Rt-50) descends eastward toward the Potomac River. This may be the “gullied hill” Jefferson refers to. From this point southwestward to Seven Corners, a relatively straight five and one half mile path that avoids challenging topography would follow today’s Arlington Boulevard to 10th Street North to Wilson Boulevard to Seven Corners. The estimated path is traced on the following map.

Today’s view (in Google Maps)

From Leesburg Turnpike to Oak Hill

Jefferson’s guidance to Milledge continues:

“Here you go directly across the Alexandria road…from Thomas’s… You go by Mr. Minor’s–after entering the Ox road, you leave it and go through the plantations of 3 or 4 to Mr. Fitzhugh’s, a good road but very zigzag on so much that if you ever come to a fork on the road leave always the direct one and take that which changes your course, which is frequently done at right angles, but you will be in Plantations all the time and can get directions–the road, tho’ private, is free to everybody.”2

Nicholas Fitzhugh’s map
Starting at Leesburg Turnpike, Nicholas Fitzhugh’s map and instructions recommend to Jefferson a better way,

“…than the one you have heretofore used; the principal advantage contemplated is that you miss a bad Bridge and a steep Hill near my Brother Cooke’s Meadow…The dotted way is the one you have used which falls into the Alexandria or Court house road in a wood near a pond & forms a junction with the [unintelligible].”

Referring to landmarks on his hand-drawn map (bolded below and annotated in the image that follows), Fitzhugh writes:

“After passing Minors Lane, you cross a Run; then ascend a Hill & passing through a short lane of Mr Whiting, you enter an old field, a Barn & several houses on the left a short distance off & a fence to the right. After passing the Barn, you enter the first Gate on the right, passing a Road…through my Brother Cooke’s Quarter to the Alexandria or Court house Road opposite my Brother Giles’s [house] where you cross it nearly at right angles going through a Gate on each side of the Alexandria Road.”

Image: Nicholas Fitzhugh's hand-drawn map is positioned as an overlay on a contemporary street map with the estimated locations of key landmarks annotated. Locations of Fitzhugh residences are also noted. (street map by Virtual Earth)

Nicholas Fitzhugh’s hand-drawn map is positioned as an overlay on a contemporary street map with the estimated locations of key landmarks annotated. The overlay is rotated about 200 degrees clockwise with its start and end points anchored to known landmarks. Locations of Fitzhugh residences are also noted. (street map by Virtual Earth)

Fitzhugh concludes his guidance: “The way is then the one to which you have been accustomed…” This leaves unclear the route from the Alexandria-Courthouse Road to the Alexandria Turnpike Road (today’s Braddock Road) and Richard Fitzhugh’s home at Oak Hill. Perhaps it was the path followed by today’s Ravensworth Road, citations of which as a new road began appearing in deeds much later in the 1840s. Less likely is a straight line path to Oak Hill, which would have involved a challenging water crossing with steep topography west of Accotink Creek. Whatever the route, it must have been well known or easily located, as Jefferson appears not to consider it important to address in his 1802 letter to John Milledge.3


  1. Jefferson, Thomas. 1940. “Letters from Old Trunks”. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 48 (2). Virginia Historical Society: 97–103.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid