The Presbyterian Burial Ground of Georgetown

Notes from the files of the Peabody Room, Georgetown Branch Library,

on the history of the Presbyterian Burial Ground of Georgetown, in use between about 1802 and 1887.

In 1907 it was converted into the playground now known as Volta Place Park.

Some remains were moved to other cemeteries, but the great majority remained in place.

(See also: Presbyterian Burying Ground (Wikipedia)

 

George-Town, August 22, 1802

The committee of the Presbyterian congregation in George-Town, wishing to discontinue the interment of the dead in the burying ground next to the church, have lately purchased a large plat of land, for the purpose of a grave yard, which is a beautiful eminence, situated between the Columbian Academy and Mr. Threlkeld’s Meadow Farm. Part of this purchase has been paid off by Mr. Fenwick, and divided into small lots suitable for the interment of whole families: the committee, therefore, wish immediately to sell as many of these lots, as will raise a fund sufficiently large to enclose the ground with a decent pole and rail fence and liquidate what of the purchase money remains as yet unpaid. Let all who wish to see the plat of the graveyard and to become purchasers, make application to Thomas Corcoran, or to Mr. James Melvin, Bridge Street, George-Town. N.B. Lots at present will be sold low for cash, in order to defray present expenses, but when these are discharged, they will rise much higher in price. (Washington Federalist, Georgetown, D.C., September 1, 1802)

 

Died Oct. 10, Capt. Wm. Theobald Wolfe Tone, in his 37th year, formerly an officer in French Imperial army, including disaster at Leipzig, since the restoration of the Bourbons he has resided in this asylum of oppressed humanity, mostly in Georgetown. Funeral from his late residence, First street, Georgetown, this afternoon. (National Intelligencer, October 10, 1828)

 

(The Evening Star, May 30, 1886, reports that a delegation of Clan-Na-Gael visited old Presbyterian Cemetery on Memorial day to decorate the graves of the wife and child of Wolfe Tone, a patriot of 1798, and the graves of Charles Devine Riley, Col. J. P. Garesche, Father Boyle, and the soldiers and sailors of the late war buried there.)

 

Georgetown Courier, June 6, 1868, reports that the first transfer from old Presbyterian Cemetery to Oak Hill Cemetery was in November, 1851.

The burial Vault on Market between 4th and 5th has been declared a nuisance on account of noxious gases which emanate from decomposing bodies. (Georgetown Courier, April 18, 1874)

1887, burials discontinued?

1891, some relatives initiated transfer to other cemeteries, mostly to Oak Hill Cemetery. A group of various veterans were transferred to Arlington Cemetery in 1892.

 

Complaint about former Presbyterian burying ground made to Commissioner West; neglect of the owners, site used as dump, not fenced, used as playground; dilapidated tombs, broken headstones, etc. found by Lt. Swindells of Georgetown Precinct. A request to the owners to be made to improve conditions. Georgetown Citizens Association suggested recently that the land be taken by the District and converted into a public park. An act of Congress would be required. (Evening Star, April 23 1903, p. 14)

 

1907, playground was ordered. Paul Sluby estimates some 200 graves were paved over, never accounted for. (Selected Small Cemeteries of Washington, DC, compiled by Paul E. Sluby, Sr.)

1934, playground paved and improved. Bones found when sewers were installed in the streets. (Star[?], March 8, 1958)

In September 1942, an administrative assistant of the D.C. Water Department was granted a disinterment permit to remove 10 bodies, more or less, from the Georgetown Presbyterian cemetery, and reinter them at Blue Plains. (Wesley E. Pippenger, District of Columbia Interments (Index to Deaths), January 1, 1855 to July 31, 1874, 1999; Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 1963-1965, p.29, Blue Plains and Bellevue)

 

”A Buried Graveyard Pops Up Again. Beneath The Seesaws: Revolutionary War Heroes”

In 1957 three boys noticed a beveled stone in the excavation for a new house at 33rd and Q Street NW. The stone––inscribed: E.S./1825––was carried to Mrs. Elden Billings, 3313 Q Street, Columbia Historical Society Librarian, where it was put in the yard. She said Revolutionary veterans were still there, judging from Georgetown Presbyterian records. (Washington Daily News, September 7, 1957)

 

“Revolutionary Graves On Playground Marked”.

On the basis of substantial evidence that at least 17, and undoubtedly more, Revolutionary soldiers and patriots were still buried there, the Historians Committee of the DC Chapter, DAR, placed a marker in the center of the playground at 34th and Volta Place. Ceremony included 50 members of the DAR, and representatives of the Recreation Department, the Reverend Russell Cartwright Stroup, and an Honor Guard from C Company, 3rd Infantry, Fort Myer. (Star[?], March 8, 1958)

 

 

 

 

Crowd-Sourcing the Q Street Burials

James H. Johnston

The recent discovery of four skeletons in the 3300 block of Q Street adds to the history mystery of why human remains are buried there. This brings the total of remains found on that block to eleven if I’ve counted right. All the previous remains have been of African Americans, and presumably the new ones are too. The obvious explanation is that this was an African American cemetery although there is no historical record of such a cemetery. There are speculations about how this block became a cemetery, but nothing is known with certainty. So I want to put out a few relevant facts that I turned up when researching this last summer. My hope is to crowd-source the research.

