The Old College Burial Ground

A former parish burial ground on the campus of Georgetown University.

 

The second burial ground of Holy Trinity Church was located a few blocks north and west of the church, at the western terminus of Third (P) Street, near the southwestern corner of the grounds of Visitation Convent. Although sometimes called Trinity Burial Ground, or the Old Burying Ground, it was best known as the College Ground. Although Holy Trinity’s records of baptisms and marriages go back to 1795, the oldest death register begins on December 8, 1818, which appears to be the date of the first burial in the College Ground. While tombstones dated 1762 and 1764 were still to be seen there as late as 1945, Father Kelly explained that these stood over remains that had been brought to the College Ground from other places.

(Laurence J. Kelly, S.J., The History of Holy Trinity Parish, Washington D.C. 1795-1945, 1945). Father Kelly says the burial ground was “west of the College”, but Boschke’s Topographical Map of the District of Columbia is more precise.)

 

The most revered grave in the College Ground was that of Susan Decatur, the widow of naval hero Stephen Decatur. A few years after her husband’s death she converted to Catholicism, and, at a moment when Georgetown College was in great need, advanced the equivalent of three million dollars. Her house stood about where White-Gravenor Hall is now, and when she died in 1860, she was laid to rest in the Fenwick family lot, just steps from where she had lived.

(“Cemetery Yields Forgotten Graves at Georgetown U.“, Washington Star (January 24, 1931); “Old Graveyard Unearthed at Dormitory Site”, Washington Herald (January 25, 1931); “Heraldings of Old-Time Washington”, Washington Herald (March 2, 1931); Warner, At Peace With All Their Neighbors, 199.)

 

 

Although Decatur is the only famous name associated with the College Ground, the death register of Holy Trinity does contain one or two other items of interest.

Don Francisco Pizarro Martinez, Envoy Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Minister of the Mexican Republic was buried on the 12th instant on the left side behind the Chapel of St. Francis Xaverius on the college-ground. (February 7, 1840)

Carbery, Henry, who died on the 25th inst. (May 27, 1822).

Mrs. Sybilla Carbery, who died on the 3d instant suddenly was buried in the college ground near her husband. (April 6, 1840)

Captain Carbery served in the Revolutionary War, at the end of which he led his men in a march on the capital––Philadelphia, at the time––to demand their back pay. Congress felt threatened, and Carbery was accused of treason. The incident is said to have influenced the determination that the permanent national capital be governed by Congress. Exonerated, Carbery married Sybilla Schneitzel of Frederick, and lived out his days at Cincinnati, his farm on Foxhall Road.

(Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, 19:65. Warner, At Peace, 199, speaks of three Catholic Carberys who married Protestants. Henry would make it four.)

 

Of course, the vast majority of burials in the College Ground would have been ordinary people. Besides English Catholics, and their Maryland and Virginia descendants, Irish surnames, and to a lesser extent, German surnames, are very common in the Death Register, and the College Ground even had an epitaph in Welsh. (Grave Stone Transcriptions, 1946, vertical file on cemeteries, Historical Society of Washington.)

That Georgetown had a considerable free black population is also reflected in the Death Register.

 

 ______ Barker, a Colored Man of Geo:town (July 23, 1819)

Mary C. Gray a Col. Person, who died the 27. Inst. (July 28, 1819)

Catherine Dotson, a free woman, who died the 18th inst. (July 9, 1824)

Elizabeth, age 6, col’d, daughter of Robert Parker and Lucinda Sewall, was buried in Mr. Threlkeld’s lot, in the Catholic cemetery. (September 7, 1834)

 

(John Threlkeld, a Protestant, had a lot in a Catholic burial ground, apparently because some of his slaves––as well as free blacks with whom he had connections––were Catholic. But Threlkeld need not have purchased it; as the seller of the the entire property he may have been accorded the lot as a courtesy. Thomas Corcoran, though Protestant, also had lots for the burial of Catholic slaves: Warner, At Peace, 252.)

 

 

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Slave Burials

 

That slaves were buried in the College Ground is amply confirmed in the Death Register of Holy Trinity Church, Georgetown, D.C.  The number of slave burials between 1821 and 1833 appears to be upward of sixty. (1821 is the year of the earliest entry; after 1833 parishioners of Holy Trinity, including slaves, were more likely to be buried in Trinity Church Upper Grave Yard, which is now Holy Rood Cemetery.)

 

Charity, a servant woman of Mr. Zech. Smith’s, who died the 19th inst. (January 18, 1821)

Peter, a Servt. Boy of Mrs. Weaver, who died the 21st inst. (January 22, 1821)

Smith’s Louisa, a col’d child. (January 22, 1821)

Teresa, a servt. woman of Mrs. Spalding. (January 31, 1821)

Rachel, a Col’d Woman of the College Wash House. (October 22, 1821)

Ruth, a Col’d Woman of the Visitation. (January 24, 1823)

_____ a child from the people belonging to the Monastery. (February 20, 1825)

Charles – black – servant of the College. (January 3, 1832)

Mary (Col’d), age 6, daughter of John Lee, a free (Col’d) man, and of Mary, a slave to Mr. Newton, was buried in the College Ground, paid. (January 5, 1835)

George – black – servt. of Miss Jane Sewall = chol. [cholera], (August 29, 1832)

