Archaeological Investigations of Alexandria Cemeteries
African American Cemeteries
Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex
Other Burial Sites
In early America, small family cemeteries were not uncommon. The 1755 diary of a Mrs. Brown, an English visitor to Alexandria, noted, “It is the custom of this place to bury their relatives in their gardens.” The oldest existing church cemeteries in Old Town date from the last third of the 1700s. Land on which Christ Church stands was sold to the parish in 1774, although vestry records indicate burials as early as 1766. The land on which the Old Presbyterian Meeting House stands was sold to that congregation in 1772. St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery dates from about 1795. The Penny Hill Cemetery, a municipal burying ground on South Payne Street, was purchased in 1795.
In 1804, the Alexandria Common Council decreed that graves were not to be dug “in any ground within the corporation, not opened or allotted before the twenty-seventh of March, eighteen hundred and four.” While some burials occurred in the existing cemeteries after that date, the Council’s action prevented the founding of any new cemeteries within the limits of Alexandria. Local churches looking for places for new cemeteries settled on a area southwest of the corner of Wilkes and Payne Streets, then called Spring Garden Farm. The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex has grown to include 13 cemeteries, including the adjacent Black Baptist Cemetery immediately west of Hooff’s Run from Alexandria National Cemetery.
Over the years, many of the small family cemeteries disappeared. In some cases, there is historic evidence that burials were removed and reinterred in a formal cemetery. In some instances, it is possible that only the headstones were removed. This practice is not unique to Alexandria, or even to urban America. As land use changes over time and families move away, burials may be moved to more suitable locations or simply lost to the ravages of time. African American residents of Alexandria faced other challenges. Their graves, for example, were sometimes marked with short-lived wooden markers, or with shells, ceramics, or other ephemeral materials rather than permanent grave markers.
Information on tombstones is valuable to genealogists and local historians. Data such as birth and death dates, names, spellings, personal relationships and occupations may be available nowhere else. Stone inscriptions, or the tombstones themselves, can disappear with time, but Alexandria historian Wesley Pippenger has published several volumes of Alexandria tombstone inscriptions, preserving this valuable historic resource and making the information more readily available.
The work of Alexandria Archaeology, and of archaeological consultants working for developers because of requirements of the Archaeological Protection Ordinance, have led to the archaeological investigation of several important Alexandria cemeteries -- some known and some forgotten over time. The Virginia Antiquities Act mandates a permit from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for the excavation of unmarked graves. Such permits are obtained before work begins on a known cemetery site, or, in the case of unexpected burials, work is halted while a permit is obtained. The goal of Alexandria Archaeology's cemetery excavations has been to record the location of graves and, when possible, to preserve them in place. When necessary, burials have been moved to new locations, based on the wishes of families or descendant populations.
The Black Baptist Cemetery, Contraband and Freedmen's Cemetery, and Bloxham Family Cemetery are preserved on City parkland, with appropriate memorials built or in the planning stages. Archaeological work in 2011 at Fort Ward Park will lead to a plan for preservation of gravesites located in the park, remnants of an African American community that predated the park's creation. A few burials at Christ Church and the Quaker Burying Ground (Barrett Library) were moved to other portions of those sites in advance of construction. The West Family burials were moved to Pohick Church at the request of the descendant family, and the burials at the Colross and Preston Plantations had been removed early in the 20th century to make way for construction.
It can be difficult for the untrained eye to detect the presence of graves in Alexandria soil, particularly if the remains are not well preserved. Archaeologists are able to detect subtle differences in the color and texture of the soil, to differentiate between the fill of a grave shaft and the surrounding soil, often allowing them to find the outline of the graves without disturbing the remains, if any, of the coffin below. In places where Alexandria burials have been exhumed by archaeologists, they are usually poorly preserved because of soil conditions. In consultation with families or descendant populations, archaeologists may work with physical anthropologists from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, or from local universities, who may be able to determine the sex and age of human remains, and to glean information about disease and nutrition, even from the most fragmentary remains.
African American Heritage Park, site of the Black Baptist Cemetery.
Christ Church Cemetery. Photo by Eric Kvalsvik
St. Mary's Catholic Church Cemetery, South Washington and Church Street. St. Mary's is the oldest public Catholic Cemetery in Virginia and the oldest active cemetery in Alexandria. The cemetery dates to 1795, and Parish records indicate that William Thorton Alexander deeded the land to St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1803.