 

The Churches in Beatty and Hawkins Addition


A starting point is the map of the Beatty and Hawkins Addition to Georgetown. First drawn up in 1755, the Addition platted the land north of the present M Street (formerly Bridge Street) and west of Wisconsin (High Street). The so-called Fenwick Map of Georgetown of 1814 shows original Georgetown plus the Beatty and Hawkins Addition. https://www.loc.gov/item/88693289/

Of particular note are the locations of three double lots that were set aside for churches in the Addition. A double lot for the German Lutheran Church was reserved at Volta (Fourth Street) and Wisconsin. A double lot for the German Presbyterian Church (it is called The Calvinist Church in the plat) was set aside at Volta and 34th Street (Frederick Street). And a double lot for the Church of England (which became the Episcopal Church after the start of the American Revolution) was on the north side of the 3300 block of Q Street (Fifth and Market Streets). Thus, the recent skeletons were found on the old Church of England property.

The Lutherans were the first to use the lot reserved for them. They put up a log house for a church and apparently had a graveyard on the property. However, when they discontinued using it for a while, one of Beatty’s heirs tried to reclaim it, but in 1829 the Supreme Court ruled that once the property was dedicated and used for church purposes, the Beatty family lost title. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/27/566

Reverend Stephen Bloomer Balch of the Presbyterian Church was the most prominent religious figure in Georgetown after the Revolution. He established his church at 30th and M. It too had a graveyard. By 1802, however, the Presbyterians needed more space for the dead, and so they bought land between 33rd and 34th Street and Volta and Q for use as a cemetery and began using it in 1804. Presumably the choice of the location was influenced by the fact that a double lot on the southwest corner of that square had already been reserved for the Presbyterians in the Beatty and Hawkins plat. The Presbyterians erected a chapel at 1552 33rd Street (Market). The chapel apparently was for the purpose of holding funeral services before burial in the cemetery because the church itself, although torn down and rebuilt in 1818, remained at 30th and M. In 1856, the chapel was torn down and rebuilt. The building is still there. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Presbyterian cemetery was no longer being kept up. Children were playing with exposed bones. The city exhumed the entire cemetery, removed the remains, and built Volta Park there.

Records of St. John’s Episcopal Church of Georgetown show that in 1794 its trustees debated where to put its proposed church building. Reverend Balch had kindly allowed them to hold services in the Presbyterian church, but the congregation had grown enough to merit its own building. William Deakins wanted to build on the Church of England lots on Q Street, but the trustees decided instead to acquire a lot at 3240 O Street and built the church there. It is still there today. The Church of England lot on Q Street was vacant and apparently remained vacant until 1886, when the houses that are there now were built.

 

Black Georgetown before the Civil War


The Beatty and Hawkins Addition was not a commercial success. The Boschke Map of 1861 shows many vacant lots. The Deakins family, William and his son Francis, owned a number of the lots, apparently as speculators.

This is notable because Francis sold Yarrow Mamout his lot at 3324 Dent Place (Sixth Street on the Fenwick Map) in 1800. Moreover, according to the 1790 accounting ledger of Yarrow’s owner (he treated Yarrow as his last name), Yarrow worked almost a month that year for William Deakins. Yarrow had the east half of Lot 217. As the Fenwick Map shows, the southeast corner of his lot adjoined the northwest corner of the Church of England lots.

Two other prominent Africans lived in the neighborhood. Joseph Moor was a grocer whose name appears on the same page as Yarrow’s in the 1820 census. Since the name “Moor” was commonly applied to Muslims in early America, it seems possible that Joseph Moor, like Yarrow, was a Muslim who had come to America as a slave from Africa. Guinea Sarah was another person in Georgetown who surely came from Africa as a slave. An 1824 newspaper announcement of the display of James Alexander Simpson portrait of Yarrow said Simpson’s portrait of Guinea Sarah would also be on display. It said she was over one hundred years old. Given her name and age, she probably came on a slave ship.

No one has mapped where free African Americans lived in Georgetown in the early part of the 19th century, but as early as 1800, the census counted 279 free blacks in the town. The two, known, historical black areas were around Volta Park, which is west of Wisconsin, and Herring Hill (Rose Park) on the east side of Georgetown along Rock Creek. The historic black churches, Mount Zion Methodist and First Baptist, are on the east side. But although these congregations were formed earlier, the church buildings date from after the Civil War.

