Bethesda is located in a region populated by the Piscataway and Nacotchtank tribes at the time of European colonization. Henry Fleet (1602–1661) was an English fur trader and the first European to travel to the area, which he reached by sailing up the Potomac River. He stayed with the Piscataway tribe from 1623 to 1627 as both a guest and a prisoner, then returned to England. He spoke of potential riches in fur and gold, and won funding for another American expedition. The tribes living on the land that became Bethesda were forced into reservations and decimated by communicable diseases to which they had no immunity.
Most early settlers in Maryland were tenant farmers who paid their rent in tobacco, and colonists continued to push farther north in search of fertile land. Henry Darnall (1645–1711) surveyed a 710-acre (2.9 km2) area in 1694 which became the first land grant in Bethesda. and tobacco farming was the primary way of life in Bethesda throughout the 1700s. The establishment of Washington, D.C. in 1790 deprived Montgomery County of its economic center at Georgetown, although the event had little effect on the small farmers throughout Bethesda.
Between 1805 and 1821, Bethesda became a rural way station after development of the Washington and Rockville Turnpike, which carried tobacco and other products between Georgetown and Rockville, and north to Frederick. A small settlement grew around a store and tollhouse along the turnpike by 1862 known as "Darcy's Store", named after the store's owner William E. Darcy. The settlement was renamed in 1871 by postmaster Robert Franck after the Bethesda Meeting House, a Presbyterian church built in 1820. The church burned in 1849 and was rebuilt the same year about 100 yards (91 m) south, and its former location became the Cemetery of the Bethesda Meeting House.
Bethesda did not develop beyond a small crossroads village through the 19th century. It consisted then of a blacksmith shop, a church and school, and a few houses and stores. In 1852, the postmaster general established a post office in Bethesda and appointed Rev. A. R. Smith its first postmaster. A streetcar line was established in 1890 and suburbanization increased in the early 1900s, and Bethesda began to grow in population. Communities that were situated near railroad lines had grown the fastest during the 19th century, but mass production of the automobile ended that dependency and Bethesda planners grew the community with the transportation revolution in mind. This included becoming a key stopping point for the B & O railroad on their Georgetown Branch line completed around 1910 that ran from Silver Spring to Georgetown, passing through Bethesda on the way. The branch had a storage yard there and multiple sidings that served the industries in Bethesda in the early 20th century. B & O successor CSX ceased train service on the line in 1985, so the county transformed it into a trail in the rails-to-trails movement. The tracks were removed in 1994 and the first part of the trail was opened in 1998; it has become the most used rail trail in the United States, averaging over one million users per year.
Subdivisions began to appear on old farmland in the late 19th century, becoming the neighborhoods of Drummond, Woodmont, Edgemoor, and Battery Park. Farther north, several wealthy men made Rockville Pike famous for its mansions. These included Brainard W. Parker ("Cedarcroft", 1892), James Oyster ("Strathmore", 1899), George E. Hamilton ("Hamilton House", 1904; now the Stone Ridge School), Luke I. Wilson ("Tree Tops", 1926), Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor ("Wild Acres", 1928–29), and George Freeland Peter ("Stone House", 1930). In 1930, Dr Armistead Peter's pioneering manor house "Winona" (1873) became the clubhouse of the Woodmont Country Club on land that is now part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) campus. Merle Thorpe's mansion "Pook's Hill" (1927, razed 1948) became the home-in-exile of the Norwegian Royal Family during World War II.
World War II and the subsequent expansion of government further fed the rapid growth of Bethesda. Both the National Naval Medical Center (1940–42) and the NIH complex (1948) were built just to the north of the developing downtown, and this drew government contractors, medical professionals, and other businesses to the area. In recent years, Bethesda has consolidated as the major urban core and employment center of southwestern Montgomery County. This recent growth has been vigorous following the expansion of Metrorail with a station in Bethesda in 1984. Alan Kay built the Bethesda Metro Center over the Red line metro rail which opened up further commercial and residential development in the immediate vicinity. In the 2000s, the strict height limits on construction in the District of Columbia led to the development of mid- and high-rise office and residential towers around the Bethesda Metro stop, effectively creating a major urban center.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the CDP has a total area of 13.2 square miles (34 km2), of which 13.1 square miles (34 km2) is land and 0.1 square miles (0.26 km2) (0.38%) is water.
The main commercial corridor that passes through Bethesda is Maryland Route 355 (known as Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda and as Rockville Pike and Hungerford Drive in more northern communities), which, to the north, connects Bethesda with the communities of North Bethesda and Rockville, ending, after several name changes, in Frederick. Toward the South, Rockville Pike becomes Wisconsin Avenue near the NIH Campus and continues beyond Bethesda through Chevy Chase, Friendship Heights and into Washington, D.C., ending in Georgetown.