Numerous family cemeteries lying outside of Old Town are known from oral tradition. When cemeteries have been found during construction, a burial permit has been obtained from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the burials have been moved to other cemeteries, or protected on the site. In the last few decades, Alexandria archaeologists have been involved in the investigations when cemeteries have been disturbed.
Archaeological investigations have taken place at the following family cemeteries.
Other family cemeteries:
The Alexandria Gazette reported the finding of burial sites in Old Town throughout the 19th century. Some of these may have been the remains of old family cemeteries. (As reported in Those Upon the Curtain Has Fallen: The Past and Present Cemeteries of Alexandria, VA, by Mark D. Greenly. Alexandria Archaeology Publications, 1996.)
“An Ancient Burial Ground,” 100 Block of South Royal Street. West side of the middle of the block: Here is the site of “an ancient burying ground,” mentioned in 1863 news accounts of a fire in the buildings on the property. “Some of the old tombstones are there yet, covered over.” (Alexandria Gazette) 106-112 North Royal Street: “Many skeletons were unearthed,” here to make way for the foundations of new houses about 1841, according to the childhood memories of an Alexandria Gazette letter writer. A commercial building now occupies this corner.120 North Royal Street: Site of at least one grave, indicated by the discovery of a box containing a human skull and some bones. This site and the previous one may both be from the same early, yet unidentified cemetery.“Old House on Queen Street”: A tombstone was found under a garden gate.208-210 North Lee Street: A skull and two leg bones were found here in 1897 during excavation behind a bakery.Southwest Corner of Queen and North Union Street: An underground brick vault containing “portions of what are supposed to be human bones” was found at this corner in 1872.
“An Ancient Burial Ground,” 100 Block of South Royal Street. West side of the middle of the block: Here is the site of “an ancient burying ground,” mentioned in 1863 news accounts of a fire in the buildings on the property. “Some of the old tombstones are there yet, covered over.” (Alexandria Gazette)
106-112 North Royal Street: “Many skeletons were unearthed,” here to make way for the foundations of new houses about 1841, according to the childhood memories of an Alexandria Gazette letter writer. A commercial building now occupies this corner.
120 North Royal Street: Site of at least one grave, indicated by the discovery of a box containing a human skull and some bones. This site and the previous one may both be from the same early, yet unidentified cemetery.
“Old House on Queen Street”: A tombstone was found under a garden gate.
208-210 North Lee Street: A skull and two leg bones were found here in 1897 during excavation behind a bakery.
Southwest Corner of Queen and North Union Street: An underground brick vault containing “portions of what are supposed to be human bones” was found at this corner in 1872.
Alexandria Canal, Montgomery and North Royal Street: Human remains were found during the 1843 excavation of the Alexandria Canal. The Alexandria Gazette attributes these graves to victims of the 1803 yellow fever epidemic.
In the 19th century, skeletons of still-born infants or fetuses were sometimes buried outside of cemeteries.
Corner of South Union and Wolfe Streets: A skeleton of an infant was found “concealed between the garret floor and the ceiling” of a house at this intersection in May, 1823. This is one of three instances in Old Town where the remains that have been found do not signify a traditional burial. (As reported in Those Upon the Curtain Has Fallen)500 Block of King Street, Present site of the Alexandria Courthouse: While archaeologists were excavating a privy/well, they discovered 36 bones of an infant. They have surmised this burial dated from 1820 to 1835. This is the second of three cases in Old Town involving remains not from a normal burial. Circumstances suggest that the infant’s body was disposed of secretly.
Corner of South Union and Wolfe Streets: A skeleton of an infant was found “concealed between the garret floor and the ceiling” of a house at this intersection in May, 1823. This is one of three instances in Old Town where the remains that have been found do not signify a traditional burial. (As reported in Those Upon the Curtain Has Fallen)
500 Block of King Street, Present site of the Alexandria Courthouse: While archaeologists were excavating a privy/well, they discovered 36 bones of an infant. They have surmised this burial dated from 1820 to 1835. This is the second of three cases in Old Town involving remains not from a normal burial. Circumstances suggest that the infant’s body was disposed of secretly.
