Aquia Creek Quarry: Capital City Slavery Tour

Originally owned by the first mayor of Washington D.C., Robert Brent, and located around 45 miles southwest of Capitol Hill in Northern Virginia, Aquia Creek Quarry played a significant role in the early development of Washington, D.C. Brent, an active slaveholder and leading figure in District politics, sold the quarry to the federal government on December 2, 1791 for $6,000. He was hired to run the quarrying operation in 1792, and records indicate that the use of enslaved labor was already present in the quarry.[1]

Possible reasons for the use of enslaved labor at the quarry could include lower wages for the enslaved, cheaper quality of food, less complaints (due to a lack of choice in employment), or the availability of enslaved laborers. Enslaved workers were usually fed bread and salted meat such as pork or beef. Housing was provided for the enslaved near the quarry, but no records exist as to the quality or quantity of these structures.

Quarrying stone constituted one of the most difficult enterprises in early America—without any form of power or electric tools, all cutting, hauling, carving, and transport were done by human hands. Work traditionally occurred during the warmer months, which included an additional risk of exposure to snakes, disease-carrying mosquitoes, and heat-induced illness (such as heatstroke). The quarry’s location on an island-like, forested peninsula along Aquia Creek only exacerbated the presence of these mosquitoes and snakes. Both enslaved and free workers had to endure months of separation from family members and a high risk of injury. The work was so arduous that the District’s commissioners provided a half-pint of whiskey for workers—it is unclear if this applied to enslaved laborers as well.[2]

The process of stone cutting and quarrying involved clearing away under-brush, chipping away stone exposed to the elements, and carving cavities into the stone in which one workman would descend. A complex system of trenches, stone markings, and rudimentary tools resulted in a wealth of stone that would eventually be used in the construction of the U.S. Capitol Building and the White House.

Historic Preservation Status: By the mid-1800s, Aquia Creek sandstone fell out of favor in D.C. construction projects, but the federal government didn’t officially sell the quarry until 1963. Today, the area—once known as the Aquia Creek Quarry, Brent’s Island, and Wigginton Island—is now known as “Government Island” and is a historically preserved park. The historic landmark nomination includes the following information on the use of enslaved labor on the government property:

“The work force at Public Quarry consisted of free Whites who worked as stone cutters and slaves who primarily worked as laborers. Brent was first directed by the Commissioners to hire “40 negroes at 12 £ Virginia Currency per annum ($32 plus provisions)” and was later authorized to hire “twenty-five able bodied negroe men slaves, at the price not exceeding fifteen pounds Virginia Currency a year ($40) finding and clothing the said negroes” (Kapsch, 159). Brent and Cooke agreed to supply 3,500 tons of stone by the end of 1795, 4,500 tons in 1796, and up to an estimated 10,000 tons over the next five years.”[3]

“Though the total quantities and values of stone actually extracted from Public Quarry for the use in prominent federal buildings are unknown, the impact on the local workforce and economy is clear. Because of this demand, stone quarriers became major employers of the county, as demonstrated by the presence of various advertisements for laborers in local newspapers during 1796, as well as by early census data. The U.S. census from 1820, occurring just after the peak of the Public Quarry activity, is the first available data that specifies the breakdown of occupations for heads of households in Virginia. In it, manufacturing was listed as the second largest occupation in Stafford County. Out of 1310 heads of households in 1820, manufacturing employed 14% behind agriculture (81.6%) and ahead of commerce (3.5%). The term manufacturer included master craftsmen, journeymen, apprentices, and servants and likely includes the large number of enslaved workers who also labored there. Of 193 heads of households listed as manufacturers, 90 of those were “stone quarriers” (46.6%), followed by 17 blacksmiths (8.8%) and millers and wheel rights, equally staffed with 15 people or 7.7% of the manufacturers in Stafford County (1820 Census of the United States).”[4]

Virginia Landmarks Register: March 19, 2003
National Register of Historic Places: May 31, 2007


[1] See William C. Allen’s “History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the U.S. Capitol,” published by the Office of the Architect of the Capitol (June 1, 2005), page 5.
[2] See Allen’s “History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the U.S. Capitol,” page 6.
[3] See page 13 of the National Register Nomination Form.[4] See page 15 of the National Register Nomination Form.



191 Coal Landing, Stafford VA 22554