The area commonly known as "Downtown Bethesda" is centered at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue, Old Georgetown Road and East-West Highway. This intersection is approximately two and one-half miles from Washington, DC's western boundary, making Bethesda a close-in suburb of Washington. Other focal points of downtown Bethesda include the Woodmont Triangle, bordered by Old Georgetown Road (Maryland Route 187), Woodmont and Rugby Avenues, and the Bethesda Row, centered at the intersection of Woodmont Avenue and Bethesda Avenue. Much of the dense construction in that area followed the opening of the Bethesda station on the Red Line of the Washington Metro rapid transit system, also located at this intersection and the centerpiece of the Bethesda Metro Center development. The Medical Center Metro stop lies approximately 0.7 mile north of the Bethesda stop, Medical Center, which serves the NIH Campus, the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
There were 23,659 households out of which 28.0% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 53.4% were married couples living together, 6.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 38.9% were non-families. 32.2% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.6% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.30 and the average family size was 2.92.
In the CDP, the population was spread out with 21.8% under the age of 18, 4.6% from 18 to 24, 29.2% from 25 to 44, 27.1% from 45 to 64, and 17.2% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 41 years. For every 100 females, there were 87.7 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 84.0 males.
Bethesda is a very wealthy and well-educated area. According to the 2000 Census, Bethesda was the best-educated city in the United States of America with a population of 50,000 or more. 79% of residents 25 or older have bachelor's degrees and 49% have graduate or professional degrees. According to a 2007 estimate, the median income for a household in the CDP was $117,723, and the median income for a family was $168,385. Males had a median income of $84,797 versus $57,569 for females. The per capita income for the CDP was $58,479. About 1.7% of families and 3.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 1.8% of those under age 18 and 4.1% of those age 65 or over. Many commute to Washington, D.C. for work. The average price of a four bedroom, two bath home in Bethesda in 2010 was $806,817 (which ranks it as the twentieth most expensive community in America).
Bethesda is often associated with its neighboring communities, Potomac, Chevy Chase, Great Falls, Virginia, and McLean, Virginia, for their similar demographics. In April 2009, Forbes ranked Bethesda second on its list of "America's Most Livable Cities". In October 2009, based on education, income, health, and fitness, Total Beauty ranked Bethesda first on its list of the U.S.'s "Top 10 Hottest-Guy Cities." In 2009, Self magazine ranked Bethesda as the second healthiest place for women in the country, a year after ranking it number one. As of 2009, eight Pulitzer Prize winners live in Bethesda, as do several well-known political commentators (including George Will, David Brooks, and Thomas Friedman). In 2014, it placed first on both Forbes' list of America's most educated small towns and Time's list of top earning towns.
The headquarters of defense conglomerate Lockheed Martin, managed health care company Coventry Health Care and hotel and resort chains Marriott International and Host Hotels & Resorts, Inc. are located in Bethesda. Software company Bethesda Softworks was originally located in Bethesda, but moved to Rockville, in 1990. The Discovery Channel also had its headquarters in Bethesda before relocating to Silver Spring in 2004. On the professional services side, numerous banks (PNC, Capital One Bank) brokerage firms (SmithBarney, Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, Fidelity) and law firms (Ballard Spahr, JDKatz, Paley Rothman, Lerch Early & Brewer) maintain offices in Bethesda. Bethesda has two farmers markets, the Montgomery Farm Woman's Cooperative Market and the Bethesda Central Farmer's Market.
Bethesda is also home to a federally funded and operated health science university, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU). The primary mission of USU is to prepare graduates for service in the Medical Corps of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Public Health Service. The university consists of the F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine, a medical school, and the Graduate School of Nursing, a nursing school.
^ ab"Home" (Archive). Washington Japanese Language School. Retrieved on April 16, 2015. "学校事務局 Holy Cross Church, Quinn Hall 2F. 4900 Strathmore Avenue, Garrett Park, MD 20896[...]校舎 ストーンリッジ校 Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart 9101 Rockville Pike Bethesda, MD 20814"
^"Map" (Archive). Town of Garrett Park. Retrieved on April 30, 2014.
^"EnglishArchived 2014-05-02 at the Wayback Machine." Washington Japanese Language School. Retrieved on April 30, 2014. "Washington Japanese Language School c/o Holy Cross Church, Quinn Hall, 4900 Strathmore Avenue, Garrett Park, MD 20896"
^"Andrew M. Saidel" (Archive). Japan-America Society of Greater Philadelphia (JASGP; フィラデルフィア日米協会とは). Retrieved on April 16, 2015.