Clare – black – servt. of Mr. Jos. Semmes – chol. (September 4, 1832)

Sarah – black – servt. of Mrs. Widow Semmes – chol. (September 6, 1832)

Leonard (Butler) black – a servt. of Mr. Birth – chol. (September 7, 1832)

 

 

A longer list, compiled by the Georgetown Slavery Archive in 2019 from the same record:

 

Charity–––January, 1821

Peter–––January, 1821

Louisa–––January, 1821)

Teresa––– January, 1821

Joseph Smallwood–––September, 1821

Louis–––October, 1821

Rebecca Robbie–––October, 1821

Rachel–––October, 1821

Margaret–––January, 1822

Catherine––– January, 1822

Harriet–––February, 1822

Sarah–––August, 1822

Teresa Queen–––October, 1822

Ann–––November, 1822

Ruth–––January, 1823

Jane–––January, 1823

Louisa Jackson–––February, 1823

Ignatius––– January, 1824

Mary–––January, 1824

Joseph–––May, 1824

Catherine–––June, 1824

Osborn–––August, 1824

a newborn child–––November, 1824

a child–––February, 1825

a child–––February, 1825

Jacob–––April, 1825

Harriet Jones–––June, 1825

an infant–––October, 1827

Stephen–––August, 1828

Mary Butler–––September, 1828

Fanny Burges–––November, 1828

Mary–––December, 1828

Louisa–––February, 1829

George–––March, 1829

Clare–––March, 1829

Jane–––May, 1830

Charles–––January, 1832

Susan–––March, 1832

David–––July, 1832

Joseph–––July, 1832

a child–––August, 1832

George–––August, 1832

Clare–––September, 1832

Ignatius–––September, 1832

Henry–––September, 1832

July Ann–––September, 1832

Nichola–––September, 1832

Ignatius–––September, 1832

Elizabeth–––September, 1832

Robert–––September, 1832

a child–––September, 1832

John–––September, 1832

Charles–––October, 1832

Mary–––October, 1832

Sarah–––October, 1832

John Dyson–––October, 1832

Lucy–––December , 1832

Sarah–––December, 1832

Charity–––December, 1832

Robert–––December, 1832

Jane–––January, 1833

Jacob–––February, 1833

a child–––March, 1833

Walter–––March, 1833

Dick–––June, 1833

Nancy Smallwood–––July, 1833

 

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The More Recent History of the College Ground

 

Holy Trinity Church was “born in the shadow and of the substance of Georgetown College”, and the land it was built on had been the property of Georgetown since the days of its founding. The situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that the church and its buildings had been built by the contributions of its parishioners, and that Father Neale’s 1796 purchase of land had apparently been in his own name. The matter was resolved in 1942, when title to Holy Trinity was transferred to the Archdiocese of Baltimore and Washington. While the graves in the churchyard “conveyed” to the Archdiocese, the outlying burial grounds of Holy Trinity Church did not, and have been in the care of Georgetown University since that time.  (Warner, At Peace, p.x; Kelly, Holy Trinity, 78; President and Directors of Georgetown College, to Michael J. Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore, DC Liber 7723-513 (February 12, 1942), Recorder of Deeds.)

In 1953 Georgetown removed the College Ground to make way for future expansion, and its graves were transferred to Mount Olivet Cemetery. The loss of the oldest Catholic parish cemetery in Washington does not seem to have occasioned comment, perhaps because the number of graves involved did not sound large. The public was given to understand that parish records listed exactly one hundred and eighty-nine persons buried in the old cemetery. (“GU to Transfer Ancient Graves“, Washington Post, April 17, 1953.)

How this number was arrived at is anybody’s guess. It may have reflected what could still be seen of the College Ground––such as the number of tombstones that still stood upright––but not the underlying reality. Only in a military cemetery is the ratio of graves to gravestones one to one. In a parish cemetery, by contrast, more than one person may be buried under one stone, and some people never get a stone at all. (By way of comparison, the ratio of graves to gravestones in Holy Trinity’s third burial ground, Holy Rood Cemetery, is 7312 to 2550, almost 3 to 1.) Many would only have had wooden markers, which are not durable. So, over time, the graves of the poor, and of slaves––two classes of society that were once quite numerous in Georgetown––would have become invisible to posterity.

The College Ground came into use because the Holy Trinity churchyard had reached its limit, and was the only parish cemetery available between 1818 and 1833. According to the death register of Holy Trinity, about nine hundred parishioners died in those years, and, as burials in the College Ground continued for decades after that, the total is likely to be nearer to a thousand.

The transfer of remains from the College Ground to Mount Olivet Cemetery, on the other hand, consisted of only “fifty bodies, more or less”. The unavoidable conclusion is that ninety-five percent of the people buried in the College Ground were not moved to Mount Olivet.

(“Cemetery Yields Forgotten Graves at Georgetown U.“, Washington Star, January 24, 1931; “Old Graveyard Unearthed at Dormitory Site”, Washington Herald, January 25, 1931; Interments File, Mount Olivet Cemetery, Section 61, lots 61-63.)

 

Holy Rood Cemetery

The Unquiet Grave of Susan Decatur

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Carlton Fletcher

 The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.

All rights reserved.

 

 Questions and corrections may be directed to

carlton@gloverparkhistory.com

 

The support of the Advisory Neighborhood Council (3B) is gratefully acknowledged.