There is no record of a black church on the west side of Georgetown for the African American community there although suggestions may be found in several histories that a black congregation used the Presbyterian chapel on 33rd Street in the first half of the 19th century. Presbyterian records show that it was rented to the First Baptist congregation in 1865 and used by them for three years until their own church was finished in 1868. It wasn’t uncommon for whites to bring their slaves to church with them on Sundays, but the slaves, and any free blacks that attended, were required to sit in the loft or balcony. Since this was demeaning and since the preachers were white, African Americans tended not to avail themselves of this option, at least not in Georgetown. Presbyterian records indicate the stairs to the balcony were in disrepair at various times, and the trustees seemed in no rush to repair them.

African American congregations often formed around self-taught ministers, typically Methodist or Baptist, and met in people’s houses. This was a common practice among both white and black congregations that were too small or too poor to build a church.

There was also, of course, Trinity Catholic church in Georgetown that was founded in 1787. It had a cemetery on its lot and later used Holy Rood on Wisconsin. Georgetown College began classes in 1792. Since it employed African Americans, both free blacks and slaves who lived independently as well as slaves that it owned, some part of the black community on the west side of Georgetown may have been Catholic and attended Trinity. Generally, Catholic churches did not consign African American worshipers to lofts and permitted their burial in its cemeteries although the cemeteries might be segregated.

 

Georgetown Cemeteries

In any event, it seems that burial space for whites in Georgetown was somewhat limited until Oak Hill opened. The Lutherans had a graveyard next to the church and so did the Presbyterians and Catholics. The Presbyterians had the much larger cemetery on Volta in 1804. Where St. John buried its dead is not known. There is no record of a black cemetery for Georgetown until after the Civil War except there may have been African American burials in the Methodist’s Mount Zion cemetery overlooking Rock Creek.

 

Yarrow Mamout

Thus, the puzzle is that Georgetown had a large African American population of free blacks and slaves, but we don’t know what was being done with their dead — except for one man, Yarrow Mamout.

Yarrow died on January 19, 1823 at about the age of eighty-seven. The Gettysburg Compiler carried his obituary, saying: “He was interred in the corner of his garden, the spot where he usually resorted to pray.” The obituary was surely written by Peale. Since he was living at Belfield outside Philadelphia, friends in Georgetown must have told him of Yarrow’s death. Peale seems to have used his diary to write the obituary because it contains a number of details about Yarrow’s life which appear in the diary.

When the archaeological dig was done on Yarrow’s property in 2015, no garden and no grave were found. It was assumed that his remains had completely decomposed although skeletons which were not much younger, unearthed less than a block away in the 3300 block of Q Street, were intact.

For this reason, the possibility exists that Yarrow was not buried on his lot. The obituary might still be correct since it doesn’t say the garden was on his property. Presumably when Peale spent two days at Dent Place painting Yarrow’s portrait in 1819, he watched Yarrow go outside and pray. And so the Church of England lots enter the picture. They are adjacent to his lot. They were vacant. Yarrow knew both William and Francis Deakins. William tried and failed to get St. John’s Episcopal to build on those lots. He or his son Francis Deakins may have arranged for Yarrow to use them. It might even have been part of the deal in selling him the property. Alternatively, the “garden” may not have been a vegetable garden or at least not exclusively. Peale’s own garden at Belfield had vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, and even a gazebo. It was a place where he could find peace and quiet. In saying Yarrow retired to his garden to pray, Peale may have meant a place of repose. One can imagine it as being a flower garden rather than a vegetable garden. Or it might already have been a cemetery, a place where Yarrow would feel comfortable praying.

Whether any or all of the remains found on Q Street have been or can be dated isn’t known. The source of the burials on the Church of England lots may be different from the source on the other lots on Q Street, and the burials may have been done at different times. For example, St. John’s might have given families permission for burials on its property, and the burials on the other lots might have been done without anyone’s permission or by the permission of the owners of those lots. For this reason, it should not automatically be assumed that there was a single black cemetery on Q Street and that all the burials were done for the same reason. It is possible, for instance, that Yarrow and others of his era were buried on the Church of England lots with permission from St. John’s and that those burying their relatives on the other lots thought they were simply extending an existing black cemetery.

It is also possible that the Presbyterian chapel on 33rd Street was used by an African American congregation before the Civil War and that this congregation was the source of some or all the burials on Q Street. Another possibility is that the burials date from 1865 to 1868 when the First Baptist congregation was holding services in the chapel.

In any event, the skeletons found at 3317 are especially intriguing and raise a number of questions. Is there any evidence of the black soil of a “garden” above the graves? Can the burials be dated? Are the dates the same or significantly different from dates of the other burials? What can be learned from the bones? Forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian say they may be able to determine whether someone grew up in Africa or the United States just from the bones.

https://naturalhistory.si.edu/…/socia…/forensic-anthropology

Do any of the remains come from an African? How old is he or she? Could they be the remains of Yarrow Mamout, Joseph Moor, or Guinea Sarah? If there is a skull of an elderly African, can it be matched to the flesh and blood of the portraits of Yarrow Mamout?

 

February 12, 2020

 

___________________________________________________________

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.