The Causten Tomb

Three articles on the Causten family crypt in Congressional Cemetery, Washington D.C.


The Causten family vault in Congressional Cemetery. (Undated photo, courtesy of a descendant)

The Causten family vault in Congressional Cemetery. (Undated photo, courtesy of a descendant)




James Hyman Causten (1788-1874)  (Archives of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, University of Baltimore)

James Hyman Causten (1788-1874) (Archives of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, University of Baltimore)




“Rambler Records Tale of Album Which Was A Real Benefactor”

(Evening Star, March 20, 1927, pt.5, p.3)

Three notes have come to me because of mention the Rambler made a few weeks ago of the Causten tomb in Congressional Cemetery. This indication of interest moved me to look up some records relating to James H. Causten. The chisel has written on the vault that he was born at Baltimore in 1788 and died at Washington in 1874. The greater number of his years were passed in the District, his town home being on the south side of F street northwest, his lot beginning 60 feet east of Fifteenth street and having a width of 34 feet and 10 inches and a depth of 96 feet. That lot is covered by the Washington Hotel.

He owned a place in the country facing the east side of the Rockville road (Wisconsin avenue). It had a frontage of a quarter of a mile on that road and the north line of the farm divided it from the grounds of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church and the Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul. It seems likely to me that a thin segment at the north side of the great circle in which the Naval Observatory stands may have been part of the Causten farm. It is my belief that no part of the cathedral grounds was in the lines of the Causten tract. Massachusetts avenue, after skirting the north side of the observatory circle, passes diagonally, southeast and northwest through Mr. Causten’s farm, and his house and farm buildings were south of Massachusetts avenue and about 650 feet east of Wisconsin avenue. The time I have in mind was many years before Massachusetts avenue was extended from Rock Creek to Wisconsin avenue.

The name of the Causten farm was Weston and that was its name before Mr. Causten bought the land from Steptimus Davis in 1843. I compute that Weston contained 45 acres, but my measurement was made with a strip of paper on which I marked the scale of the map which showed the farm lines. Weston is now run through with streets—Edmunds, Fulton and Garfield, Thirty-sixth place, Thirty-sixth street, Thirty-fifth place, Thirty-fifth street and by any rough measurement Thirty-fourth place is in part within the lines of Weston.

Before showing you the wills and deeds in this case, I would have you read what follows, which I take from the last “ramble” on Commodore Thomas Tingey, which I wrote on February 5 and, I believe was printed Sunday, February 20:

“I stopped at a vault inscribed ‘James H. Causten.’ Chiseled on the vault was ‘A. Mary de Carvallo, Suamante esposo,’ (To Mary deCarvallo. Her loving husband.) The vault was built in 1835. The door is flanked by two slabs inscribed ‘Inexorable Death’s Doings—Mary Elizabeth Carvallo, wife of Manuel Carvallo, Minister of Chili at Washington, Born at Baltimore, 1815, died March 20, 1851, at Washington; Eliza Carvallo, daughter of Manuel and Mary E. Carvallo and granddaughter of James H. and Eliza Causten, born at Santiago de Chili June 1, 1836, died at Washington June 22, 1853; James Causten Carvallo, died at Washington, 1851; Washington Carvallo, died at Washington, 1865; Manuel Carvallo, Chilean Minister to Belgium, France and England, son-in-law of James H. and Eliza Causten, born at Santiago de Chile, in 1806, died at Compeigne, France, July 24, 1867. His remains removed to Chile.’

“On the opposite slab this: ‘Eliza Causten, wife of James H. Causten, born at Baltimore, Nv. 1, 1792, died at Weston farm, near Georgetown, July 27, 1856; Charles Isaac Causten, son of James H. and Eliza, died at Washington August 8, 1833; James H. Causten, jr., M.D., son of James H. and Eliza, born at Baltimore July 18, 1816, died at Weston farm Oct. 31, 1856; Annie Payne Causten; wife of Dr. James H. Causten, daughter of John C. and Clara W. Payne of Orange County, Va., died Nov. 9, 1852; Henrietta Jane Shriver, wife of Joseph Shriver, daughter of James H. and Eliza Causten, born at Baltimore May 15, 1814, died at Cumberland, Md., March 10, 1863. Buried there, ‘Josephine Shriver, daughter of Joseph and Henrietta Jane Shriver, born at Cumberland, August, 1843, died at Frederick City, Md., February 14, 1849; McClintock Young, son-in-law of James H. and Eliza Causten, born at Baltimore March 21, 1801, died May, 1863.’”

