In1836, William Wilson Corcoran opened a note brokerage house in Washington, D.C. Within four years, he took on a new partner, George Washington Riggs, to form Corcoran & Riggs as a private bank. Together, they hoped to serve local investors, most especially the elected and appointed officials of the federal government. They achieved immediate success which enabled Corcoran to leave the firm and pursue philanthropic pursuits in 1854. With G.W. Riggs at its head, Riggs & Co. planted the seeds for the bank's future. Riggs became the city's largest bank serving ordinary citizens and prominent politicians alike.
Corcoran & Riggs took advantage of the opportunities provided by the closure of the Second Bank of the United States. The newfound banking house purchased the Washington branch of the federal bank which then became a symbol of Corcoran & Riggs' relationship to the federal government. Between 1847 and 1848, Corcoran & Riggs financed the Mexican War, by raising $5 million from European merchants and financiers ($12.25 billion in 2006 dollars) and in turn lending that amount to the federal government. Twenty years later, at the end of the Civil War, the federal government requested another major transaction from Riggs & Co. Lacking the confidence in the U.S. money supply in 1867, the Russian minister required $7.2 million in gold bullion ($10.12 billion in 2006 dollars) for payment of Alaska.
These transactions conferred prestige upon Riggs & Co. Congressmen, presidents and military officers accordingly entrusted their accounts with Riggs & Co. Most presidents of the mid-nineteenth century – including John Tyler, James Polk, and Abraham Lincoln – deposited their paychecks at Riggs & Co. Senators who ultimately fought the Civil War on opposite sides – Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Salmon P. Chase of Pennsylvania, for instance – agreed upon Riggs & Co. as their bankers. Military officers, such as General John J. Pershing and General Douglas MacArthur, relied upon Riggs to handle their financial needs when they were commanding on the field and then upon their return.
The turn of the twentieth century marked a watershed for Riggs. It received a charter as a national bank, began to sell its stock publicly, and took on new leadership. Its chairman Charles Glover initiated the construction of new headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, directly adjacent to the old one and across from the U.S. Treasury. As Riggs National Bank expanded its services and customer base, it maintained its influence in fiscal and monetary affairs. Glover influenced the passage of a series of reforms that ultimately led to the creation of the Federal Reserve. His successor Robert V. Fleming enjoyed the confidence of several U.S. Presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Like other banks, Riggs substantially expanded its services to the growing middle-class after World War II. It opened new branches and offered mortgages, car loans, and other forms of credit to serve metropolitan Washington. It financed businesses such as Marriott, Woodward & Lothrop, and the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. Riggs continued its special relationship with the government, as it provided basic services to the International Monetary Fund, the Veteran's Administration, and the U.S. Treasury. In May 2005, PNC Financial Services acquired Riggs Bank.