Beginning in 1804, local churches were forced to look beyond the Alexandria boundaries for new cemetery locations, when the Alexandria Common Council decreed in that year that no new cemeteries were to be opened or burial lots to be sold within Alexandria. Local churches and, later, burial associations, settled on the area then known as Spring Garden Farm, bounded by Duke Street, South Henry Street and Hunting Creek. Penny Hill already existed as a municipal cemetery in this area since 1795. Since then, the number of cemeteries in the area has grown to 13. Some are abandoned and maintained by the City of Alexandria, but most are still active.
The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex is a good place to look at how cemeteries and grave markers changed over the last 200 years. Austere Colonial-era headstones gave way to stones bearing a variety of carvings with religious or fraternal meaning. Tall obelisks and life-size statues of angels appeared in the mid and late 19th-century, then gave way to the smaller, more uniform headstones of the 20th century.
The Silver Leaf (Colored) Black Baptist Cemetery was established in 1885, but was later abandoned. In the early 1960s, the area was buried under landfill. Initial investigation of the 1.1-acre property, now African American Heritage Park, unearthed a headstone belonging to Abraham Hunter, It was not clear that the monument was associated with a burial until additional head and foot stones were found, supporting the presence of a cemetery on site. A second phase of investigation by city archaeologists resulted in three graves, coffin fragments and hardware, and a portion of a man’s vest. Two other individuals were identified: Sarah Hunter and Julia Ann Washington. A third phase of investigation by the same firm that completed the initial phase led to the discovery of 28 burials, identified by grave shafts and coffin fragments and hardware, and shells placed above the graves—common in African American mortuary tradition. In addition, two more of the interred were named: Mary Rome and Matilda Gaines.
More on excavations at the Black Baptist Cemetery
The Bloxham family occupied the site from 1795 nearly through the 19th century. The Bloxham cemetery is preserved within the area of the Witter Street Recreation Complex, where the City marked each grave-shaft and erected a fence. After determining the cemetery boundaries, the site was backfilled without excavating the graves. A footstone marked "W.H.W." for William H. Whaley, was recovered in 1993, and will be returned to the cemetery. Whaley, a stage coach owner and husband of Jane E. (Bloxham) Whaley, was buried circa 1850. Skeletal remains, presumed to be of Whaley or another Bloxham family member, have been reinterred at the site. Twelve grave shafts, including one brick burial vault, were discovered in 2004.
More on excavations at the Bloxham Family Cemetery
Pfanstiehl, Cynthia, Edward Otter and Marilyn Harper. Preliminary Archaeological Assessment, Alexandria Business Center, Alexandria, Virginia and Fairfax County, Virginia. Engineering Science Inc., Washington, D.C., 1989 (Preliminary investigation).
Headstone found in excavations at the Christ Church Cemetery.
Christ Church was completed in 1773, with its earliest burials taking place by that time. It adhered to the model of an English village church. By 1809, most burials were banned, both for sanitation and space concerns. Before 1787, the churchyard was not enclosed, but was by 1806. Then, from 1829–1830, a wall and railing with an entrance gate went up along the public, or south, side. The church fenced the north and west sides in 1844 with board fencing; this was repaired after the war then kept up through three quarters of the 19th century. In 1898, a masonry and iron fence was erected. Reports on this cemetery include the Historic Structures Report, archaeological investigation prior to expansion of of a building on the property, and archaeological preservation work during repair of the churchyard wall and installation of a wheelchair ramp.
Parts of the churchyard were excavated by Alexandria Archaeology in 1985 and 1986. A number of graves were located and excavated, some with only a few teeth or stains remaining. The remains were reinterred in the churchyard. Archaeologists found that none of the graves they uncovered aligned with an existing headstone and none of the extant headstones in the construction area had an associated grave. Graves were not dug in straight rows as in later cemeteries.
Archaeologists monitored the removal of masonry elements on site during the reconstruction of portions of the churchyard wall, and identified, mapped, and photographed 49 graveshafts in the areas of construction. An additional seven graveshafts were identified in the area of the wheelchair ramp; these were preserved in-situ. There was no evidence of a mass grave of Confederate soldiers, despite an on-site monument’s assertion that one existed within the project area. Archaeologists contended that burials lay outside the churchyard, under the sidewalk and probably the roadway, meaning potentially hundreds of unmarked burials.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Alexandria Gazette reported the accidental unearthing of graves in the vicinity of the churchyard. (As reported in Those Upon the Curtain Has Fallen: The Past and Present Cemeteries of Alexandria, VA, by Mark D. Greenly. Alexandria Archaeology Publications, 1996.)