James H. Causten’s deed to Weston was recorded September 23, 1843. It is from “Septimus Davis of Weston and the County of Washington, in the District of Columbia, of the one part,” to “James H. Causten of the city of Washington of the other part.” The consideration was $6,500. The sum of $2,500 was “in hand paid” and two promissory notes were given, each for $2,000 “at three and six months respectively.” Septimus Davis sells “that tract of or parcel of land in the County of Washington, on the east side of the road leading from Georgetown to Tenley Town, and which is now called Weston, and while was conveyed by Walter S. Chandler to Thomas L. McKinney, November 8, 1817, excepting a part of the said land, containing 30 acres, more or less, which has been sold by Buckner Thruston to Joseph Nourse, as the same is described in his deed to the said Nourse.” The Davis deed to Thruston was to satisfy a loan of $4,000. The mortgage and costs were paid by Davis, evidently with the aid of Causten, and Thruston and Davis gave a deed to Causten July 25, 1843, for the 30 acres that were part of Weston.

The deed of Walter Story Chandler of Washington County to Thomas I. McKenney of the same county, conveying the tract subsequently called “Weston,” was recorded November 21, 1817. The consideration was $1,500, and the land is described in part “as all that piece of land, being part of a tract called ‘Pretty Prospect,’ beginning at a stone marked ‘A’ standing at the intersection of the third and fourth courses of a conveyance made by the said Walter S. Chandler to Thomas Plater for part of said tract of land about January 3, 1806.” There is a long account of degrees and perches, and of such boundary marks as “a small spring under a maple tree” and “a bounded oak tree that is now a stump.” The land sold to McKenney joined land that had been sold by William Craik to Walter S. Chandler in 1810, land conveyed by John Rousby Plate to Walter S. Chandler in 1810, land conveyed by Chandler to Philip Barton Key in 1810 and land conveyed by Chandler to Richard Harrison in 1810. The west line of the land conveyed by Chandler to McKenney was on the east side of the Georgetown-Frederick road. Chandler’s wife was Margaret.

James H. Causten bought the property on the south side of F street, 60 feet east of Fifteenth, in 1837. James H. Causten conveyed the home lot, under certain trusts, to his son, James H. Causten, June 24, 1843. Mr. Causten, sr., was no doubt arranging to buy Weston and move to the country, and desired to turn his city home over to his son. The deed reads that “the F street lot extended to the northwest corner of the house and ground, part of the lot 9, square 225, conveyed by William Thornton to Julius Forrest, thence southerly 96 feet to the southwest corner of the said Julius Forrest’s lot No. 9, being that land which was conveyed to James H. Causten by Robert M. Gibbs of Baltimore, May 8, 1837.”

The deed continues: “In trust for the sole use and benefit, free of rent and charges of every kind of my beloved wife Eliza Causten during her natural life, and also, as a slight token of affection endeared by her unfailing love through nearly 30 years past, and thereafter for the use and benefit in equal proportions of my children by the said Eliza, to wit: Henrietta, the wife of Joseph Shriver of Cumberland, Md.; Mary, the wife of Manuel Carvallo of the city of Santiago in Chili, James H. Causten, Jr., of the city of Washington, and Josephine, the wife of McClintock Young of the City of Washington; Alice Causten, now aged about seven years, of the city of Washington, and Carvallo Causten, now about two years old, of the city of Washington.” The deed was signed in the presence of Justice of the Peace Thomas B. VanZandt and N. Callan, jr.

