Much of present-day Alexandria was included in a 6,000-acre land grant from Sir William Berkeley, Governor of Virginia, which was awarded to Robert Howson, an English ship captain, on October 21, 1669. This land overlapped a 700-acre patent that had previously been issued to Dame Margaret Brent in 1654. The Howson-tract extended along the Potomac River, from Hunting Creek on the south to the Little Falls on the north. The grant was made by authority of King Charles II in recognition of Captain Howson's bringing 120 people to live in Virginia. Less than a month later, Howson sold the land to John Alexander for 6,000 pounds of tobacco.

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, plantations were established along both sides of the Potomac River and settlement began to spread further into northern Virginia. When Fredericksburg was founded in 1728, it was the northernmost town in Virginia but was still located in the tidewater, where tobacco production was profitable.

By 1732, Hugh West had established a tobacco warehouse on high bluffs overlooking a small but deep bay, at what is today the foot of Oronoco Street in Alexandria. Philip and John Alexander farmed much of the surrounding land and Hugh West oversaw the warehouse along with a ferry and tavern. When Fairfax County was established in 1742, many of the county's residents already lived several miles inland, away from the river and from commercial ties to the outside world. Many of them found that grains like wheat and corn could be raised more profitably than tobacco in this upland area, but they desperately needed a trading place where they could gather their crops for export and could buy manufactured merchandise from abroad. To facilitate shipping, Scottish and English merchants who owned real estate at Cameron, a small hamlet four miles west of the Potomac, petitioned the Virginia General Assembly in the fall of 1748 to establish a town at West's Hunting Creek Warehouse. In the spring of 1749, this site was selected and the new town was named Alexandria in honor of the early owner of much of the land, Scotsman John Alexander. John West, Fairfax County surveyor, laid-out 60 acres (by tradition, assisted by 17-year-old George Washington), and lots were auctioned off in July 1749.

Today, Alexandria still retains much of its historic character. Many late 18th- and early 19th-century townhouses and warehouses remain in the "Old Town" section of the city, along the west bank of the Potomac River. While still a residential area for many Federal employees, Alexandria is also home to many national associations, corporations, restaurants, shops and other businesses. Many old landmarks have become museums, historic sites and art galleries. Public parks line the waterfront and the river is actively used by fishermen and recreational boaters. Visitors to the National Capitol area find that Alexandria serves as a quaint change of pace from the hectic hustle of downtown Washington, a place to relax and discover what the region was like many years ago.