On Columbus Street, in front of Christ Church: In 1853, a coffin and remains of a body were found while gas lines were being laid.On Columbus Street, adjoining Cameron: In 1871, the remains of at least 30 people were discovered during excavations for houses at this location.On Columbus Street, near Cameron: In 1886, several old graves were unearthed while construction crews were excavating for the construction of houses.On the north side of Christ Church: In 1908, workmen digging a trench for a waterline discovered a part of a human skull and some bones.
More on excavations at Christ Church
The Colross Plantation, built ca. 1800, was located on the block bounded by North Fayette, Oronoco, North Henry and Pendleton streets in the northwest quadrant of Old Town, now the site of the Monarch Condominium. The brick mansion was moved to Princeton, New Jersey in the early 20th-century, and is now part of the Princeton Day School. In addition to Colross's original herringbone brick basement floor, archaeologists found a water cistern, smokehouse and brick burial vault. The burials had been removed, probably when the plantation house was moved. Three burials, those of Thomas Francis Mason (grandson of George Mason) and his two daughters, are known to have been reinterred at Christ Church. Learn more about the history of this site from Colross from Wikipedia.
Archaeological investigations at Alexandria Freedmen’s and Contrabands Cemetery on South Washington Street focused on the identification of burial locations to ensure protection during development and future maintenance of the site, and the recovery of information about the cemetery for use in the memorial design process. The site is being developed as a memorial park.
More on excavations at Contraband and Freedmen's Cemetery
The Office of Historic Alexandria is engaged in an effort to study and preserve the historic resources of Fort Ward Park. For up-to-date information on the preservation of post-Civil War resources at Fort Ward Park, including the burials and remnants of the African American neighborhood, see information on the Ad Hoc Fort Ward Park and Museum Area Stakeholder Advisory Group.
“The Fort” was an historic African American neighborhood established on and around the Civil War Fort Ward, now Fort Ward Park. “The Fort” dates from the Reconstruction period after the Civil War to the early 1960s when the park was created. The Old Grave Yard, and other possible burial locations sites selected based on documentary evidence and oral history, are being studied by archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar (GPO) and archaeological excavation. The 2009 GPR study identified 38 possible unmarked burials in six known and potential cemetery and grave locations in “The Fort” (44AX90) and the Old Grave Yard (44AX153), and was used to identify areas for archaeological testing. The 2010 Phase I investigations focused in the maintenance yard area, including a small area adjacent to the Oakland Cemetery, and in the location of the Short’s family home lot, just north of the cemetery. Excavations found that GPR was not entirely reliable for identifying graves on this property -- some GPR targets were found to not mark the site of graves, and additional graves were located by excavation in areas that had been tested by remote sensing. Archaeologists found unmarked graves were found in an a grassy area south of the Oakland Cemetery. In addition, archaeologists confirmed that the headstone for Mrs. Fitzhugh is directly associated with a burial, and that the headstone marking Clara Adams’ grave is, in fact, marking two burials, likely those of Mrs. Adam’s and presumably her husband, who was laid to rest roughly 2 feet north of Clara’s grave. Graves were also located at the Jackson Family Cemetery. Additional archaeological work is planned for this site.
More on excavations in Fort Ward Park
Potomac Yards was studied by archaeologists before it was developed into a retail center. The study area included the former location of the Alexander family’s Preston plantation and cemetery, dating to the early 1700s. The cemetery’s burials were moved to Pohick Church in 1922. The area was graded in 1933 to accommodate a railyard, so the plantation and cemetery likely were leveled.
More on excavations at Preston Plantation
Coffin Handle from the Quaker Burying Ground. Drawing by Andrew Flora
Alexandria Archaeology conducted an archeological investigation of a Quaker cemetery on the grounds of the Kate Waller Barrett Library at 717 Queen Street in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1993-1995. Known historically as the Quaker Burying Ground, the property served as the cemetery for the Alexandria Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends from 1784 until the 1890s. In 1937, the Meeting leased the property to the City of Alexandria for ninety-nine years for use as the site of a library, and the archaeological work resulted from the City’s plan to demolish and replace a 1954 addition to the 1937 structure. Work was coordinated with the current members of the Alexandria Monthly Meeting, the owners and stewards of the cemetery site, who stipulated that the goal was to preserve as many of the burials in situ as possible and that only those graves that would be disturbed by construction activities were to be removed. All excavated human remains and associated artifacts were reburied on the site.
