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Exploring the History of Cowtown Neighborhood in Washington DC

This stereo card was taken from Howard University looking southwest in the late 1800s, showing the Cowtown neighborhood of Washington DC. From Streets of Washington flickr gallery.

Wait–Cowtown!? The names of old neighborhoods in Washington, DC would have many today scratching their heads: Hell’s Bottom, The Island, Swampoodle, and Bloodfield. My favorite, though, is the Cowtown neighborhood in Washington DC.

When I found this neighborhood listed on MapQuest, I was the most confused I had been in a long time, and it started an obsession with Cowtown.

The Origins of Cowtown

The story of Cowtown begins with the establishment of Washington, DC as the nation’s capital. When the city was founded, it encompassed not only the city of Washington, but also different counties and cities. The city of Washington was bounded by Boundary Road (which is now known as Florida Avenue) to the north. Just beyond this street between Sherman Avenue and Howard University, in what was then the county of Washington, lay the land would become the Cowtown neighborhood of Washington DC.

In much of the 1800s, animals were not allowed to roam freely in the city of Washington, and had to be confined to pens, like around the White House. But in the county of Washington, there was no such restriction. Cowtown earned its name because it was an area where cows, pigs, and sheep roamed freely. The neighborhood was dotted with dairy farms that provided fresh milk to the city on a daily basis. The concentration of these farms was particularly prominent in the area between what is today Barry Place NW and Euclid Street NW. In fact, you’ll find a historical marker for Cowtown at Barry Place and Georgia Ave NW!

However, in 1871, both the city and the county came under a territorial government, and the era of free-roaming animals in the Cowtown neighborhood of Washington DC came to an end. People continued to own animals, but the area became less and less focused on agriculture as development continued into Washington County. The stream running through the heart of Cowtown was eventually re-routed through a sewer.

In the 1910, it was still a tranquil area of the city with little crime. With the advent of urban development and public works projects, much of Cowtown was eventually demolished, making way for new infrastructure.

Cowtown After Cows

While Cowtown was known for its dairy farms and open pastures, it also had a reputation that extended beyond its agricultural roots. In the mid-20th century, the neighborhood gained a less favorable image. It became associated with low-income communities and crime.

During the 1940s, child gangs with names like the “Bone Crushers” and the “Fifth Street Tigers” wreaked havoc in Cowtown. The neighborhood struggled with issues such as theft, fights, and harassment of law enforcement officers due to these child gangs. The situation reached a tipping point, prompting local police officer Oliver A. Cowan to take action.

The Rise of the Junior Police Corps

Officer Cowan believed that the youth in the Cowtown neighborhood in Washington DC could be empowered to solve their own problems and reduce crime rates. To put this idea into action, he created the Junior Police and Citizen Corps. This innovative program aimed to provide young individuals with the tools and responsibility to address the issues plaguing their community.

The Junior Police Corps operated on the principle of self-governance. The participating youth elected their own mayors, held ranks, and wore badges. They even had their own headquarters, initially located at the back of the Lincoln Theatre.

The program encouraged interracial friendships and included girls, setting it apart from other segregated organizations of the time. What is now known as the Boys and Girls Club was, at the time, the Boys Club, and only open to white boys. Junior Police and Citizen Corps was an integrated organization, allowing children of all races to join. Their attitude towards girls was still very much of the time, and while they did have girls allowed into the program, there was some debate about letting them into the organization as a whole because the idea of women police officers was not palatable. Instead, an auxiliary branch for girls was created.

The Junior Police Corps had a unique approach to conflict resolution. Instead of resorting to violence, members were encouraged to engage in dialogue and, if necessary, settle disputes through sanctioned physical contests. The program went as far as building an arena for organized fights, providing a controlled outlet for conflicts.

The Impact of the Junior Police Corps

The implementation of the Junior Police Corps in Cowtown had a significant impact on the neighborhood. The program’s emphasis on self-policing and community engagement led to a remarkable reduction in juvenile arrests. Crime rates dropped by 50%, making Cowtown a model for other communities across the country.

The success of the Junior Police Corps demonstrated the potential of giving young individuals a sense of responsibility and authority. By entrusting them with ranks and involving them in the decision-making process, Officer Cowan empowered the youth of Cowtown to take ownership of their community’s well-being.

The Legacy of the Cowtown Neighborhood in Washington DC

Over time, the neighborhood lost the name Cowtown and shifted to Pleasant Plains. While I haven’t seen anything written about why the name Cowtown went out of favor, I believe it likely had to do with the changing characteristics of the neighborhood. As the city grew in the post-Civil War period, people started to build up the area outside of Washington City and into the county.

The demand for houses increased, and the land was developed for neighborhoods. No longer was Cowtown a place for slaughterhouses, dairy farmers, and livestock; it was a place for homes. The different in the 1870 census and 1880 census is pretty striking when you look at the occupations listed for Cowtown’s inhabitants. In 1870, many residents were engaged in agriculture; as the years went on, only a few (such as the Shregue family) remained.

As time passes, memory fades; I believe that when Cowtown stopped having so many cows, the name lost its hold. Pleasant Plains is seen on maps from the early 1900s, and the name remains (somewhat) today.

The demolition of many original structures in Cowtown paved the way for the construction of Banneker and other public works projects. These initiatives brought about positive changes, contributing to the revitalization of the neighborhood. Cowtown’s proximity to Howard University also played a role in its transformation, attracting new residents and businesses to the area.


The history of the Cowtown neighborhood in Washington DC is a testament to the city’s evolution over time. From its origins as a place where livestock roamed freely to its association with crime and subsequent revitalization, Cowtown has undergone a remarkable journey. The implementation of the Junior Police Corps and the empowerment of the neighborhood’s youth highlight the transformative power of community engagement and responsibility.

Today, the Cowtown historical marker stands as a reminder of the city’s past. As the nation’s capital continues to grow and change, learning about neighborhoods like Cowtown plays an essential role in preserving the history that makes Washington, DC such a unique and captivating place.

So, next time you find yourself exploring the streets of Washington, DC, take a moment to appreciate the hidden stories behind the city’s neighborhoods. Cowtown is just one example of the many forgotten neighborhoods of Washington, DC.

Valerie Moore

Having lived in Washington, DC for the past 16 years, Valerie has a lot of thoughts about the best things to do, eat, and know around the city. She loves doing deep dives into the interesting things she finds, and sharing with the world. You'll often find her dog, Lil Mikey, along for the ride.

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