The will of James H. Causten was witnessed October 3, 1873, and filed for probate December 15, 1874. I quote the following from it:  “In the name of God, Amen. Whereas I have arrived at an age 85 years, when the thoughts are irresistibly drawn to the near termination of my career on earth, and being now in improved health, both in mind and body, and therefore fully capable to define my will and disposition of my worldly affairs so that my heirs shall have but little trouble in carrying the same into effect. I hereby declare that my real and personal estate shall be distributed as follows:

“1. That within six months after my death my farm, called Weston, situated quite near and north of Georgetown, D.C., on the Tenallytown turnpike road, shall be sold at public or private sale as my executors shall elect and that the avails of such sale, shall be distributed thus: Ten thousand dollars thereof shall be paid or secured to my daughter Josephine C. Young, if then living, or to her surviving children then living in equal shares, and that the residue of such avails, together with the avails of the entire of my other real estate and personal property shall be distributed thus: viz—

“2. To the then surviving children of my deceased daughter, Henriette J. Shriver, one-fourth part of the aggregate fund above indicated. To the then surviving children of my deceased daughter, Mary C. Carvallo, one-fourth part of the aggregate fund above indicated. To my daughter, Joseph C Young, if then living or to her surviving children one-fourth part of the aggregate fund above indicated, being in addition to the $10,000 hereinbefore mentioned. To my son, Manuel C. Causten, if then living, or to his then surviving children one-fourth part of the aggregate fund above indicated.

“To my daughter, Alice E. Fisher and to my granddaughter, Mary C. Kunkle, I leave nothing of my estate, but deep regret that their recent manifestations of alienation and unkindness have obliterated the long-enduring affections I had cherished for them from their birth.”

The executors named were Josephine C. Young and Manuel C. Causten. The witnesses were Charles T. Larner, Allen Harrett and N. Cullan. A codicil was filed which modified the direction as to the sale of “Weston,” leaving the time and manner of the sale to the discretion of the executors. Until such sale, Josephine C. Young and her children were to enjoy possession of the farm ‘Weston,’ together with all the buildings, farming stock, utensils and crops and household furniture in the dwelling, free from all deductions and charges whatever, including taxes.”

The will of James H. Causten, jr., was signed in August, 1856. It was not witnessed, but was proved in October, 1856, to be the writing and signature of J.H. Causten, jr., on the testimony of Nicholas Callan, justice of the peace, and Joseph H. Bradley. He left all of his property to “my dear child, Mary Carvallo Causten, the only issue of my marriage with my beloved wife, Annie Payne Causten, now deceased.” The testator wrote: “Should she die before the age of 21, viz., before the 8th day of August, 1872, the property bequeathed to her shall be paid to John C. Payne of Haskinsville, Ky., and to my sister, Josephine C. Young, if living, or for the benefit of her children; if she be deceased the remainder of my estate to be divided among my remaining sisters and brother of their children, if they be deceased.” He named “my friend and brother-in-law, Joseph Shriver, of Cumberland” as executor.

The Rambler has looked up the Caustens in four early directors of Washington. In the directory of 1843 this: “James H. Causten, agent and notary public, south side F between 14th & 15th north, near 15th,” and “James H. Causten, Jun. Physician, south side F between Fourteenth and Fifteenth, near Fifteenth.” The directory of 1850: “J.N. Causten, south side F between Fourteenth and Fifteenth.” The directory of 1860: “James H. Causten, notary public, 209 F north.” The directory of 1870: “James H. Causten, notary public, 1424 F northwest,” and “Manuel C. Causten, clerk, 58 Fredrick, Georgetown.”

I am told that Annie Payne, who became the wife of Dr. James H. Causten, was a niece of Dolly Madison. You have seen that a daughter of James H. Causten, sr. – Henrietta – married Joseph Shriver of Cumberland. They had children, Robert, Eliza, Charles, Mary, Henrietta and Alice. Eliza lives in Oakland, Md., in Summer and in Washington in Winter. Henrietta lives in Cumberland. They are the survivors among the children of Henrietta Causten Shriver. Eliza married Stanley Fundenberg of Cumberland and, with her daughter, Miss Thekla Causten Fundenberg, is in Washington. Mrs. Fundenberg, granddaughter of James H. Causten of Weston, has passed her eighty-eighth year and is otherwise a remarkable woman.