The investigation provided insight into an important segment of Alexandria’s population during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Quakers served as merchants in the early years of the City’s development and helped to boost Alexandria’s economy during the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, they were instrumental in pursuing a number of societal improvements, including the creation of schools and libraries, improvement of municipal health systems, and the relief of oppressed minorities.
Archaeological fieldwork and site monitoring resulted in the discovery of 159 burial features. Sixty-six were located in areas which would be disturbed by construction activities and required complete excavation. Ninety-three burials were left in place. It is probable that hundreds of additional burials remain intact in all sections of the property. While the majority of the burials excavated were wooden coffins simply placed in grave shafts, a number of other burial methods and practices were noted: one burial in an iron coffin containing the well-preserved remains of an older adult male, a brick vaulted structure surrounding the hexagonal wooden coffin of another of the adult male burials, the placement of cobbles on the lid of one of the coffins as a grave-side ritual, the use of planks across the top of another coffin to prevent slumping of the cemetery ground surface, the utilization of outside coffin boxes in nineteen cases, and the encasement of coffins in gray marine clay--possibly in an attempt to prolong preservation.
The artifact analysis suggests that Alexandria’s Friends attempted to uphold the value of simplicity central to Quaker philosophy. While influenced by the “beautification of death” phenomenon of the nineteenth century, the Quakers tempered their adoption of the material trappings of the movement with moderation. Coffins were primarily of the traditional hexagonal style and did not exhibit excessive ornamentation. When present, gravestones were relatively plain, as were clothing items, including buttons and hair combs. Only one piece of jewelry, a simple wedding band, was found. The only other grave goods recovered were a tiny glass bottle (a vial for scent or tears?), an iron key (to a house chest or business, or even more speculatively, to the “kingdom of heaven”?), and an ironstone plate, found on the abdomen of an adult female. Plates included in graves have been associated with African American traditions, and this may thus be an African American burial; its inclusion in the cemetery would certainly be in keeping with the supportive relationship Alexandria’s Quakers had with this ethnic minority in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Osteological analysis was limited to field examination at the request of the current members of the Alexandria Monthly Meeting, who wished to maintain respect and privacy for the remains. Thirty-two of the excavated burials were identified as adults (nine males, ten females, thirteen of unknown gender), and nine were identified as children. As might be expected among groups of higher socioeconomic status, the Quakers sought out dental care as shown by the presence of fillings in several teeth and the recovery of two dental plates from the burials. The presence of hypoplastic lines indicative of episodes of malnutrition and illness at early ages suggests that even this educated and economically successful population was affected by the serious childhood diseases of the era.
Reports on Excavations at the Quaker Burying Ground
The West Family burial vault was discovered in archaeological investigations prior to commercial development at the Hoffman site on the 2400 block of Mill Road. At least seven individuals had been buried in the vault, at least two of whom were interred in the 1780s. Osteological studies tentatively identified the remains of four individuals in the vault as Hugh West’s wife, Sybil, their son George and daughter Sybil, and her infant daughter. The Wests were founders of Alexandria and contributed greatly to early Virginia. The Wests’ large landholdings became West End Village. An additional seven graves were found outside the vault, but only four of the seven were The preserved enough for study: two adult males, one adult female, and one infant. Archaeologists cautiously identified one of the males as an African American because of the discovery of a small crystal—common in African American burials. All were reinterred at Pohick Church, according to the wishes of descendants of the West family.
More on excavations at the West Family Cemetery
Many dedicated researchers have contributed historical research and gravestone transcriptions to the study of the city’s graveyards. Archaeological study has also brought to light new information about Alexandria’s burial practices. The archaeological studies were conducted as preservation efforts to protect as many burials as possible in their original locations. Excerpts from the Alexandria Archaeology Publication, Those Upon the Curtain Has Fallen: The Past and Present Cemeteries of Alexandria, VA are included with permission in this web page, along with additional information on recent Alexandria cemetery research.
The following publication can be viewed at the Alexandria Library, Local History/Special Collections, or, by appointment, at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.
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