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What Once Wasn’t: The Dangers of Cut & Paste History

By Stephen A. Hansen*

The Internet is a fantastic tool for researching and sharing historical research, yet at the same time, it can easily help perpetuate incorrect information. It seems that once something is published or posted online, it must therefore be true. And once clipped, these errors are simply cut and pasted over and over again, from web page to web page, even making its way into print books, without any verification of original sources.

I encountered this issue of “cut and paste history” when I began researching for my book on the history of Kalorama Triangle* and was trying to trace the history of 17th-century land grants. Where is often the first place people go when looking for historical information? The Internet, of course. But here, I saw the same information, repeated on multiple websites and was tempted to take that information at face value. Fortunately, I had access to original deeds and wills and thought it best to verify what I was seeing. The more I looked at original sources, the more incorrect the information on the Internet became.

One example of this cut and paste history is what Internet users may first encounter when searching for the history of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood is a Wikipedia entry for the neighborhood, which states:

“In 1727, Charles Calvert, 5th Lord Baltimore (then governor of the Maryland Colony) awarded a land grant for present day Mount Pleasant to James Holmead. This estate also included the present-day Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, and Pleasant Plains neighborhoods. James’s son, Anthony, inherited the estate in 1750 and named it Pleasant Plains.”

According to original sources, there was a land grant close to Mount Pleasant made to a James that his son John did inherit, but it wasn’t to James Holmead and it wasn’t in 1727. Around 1650, James Langworth received a warrant (the right to a certain amount of land) not a grant for 670 acres, but it did not extend as far north as the present day Mount Pleasant neighborhood, only as far north as Calvert Street. He left that tract of land to his son John, and it was named “Widow’s Mite” when it was finally surveyed and patented in 1664. Anthony Holmead bought Widow’s Mite in 1727. In 1750 he died, leaving it to his nephew (also an Anthony).

The Mount Pleasant neighborhood does sit on an 18th-century tract of land called Pleasant Plains, but that name dates from 1791, when the nephew Anthony Holmead combined two other tracts of land (Beall’s Plains and Lamar’s Outlet), both of which he had purchased and combined them under the new name Pleasant Plains.

Wikipedia can be a great resource for information, and is considered by many to be the electronic equivalent to the Encyclopedia Britannica. But those who post entries there are not necessarily experts themselves, and the Wikipedia model expects (hopes) that other users will see and correct any errors. But often, the original posting remains unedited and then serves as an authoritative source.

At the website, we find the following, slightly reworded, version of the same information as in the Wikipedia entry, although it is uncertain which entry came first:

“Mount Pleasant’s history reaches back into the early 1700s. Its beginnings are rooted in colonial times when, in 1727, James Holmead received a patent from Charles Carroll, Lord Baltimore, for a large parcel of land that included the area to the east of Rock Creek and south of Piney Branch.“ The website goes on to state that Anthony Holmead lived in Pleasant Plains until his death in 1802.

According to original sources, Anthony Holmead did, in fact, die in 1802, but he did not live at his uncle’s home, Holmead Manner. He built his own house in Widow’s Mite in 1750, at what is now the intersection of S and 23rd Streets. In 1793, he sold that house to Gustavus Scott, a City Commissioner, and built a new home to the northeast of his first house, which he named “Rock Hill,” located on the site that is now the location of Mitchell Park.

Anthony Holmead’s “Rock Hill” house. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Anthony Holmead’s “Rock Hill” house. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Wikipedia entry for Mount Pleasant also states, “during 1794 and 1796 Robert Peter, Georgetown’s pioneer businessman, conducted title descriptions and maps were created for tracts of some of his land in Mount Pleasant for transactions with commissioners of the city.”

A tract of land named Mount Pleasant did belong to Robert Peter, who is perhaps better remembered as the first mayor of Georgetown. In 1791, Peter combined one of his tracts of land named Plain Dealing with two others immediately to the east of Holmead’s Window’s Mite tract under the new name “Mount Pleasant.” Peter’s Mount Pleasant patent was bordered by T Street to the south, Euclid Street to the north and 18th Street to the west, and was generally about where the Washington Heights historic district is located today.

Robert Peter’s Mount Pleasant patent. document--Maryland State Archives.

Robert Peter’s Mount Pleasant patent. document–Maryland State Archives.

The name for the Mount Pleasant neighborhood is possibly derived from Peter’s tract of land, but got this name in 1862 when developer S.P. Brown bought a 73-acre farm for the purposes of real estate development and named it Mount Pleasant. He may have also taken the name from a mansion by the same name built in 1840 by William James Stone that was once located on the corner of Clifton and 13th Streets, NW.

One image in the National Archives collection that is available online has appeared in numerous print and online publications as a photo of the Van Ness mansion. The mansion was built in 1813 for John Peter Van Ness and designed by Benjamin Latrobe, and once stood where the Organization of American States headquarters stand today on 17th Street, NW between C Street and Constitution Avenue.

Why try to use this one when there are so many others? Perhaps, because this specific photograph shows a house that is not as derelict as those of the actual Van Ness mansion. Additionally, folks may think that this photo is also exceptional as that must be John Peter Van Ness himself seen standing in front of the house with cloak, cane, and top hat.

Photo from the National Archives collection assumed by many to be the Van Ness mansion.

Photo from the National Archives collection assumed by many to be the Van Ness mansion.

Compared to other photos of the Van Ness house, it should be clear to an architectural historian, or even just to anyone with a good eye, that this is not a photo of the Van Ness mansion. For example, this house had two wings; the Van Ness house did not, and the chimneys are in different locations on each house. This is probably due to another version of the image in the Library of Congress online collection, which is incorrectly labeled as the “Van Ness Mansion” with the actual location of the Van Ness house written on the image in pen in the upper right hand corner of the photo. So, if it’s online and from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division’s website, it must be therefore correct, right? Wrong.

The actual Van Ness mansion.  photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The actual Van Ness mansion. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Photo posted on the Library of Congress website incorrectly labeled as the Van Ness Mansion.

Photo posted on the Library of Congress website incorrectly labeled as the Van Ness Mansion.

The photo in question is probably the “Mount Pleasant” house itself. That is most likely William James Stone himself in the photo. James Goode may have gotten this one right in Capital Losses (I was unable to check his sources), but bloggers and others have not been so careful with their use of this photo.

Anyone who tries to write history should do so responsibly. Simply having a website, a blog, or even a publisher and repasting or reprinting information or reposting historical photos does not make one an historian. So, be wary of what you read and see online.

*Kalorama Triangle: The History of a Capital Neighborhood. History Press, 2011.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2013 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.