I am told that “Weston,” after passing from the Causten family, was named Ruthven Lodge, and if you are interested in this I will look it up. I heard of these Causten descendants in Washington in this way: When I wrote of the tombs in Congressional Cemetery, John Hadley Doyle wrote me that he visited the Causten country home when he was a boy, and I printed the letter. Then John received the following letter:

“My Dr. Mr. Doyle: As a great-granddaughter of James H. Causten, I want to thank you for the note you sent the Rambler in tribute to him. My mother, Eliza Shriver Fundenberg, and I are at the Wyoming Apartments and would be very pleased to hve you make us a visit and have a talk over old days at Weston. She remembers all that fine fruit and many happy days. She has recently celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday, and has been visiting Washington since she was a little girl. Our home is in Oakland, Md., but we spend each Winter here, so Washington is our second home. Very sincerely yours. Miss Thekla Causten Fundenberg.”

In connection with the Causten story the following letter came to the Rambler from Elizabeth Du Hamel, 1120 Euclid street.“Mr. J. Hadley Doyle’s account of Mr. James H. Causten was most interesting, and my only regret is that he did not allude to the brave and romantic fight that Mr. Causten made to secure the passage of the bill for the French spoliation claims. The amount of energy he gave to the matter deserved a noble reward. Thirty years ago I was one day entertaining Miss Maraquita Carvallo with that amiable parlor pastime of viewing the photograph album. When we came to the picture of Mr. Causten she informed me he was her great-grandfather. I asked if she possessed his photograph and with a sigh, she replied, ‘No.’ I spent a few moments of silent self-debate, in which I concluded that a judge as wise as Solomon might award her this treasure, since she was the man’s relative and I was not. I therefore concluded to rid myself of all qualms by presenting the picture to her. She has since married and is living in Chile. I am sure she has taught her boys and girls to revere the memory of their great-great-grandfather.

“There has been a distribution of prizes on many occasions from my treasured old album, and since the pictures have gone, it sometimes seems like a little chapel from which the windows have been taken. However, I know these pictures are hanging on walls where they are honored by their descendants as if they were stained-glass saints. One of the last of the photographs that I gave away was that of the late Miss Abbie Fessenden. The recipient was her cousin, Miss Lucy Fessenden. Both of these ladies are nieces of William Pitt Fessenden. Would not an old album be a source of a dozen topics upon which you might build your stories? If mine possessed its original richness I would delight in lending it to you. However, I feel sure you are congratulating me that the contents of mine have gone in such a good cause.”



The Causten vault, as it appears today.

The Causten vault, as it appears today.



“Reconnecting a family to its past; research into a damaged vault at Congressional Cemetery reveals an unexpected connection to the Shrivers”

Susan Svrluga, Washington Post, June 12, 2014, B3.



When Douglas Owsley first climbed down into the old and badly damaged Causten family vault at the historic Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill, he found rotting coffins, brass nameplates and human bones piled several feet deep on the floor.

“Whew,” thought Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History. “This is going to be a lot of work.”

And it was. But after years of research, experts from the Smithsonian Institution were able not only to repair the vault but also to sift through and identify the skeletal remains. In so doing, they found an unexpected connection to the influential and politically connected Shriver family — of Kennedy, Peace Corps and Special Olympics fame.

From that dusty pile of splintered wood and bone and broken glass, they were able to piece together people’s stories — the Civil War surgeon, the merchant who fought in the War of 1812, the little boy whose death prompted his grieving father to build the vault — and reconnect a family to its past.

On Wednesday afternoon, after a memorial service at the cemetery chapel, the remains of 16 people were reinterred in the Causten vault, some in plain white boxes, others in their original cast-iron coffins. Then the arched black door was locked.

Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, said he had not known anything about these ancestors before his family was contacted by cemetery officials. But when Owsley and others showed him photographs of some of the deceased, he couldn’t help but look for a family resemblance.

Despite all the decades passed, and stories long-forgotten, he said, “it’s my family.”

Wednesday was a quiet afternoon at Congressional, with birds chirping among headstones worn down to nubs, obelisks listing downhill and the sharp-cornered markers of recent burials.

