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A Brief History of Leesburg

Early Settlement and Founding (1722-1813) •  Antebellum Leesburg (1814-1860) •  Leesburg during the Civil War (1861-1865) •  Reconstruction through World War II (1866-1945) •  Post-War Boom and Sustained Growth (ca. 1946-present) •  Sources

Established in 1758, Leesburg is the seat of government for Loudoun County. The town's rich history spans three centuries. The following history provides an overview of the town's development through the beginning of the twenty-first century with interesting historical tidbits of local color.

Early Settlement and Founding: "indifferently built … tho' very advantageously situated" (1722-1813)

Following the 1722 Treaty of Albany, in which the Iroquois abandoned all lands east of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the colony of Virginia, colonists and new immigrants of a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds began settling the lands that would become Loudoun County. In 1730, Thomas, the 6th Earl of Fairfax, granted 4,054 acres, including what would become Leesburg, to Francis Awbrey. At the intersection of the major north-south Carolina Road (now U.S. Highway 15) and the east-west oriented Potomac Ridge Road (now Virginia Highway 7), a small settlement emerged.

In 1757 the Assembly of Virginia selected this settlement for the location of the Loudoun County courthouse. The land was then owned by Nicholas Minor, who hired John Hough to survey and plat his 60 acres into 70 lots to form a town, which he called George Town. The name was changed to Leesburg the following year: the act establishing the Town of Leesburg by the General Assembly was signed 18 February 1813, providing for elected officials to pass laws governing the town and manage town affairs.

Discover more about Leesburg during its first decades.

Hough map of Leesburg, 1757
Original map of Leesburg. James Goode Photograph Collection (VC 0010), Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA.

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Antebellum Leesburg (1814-1860)

Central View of Leesburg from Yardley Taylor map
Detail of the Town of Leesburg, Yardley Taylor map of Loudoun County 1853. Map Collection, Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA.

By 1850, Leesburg had grown to 1,688 residents. From the earliest settlers, Leesburg's residents had included slaves. Unlike slaves in rural Loudoun County, Leesburg's slaves were often skilled artisans, worked in shops, or worked in their owner's homes. Mixed with the diversity of the religious and political opinions on slavery held by its white residents, Leesburg's relationship with the institution was complicated and sometimes contradictory. Many of Leesburg's Quakers, Methodists and Presbyterians were active in the Loudoun chapter of the American Colonization Society, which sought to send freed slaves to the new colony of Liberia, in Africa.


Discover more about Leesburg during the antebellum years.

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Leesburg and the Civil War: "A perfect sneering nest of Rebels" (1861-1865)

Leesburg was a prosperous southern town of about 1,700 at the outbreak of the Civil War. It was strategically (or uncomfortably) near the border, located just two miles south of the Potomac River, which then divided the United States from the Confederate States of America. Loudoun County's two delegates to the Virginia Secession Convention in April 1961, Leesburg attorney John Janney (whom the convention elected its president) and John Armistead Carter, voted against secession. The Ordinance of Secession passed nonetheless by a vote of 88 to 55.

The next month Leesburg men overwhelming ratified the Ordinance with a vote of 400 to 22. By war's end, Leesburg changed hands about 150 times and suffered not only from the frequent raids and combat in its streets but also the disintegration of civil authority.

 

Dog Money $.50
Leesburg 50¢ note. Leesburg Municipal Currency ("Dog Money") (SC 0034)Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA.

Discover more about Leesburg during the Civil War.

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Reconstruction through World War II (1866-1945)

Leesburg, ca. 1910
Leesburg ca. 1900. Town of Leesburg Records, Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, VA.

Following the Civil War, Leesburg's proximity to Washington speeded its economic recovery. Loudoun's farmers contributed goods to both sides of the war effort, and had endured the scorched earth tactics of both retreating armies. But because these problems were common throughout the south, local farmers could send what little crops and stock they had to markets in Georgetown and Baltimore at lower transportation costs than farmers further away from markets and capitalize on the inflated prices. Leesburg, as the economic hub of Loudoun, facilitated and benefitted from this recovery.

Leesburg became a main stop for the railroad traveling westward through Loudoun, which facilitated Leesburg's growth as the social heart of Loudoun, host to traveling circuses, baseball and Confederate spy Belle Boyd. Leesburgers served their country in many ways during two world wars, and Leesburg was home to Governor Westmoreland Davis.

Discover more about Leesburg during from 1866 through the Second World War.

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Post-War Boom and Sustained Growth (ca. 1946-present)

The pace of change in Leesburg and Loudoun County accelerated after the end of the Second World War. With the end of war-time restrictions on fuel and rubber, and new with government programs like the GI bill, which enabled returning veterans to pursue higher education opportunities previously out of reach, a life dominated by the cycles of agriculture was challenged.

Leesburg experienced growing pains as the population grew and Leesburg became increasingly integrated into the greater Washington area. Nonetheless, many residents advocated measures to retain Leesburg's historic character. The civil rights era further changed the town, although racial integration in Leesburg was not marked by the violence seen in some southern towns: high schools began desegregating in 1962 and were fully integrated by 1968.

Market Station
Courtesy of Jeffrey Greenberg

Leesburg was also home to George Marshall, architect of the plan to rebuild devastated Europe after the Second World War, and Arthur Godfrey, a national radio and television personality who was also a Leesburg aviator and philanthropist.

Discover more about Leesburg during the second half of the twentieth century.

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Sources

Archives and Manuscripts, Thomas Balch Library

Deck, Patrick Arthur, Henry Heaton, and Henry P. White. An Economic and Social Survey of Loudoun County. [Charlottesville]: University of Virginia, 1926.

Gillespie, Richard T. "A Perfect Sneering Nest of Rebels": Leesburg in the Civil War: A Guided Walking Tour of the Old Town. Leesburg, VA: Loudoun Museum, 1998.

Harwood, Herbert Hawley, Jr. Rails to the Blue Ridge: The Washington and Old Dominion Railroad, 1847-1968. Fairfax Station, VA: Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, 2000. Available for purchase through NVRPA.

Lee, Deborah A. African American Heritage Trail, Leesburg, Virginia. Leesburg, VA: Loudoun Museum [and] the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, 2002. Available for purchase at Thomas Balch Library.

Loudoun Valley High School. While You Were Gone ...: Home Front Life in Western Loudoun County During World War II. Western Loudoun Home Front Project. Leesburg, VA: s.n.], 1994.

Poland, Charles Preston. From Frontier to Suburbia: Loudoun County, Virginia: One of America's Fastest Growing Counties. Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2005 Available for purchase at Thomas Balch Library..

Saffer, Wynne C. Loudoun Votes 1867-1966: A Civil War Legacy. Westminster, Md: Willow Bend Books, 2002. Available for purchase at Thomas Balch Library.

Scheel, Eugene M. Loudoun Discovered: Communities, Corners & Crossroads. Volume 2: Leesburg & the Old Carolina Road. Leesburg, VA: Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, 2002. Available for purchase at Thomas Balch Library and through the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library.

Smith, Kathryn Gettings, Evelyn D. Causey, and Edna Johnston. Exploring Leesburg: Guide to History and Architecture. Leesburg, VA: Town of Leesburg, 2003. Available for purchase at Leesburg Town Hall, Cobblestone Antiques, Thomas Balch Library, and the LCVA Visitor Center locations.

Vertical Files, Thomas Balch Library.

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Last updated: 12/6/2013 4:11:26 PM