The city of Washington, in the District of Columbia, and the four surrounding states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware are collectively known as the Capital Region. Since the days of the first American colonies, US history has been shaped here, from the Jamestown landings to agitation for Independence, to the battles of the Revolutionary and Civil wars to 1960s Civil Rights milestones and protest movements on issues including war, abortion and gay rights.
Early in the seventeenth century, the first British settlements began to take root along the rich estuary of the Chesapeake Bay; the colonists hoped for gold but found their fortunes instead in tobacco. Virginia, the first settlement, was the largest and most populous. Half of its people were slaves, brought from Africa to do the backbreaking work of harvesting the “noxious weed” of tobacco. Despite its central position on the East Coast, almost all the region lies below the Mason-Dixon Line – the imaginary line between North and South, drawn up in 1763 to resolve a border dispute, but which became the symbolic boundary between free and unfree states. Slaves helped build the Capitol, and until the Civil War one of the country’s busiest slave markets was just two blocks from the White House.
Tensions between North and South finally erupted into the Civil War, of which traces are still visible everywhere. The hundred miles between the capital of the Union – Washington DC – and that of the Confederacy – Richmond, Virginia – were a constant and bloody battleground for four long years between 1861 and 1865.
Washington DC itself, with its magnificent monuments and terrific museums, is an essential stop on any tour of the region, or of the country. Virginia, to the south, is home to hundreds of historic sites, from the estates of revolutionary leaders and early politicians to the Colonial capital of Williamsburg, as well as the narrow forested heights of Shenandoah National Park along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Much greater expanses of wilderness, crashing whitewater rivers and innumerable backwoods villages await you in far less-visited West Virginia. Most tourists come to Maryland for the maritime traditions of Chesapeake Bay, though many of its quaint old villages have been gentrified by weekend pleasure-boaters. Baltimore is full of character, enjoyably unpretentious if a bit ramshackle, while Annapolis, the pleasant state capital, is linked by bridge and ferry to the Eastern Shore. New Castle, across the border in Delaware, is a well-preserved colonial-era town; nearby are some of the East Coast’s best (and least crowded) beaches.