The cemetery, built in 1807, is the burial place for scores of congressmenand one vice president. Over time, though, the 35 acres became neglected. A few decades ago, the cemetery was an overgrown, dangerous place, a hideout for drug addicts and a target for vandals.

Now it is being slowly restored. A nonprofit organization was established to protect the cemetery, and a group of Capitol Hill neighbors who walk their dogs there raises money to help maintain the grounds.

The cemetery has its own following: amateur historians, people drawn to the evocative grace of epitaphs, those moved by the grave site of the first openly gay service member. Volunteers lead tours, each one unique, said Lauren Maloy, program director of the Association for the Preservation of the Historic Congressional Cemetery.

Some guides are fascinated by the symbolism of the carved butterflies, laurel wreaths and snakes eating their own tails. Some by the War of 1812; others by the famous people buried there. Margaret Puglisi, the association’s vice president, said she loves the science of the disintegrating stones.

She is leading a survey of the cemetery’s 20,000 markers to determine how many need repair, a review she expects will take about five years. The Causten vault, damaged by water seeping in over the years, was in danger of collapse before its renovation.

“The vault had to be repaired,” Owsley said. “But this is really the story of a family.”

Over the past five years, a team of archaeologists and anthropologists analyzed the skeletons taken from the vault, the hardware on the coffins (which helps date the caskets) and personal artifacts found inside. Bones provide all sorts of information, Owsley said, from gender and age to lifestyle (years of heavy labor, for example, take a toll), diet and probable cause of death.

Deb Hull-Walski and others pored over cemetery and other records, pulling obituaries, military logs, wills and wedding announcements for those buried inside the vault. Piecing it all together, a family portrait began to emerge.

The vault included people who lived in the mid- to late 1800s, from a 14-day-old child to an 86-year-old man, descended from three distinct lines: Causten, Shriver and Carvallo.

The Shriver name was a surprise. And Carvallo startled Owsley, who in past research had relied heavily on records from a U.S. Army surgeon during the Civil War who bore the same name.

“Now I was looking at him,” Owsley said of Carlos Carvallo, holding the surgeon’s bones in his hands.

Owsley could trace the carving on Carvallo’s heavy belt buckle and know from the medal around his neck that he was Catholic. A man with a heavy mustache, dark beard and piercing gaze, he was the son of the Chilean ambassador and had been educated in South America and in Europe.

Carvallo moved out West with the Army, and the rough life there took a bitter toll on his family: Of six children, five died, four of them infants stricken by illnesses that today would be quickly cured by antibiotics.

“My heart goes out to him,” Owsley said.

After the memorial service Wednesday, several members of the Shriver family walked from the chapel to the vault, seeing for the first time its brick face, the cross overhead and the words carved on marble plaques: Inexorable Death’s Doings.

They peered inside, under a curtain of cobwebs and spiders skittering for cover, narrowing their eyes to adjust to the darkness. A woman asked in which corner the researchers had found the remains of the many children who had died.

Looking in at the clean, almost empty arched space, Tim Shriver asked Owsley about a new platform that had been added for the remains — and then added, lightly, “Are you going to make a note for future archaeologists?”





To Discover What Life Was Like in 19th Century D.C., a Smithsonian Scientist Investigates a Tomb

Forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley digs into an 1835 vault and reveals the startling history of a famous Washington family

Sarah Zielinski

June 11, 2014



Inside the semi-subterranean 19th-century burial vault, conditions had deteriorated. The wooden shelves that held the caskets of nearly two dozen individuals had disintegrated. Bones were exposed. (Chip Clark, National Museum of Natural History)

Inside the semi-subterranean 19th-century burial vault, conditions had deteriorated. The wooden shelves that held the caskets of nearly two dozen individuals had disintegrated. Bones were exposed. (Chip Clark, National Museum of Natural History)


After more than 150 years of time, weather and even vandals, the vault holding the remains of a once-prominent Washington family was a mess. Located in D.C.’s Historic Congressional Cemetery, the Causten Vault—a semi-underground, domed-chamber—was structurally in peril.

“All the mortar had fallen away from the bricks [and] the barrel roof had begun to collapse,” says the cemetery’s president, Paul Williams.

