Home > History of Wine > The Cultivation of the Grapevine in Washington, D.C. 1834-1845

The Cultivation of the Grapevine in Washington, D.C. 1834-1845


At the meeting of the Columbian Horticultural Society held on August 3, 1842, Mr. Watterston gave a long address.[1]  In describing the origins of the society, the idea had “been suggested by a venerable citizen, who had devoted several years of his life to the cultivation of the native and foreign grape, with no little success, and that it had been early embraced and carried into effect by a number of public spirited men.” The Columbian Horticultural Society was organized on August 21, 1833.[2]  Amongst the names of the originating officers who cultivated the vine are society president Colonel Nathan Towson and “Councillors” Adam Lindsay, William Winston Seaton, Colonel George Bomford, and Joshua Peirce.

West front of the United States Capitol with cows in the foreground. Smith, John Rubers. 1831. No. DRWG/US - Smith (J.R.), no. 34.Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

West front of the United States Capitol with cows in the foreground. Smith, John Rubers. 1831. No. DRWG/US – Smith (J.R.), no. 34.Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1822, the names of George Bomford and Nathan Towson appear in the Distribution of the Army as published in A National Calendar.[3]  Lieutenant Colonel George Bomford is listed under Ordnance of the First Regiment of Artillery.  Colonel Nathan Towson, Maryland was under the Second Regiment of Artillery.  Ten years later under the War Department appears Brevet Colonel George Bomford, Chief of Ordnance and Nathan Towson, Paymaster General.[4]  Amongst the members of the Washington National Monument Society were William Winston Seaton, Colonel George Bomford, George Watterston, and Nathan Towson.[5]  Samuel Harrison Smith was co-proprietor of the National Intelligencer, later known as Daily National Intelligencer, along with William Winston Seaton who later became Mayor of Washington in 1840.  In the 1820s he was also a member of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences.  Charted by Congress in 1818 the society succeeded in the creation of the United States Botanic Garden.[6]  The members of this society included Samuel Harrison Smith, Colonel George Bomford, and Colonel Nathan Towson.   George Shoemaker was the president of The Farmers and Mechanic’s Bank in 1862.[7]  Adam Lindsay not only built the reservoir near the Eastern Branch but also the Eastern Branch Bridge in 1819-1820.[8]  Joshua Peirce ran the Linnean Hill nursery on 83 acres of land in Cleveland Park.  In his 1824 Catalogue of Fruit and Ornamental Trees and Plants…at Linnaean Hill there are listed 24 different grape varieties.[9]

Map of the city of Washington. De Krafft, F. C. 1846. No. G3850 1846 .D4. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Map of the city of Washington. De Krafft, F. C. 1846. No. G3850 1846 .D4. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

The early cultivators of the grapevine in Washington, D.C. were bound not only for their appreciation of the grapevine.  They were bound by military service, membership in societies, and prominence in Washington, D.C.  The reports on the Columbian Horticultural Society give a strong sense of which varietals were cultivated from the mid-1830s through the early 1840s.  It is no doubt that William Winston Seaton’s participation in the society and co-proprietorship of the National Intelligencer resulted in the detailed reports which were published in his newspaper.  These reports were disseminated by many horticultural journals of which I have relied on. It is from a selection of these reports that this post focuses on.  I do not mean to imply that it was only prominent families who cultivated the grapevine.

The members of the Columbian Horticultural Society who cultivated the grapevine also exhibited other fruits, vegetables, and plants.  The numbers of vines cultivated is not specified so the extent that their gardens contained “vineries” or vineyards cannot yet be ascertained.  Whether they produced wine is also unstated but some idea may be derived from the varietals exhibited.  In 1826, John Adlum classified grapes as either “table grapes” or “wine grapes.”[10]  Table grapes included Malmsy, White Sweet Water, Chasselas, Munier or Miller Burgundy, and Isabella.  Wine grapes included Catawba, Bland Madeira, Schuylkill Muscadel, Constantia or Cape of Good Hope, Worthington, and Lufborough.  In 1857, Joshua Peirce classified his grapevines as “those that are native” and “those good for the table.”[11]  The Catawba and Isabella were classified as native, table grapes whereas the Northern Muscadine, Concord, and Diana.  The Catawba and Isabella varietals appear most frequently followed by Malaga and Chasselas.  Thus it appears a combination of wine and table grapevines were cultivated.

The first Annual Exhibition of the Columbian Horticultural Society was held at City Hall on June 5-6, 1834.  Though there was no mention of grapevines some of the exhibitors included Mrs. Bomford, Joshua Peirce, Mrs. Colonel Towson, and Mrs. Seaton.  Beginning with the June 1835 meetings of the Columbian Horticultural Society no grapevines were presented until October 3, 1835.[12]  On this date Adam Lindsay exhibited Catawba, Roman plum, Mississippi, and white Chasselas grapes.  Joshua Peirce exhibited Catawba grapes.  At the November 7, 1835 Fall Exhibition the society noted that the “season had, indeed, been very favorable.”  Though no grapes were specifically mentioned there “was also a considerable collection of fruit, chief from the orchards of Mr. Barnard and Mr. Smith.”  It is unclear whether this is a reference to Samuel Harrison Smith’s orchard at Sidney.

