What’s in a Name?

The name of Dumbarton Oaks Park is rooted in over 400 years of local history. In 1703, the Maryland colonial government granted a 795 acre near-wilderness tract of land comprising what is now all of eastern Georgetown beyond Wisconsin Avenue to Ninian Beall who had emigrated as a young man to Maryland and over a long life served the colony in various capacities, including as commander of its militia.Beall named this land grant “The Rock of Dumbarton” after a well-known huge rock monolith in his native Scotland on the River Clyde downstream of Glasgow.

During the second half of the 18th century, Beall’s descendants sold off and subdivided most of the land grant to profit from and accommodate the steady northward expansion of Georgetown, which had been successfully established on the Potomac River in 1748 as a port city for central Maryland’s agricultural exports. By 1800, only the far northern portion of Beall’s land grant was left in the family to be sold, and a portion of it was conveyed to a local businessman that year who promptly built the core of the current Dumbarton Oaks mansion.

The mansion’s grounds waxed and waned in size over a century and ten successive owners. In the post Civil War era, some of those owners began calling the property “The Oaks,” in recognition of the huge white oak trees that fronted the property along R Street. The last private owners, Robert and Mildred Bliss, during the 1920s combined these two traditions to call their estate “Dumbarton Oaks.” In 1940, when they donated the estate and divided it between Harvard University and the National Park Service, that portion given to Harvard was christened “Dumbarton Oaks,” and that portion given to the American people was named “Dumbarton Oaks Park.”

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