View of Washington, D.C., looking northwest from southeast of the U.S. Capitol. Kollner, Augustus. 1846-55. No. DRWG/US - Unattributed, no. 56. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

View of Washington, D.C., looking northwest from southeast of the U.S. Capitol. Kollner, Augustus. 1846-55. No. DRWG/US – Unattributed, no. 56. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As reported in my previous post The First Autumnal Exhibition of the Columbian Horticultural Society held on September 21-22, 1837.[13] In the Report of the Committee on Fruits the following people submitted grape vine samples: “The lady of the President of the Society” [wife of Colonel Nathan Towson] presented Catawba and Isabella grapes, Mrs. Seaton presented a dishes of Isabella and Catawba grapes, Mr. George Shoemaker had “a noble display of Catawba grapes, Judge Morrell had “very fine black Malaga grapes, from a vine raised by himself from seed”, Georgetown College had a “handsome bunches of grapes”, and Mr. Kurtz, Jr. presented “a neat frame containing bunches of Catawba grapes tastefully arranged”. Adam Lindsay presented a branch from a grape vine. It “contained such abundance of the finest grapes as would have puzzled Caleb, the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua, the son of Nun, to have borne off from the land of promise without detection.”

At the August 17th, 1839 meeting George Shoemaker of Georgetown showed “beautiful specimens of Sweetwater and Catawba grapes.”[14]  Mr. Otterback showed “fine bunches” of Chasselas and Burgundy grapes, along with “two bunches of well ripened foreign grapes, not named.”

At the October 30, 1840 meeting of the society it was not that “[t] season was somewhat too far advanced for a great display of fruits.”[15]  The fruits consisted primarily of apples and grapes.  Both Catawba and Isabella grapes were exhibited by George Shoemaker, Adam Lindsay, Mrs. W.A. Bradley, Mrs. Towson, and Mrs. Seaton.  They were found to me “mature and perfect, and made a fine display.”  The report continued that the “grapes were more numerous, and decidedly superior to any heretofore exhibited, and looked exceedingly tempting.”  At the Fall Exhibition held at City Hall from 2-7pm on September 14, 1840 it was noted that “the season [was] not the most propitious.”  From the “vineries of” Mrs. Towson, George Shoemaker, and Thomas Blagden were exhibited “a variety of native and foreign grapes – the Catawba, Isabella, and Malaga.”

Capitol at Washington D.C.-- West view. Kollner, Augustus. 1839. No. DRWG/US - Kollner, no. 14. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Capitol at Washington D.C.– West view. Kollner, Augustus. 1839. No. DRWG/US – Kollner, no. 14. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By 1845 the Columbian Horticultural Society had discontinued its exhibitions.[16]  A group still gathered to exhibit fruit which was displayed at the store of  John F. Callan.  These specimens were left between August and September, 1845.  John Pearce submitted Chasselas de l’Eau which weight one pound per bunch and Mrs. Seaton submitted six ounces each of Catawba and Isabella.  J. F. Caldwell submitted what appears to be his own varietal the “Caldwell’s Seedling, a very meritorious grape.”  John Pearce won the first prize or “Premium” followed by J. F. Caldwell who won second.  John Pearce, not to be confused with Joshua Peirce, was the gardener of Thomas Blagden.  Thomas Blagden, amongst other activities, sold the land for the Government Hospital for the Insane, later known as St. Elizabeth’s.


[1] The Gardener and Practical Florist, Volume 2. 1843. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=5hBIAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[2] Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume 10. 1907. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=p7PJmNmjRgoC&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[3] Force, Peter. A National Calendar. Volume 3. 1822. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=xWU9AAAAYAAJ&pg=PA9#v=onepage&q&f=false
[4] Williams, Edwin. The New York Annual Register. 1832. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=hxYXAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[6] United States National Museum. Annual Report, Part 2. 1901. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=zRclAQAAIAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[7] Webb, William Bensing. Centennial History of the City of Washington, D.C. 1892. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=LyUUAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[8] David, William. The Acts of Congress In Relation To The District of Columbia. 1831. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=7LUwAQAAMAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false See also Bryan, Wilhelmus Bogart.  A History of the National Capital: 1815-1878. 1916. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=WyIUAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[9] Amerine, Maynard Andrew. A Bibliography of Grapes Wines, Other Alcoholic Beverages, and Temperance. 1996. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=IPVpBmWSmdYC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP5#v=onepage&q&f=false
[10] Daily National Journal; Date: 02-02-1828; Page: 3;
[11] Peirce, Joshua. Catalogue of fruit and ornamental trees, shrubbery, and plants for sale at the nurseries at Linnaean Hill. 1857. URL: http://archive.org/details/catalogueoffruit1857peir
[12] Hovey & Company. Gardener’s Magazine, Volume 2. 1836. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=-wxOAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[13] Hovey & Company. Magazine of Horticulture, Botany and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs, Volume 4. 1838. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=TvtIAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR5#v=onepage&q&f=false
[14] Hovey, Charles Mason. The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs. Volume 5. 1840. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=nfNIAAAAYAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[15] Hovey, Charles Mason. The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs. Volume 6. 1840. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=g0QYAQAAIAAJ&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[16] Hovey, Charles Mason. The Magazine of Horticulture, Botany, and All Useful Discoveries and Improvements in Rural Affairs. Volume 11. 1845. URL: http://books.google.com/books?id=dLY3AAAAMAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
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