The inside of the tomb had fared even worse. The wooden shelves that held the caskets of nearly two dozen individuals had disintegrated. Bones were exposed. Restoring the vault without disturbing the remains would be impossible. Workers would step on them, and the bones would be exposed to the elements.

So, in 2009, the cemetery called on forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the National Museum of Natural History for help. And today, after years of work to sort and catalogue the remains, as well as research the family’s history, the scientist and his colleagues finally returned the bones to the cemetery, where the vault has been restored. The work, Owsley says, not only helps the cemetery and the living descendants of those buried in the tomb, but also aids in his efforts to document life in the Chesapeake region over the last 400 years.

Congressional Cemetery, located about a-mile-and-a-half east of the U.S. Capitol in southeast Washington, D.C., is a somewhat quirky spot with a long history. Founded in 1807, the cemetery is not owned by the government, though it gets its name from having served as a resting place for many legislators and government officials. That includes 16 senators, 68 representatives and Vice President Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Such a spot was needed early on in American history because it was not possible to transport bodies of the deceased long distances in the hot summer months.

The 35-acre cemetery is now home to not just long-dead legislators (since 1878, most have chosen to be buried closer to home) but more than 65,000 burials, and it is still an active cemetery. To be buried there, “you just have to be dead,” notes the Congressional Cemetery website.

Such frank language reflects the respective, but somewhat irreverent, ways of the cemetery. About one-quarter of the site’s operating funds, for instance, come from a unique source: a dogwalking program in which paying members are allowed to use the grounds as a leash-free dog park. Adding to its eccentricity, past events held there have included a birthday party for John Phillip Sousa—the march composer who directed the U.S. Marine Band in the late 1800s—and a “Ghosts and Goblets” Halloween-themed fundraiser.

Tourists and locals alike can be found wandering the cemetery, visiting the graves of former Washingtonians such as Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Belva Ann Lockwood, the first female attorney allowed before the U.S. Supreme Court. More recent burials include Warren M. Robbins, who established the National Museum of African Art.

In recent years, the cemetery has been working to conserve and restore the grounds, which fell into disrepair in the 1960s and 1970s. Fractured and fallen gravestones can still be found across the site, though the cemetery has been working to upright and pin the stones so they are not easily knocked over again. Many of the original vaults, which hold the remains of formerly prominent Washington families, had begun to disintegrate, and some disappeared entirely. “Two-hundred and seven years later, [the site] will probably show its wear and tear,” notes Williams.

Owsley and the cemetery had an established relationship when they called him in 2009. The bone expert had matched up a skull found in an old tin box with the remains of cemetery resident William Wirt, a former U.S. attorney general and a prosecutor in the treason trial of Aaron Burr, for example. Owsley and other Smithsonian researchers participated in the excavation of the tomb of General Alexander Macomb, a hero of the War of 1812. And they had been called in to deal with the remains found in other crumbling vaults. “This is a public service,” Owsley says.

The Causten Vault held the remains of members of the Causten family, which in the 19th century was led by James Causten, an international lawyer and consul to the nations of Chili and Ecuador. Causten had the vault built in 1835, after the death of his first son, and it would eventually hold the remains of 22 members of the extended Causten family, including 4-year-old Josephine Shriver, whose mother, Henrietta Jane Causten, had married Joseph Shriver. (The Shriver family rose to prominence in the 20th century when Eunice Kennedy, younger sister of President John F. Kennedy, married Robert Sargent Shriver, Jr.)


In 2009, Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley excavated the 1835 Causten Vault where the ancestors of a prominent Washington, D.C. family were laid to rest. Today, the vault was restored and the family members returned to their resting place. (Chip Clark, National Museum of Natural History)

In 2009, Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley excavated the 1835 Causten Vault where the ancestors of a prominent Washington, D.C. family were laid to rest. Today, the vault was restored and the family members returned to their resting place. (Chip Clark, National Museum of Natural History)


Owsley and his colleagues began by removing all the remains from the Causten Vault, in what Owsley calls an “indoor archaeological investigation.” As the planking and caskets disintegrated over time, the remains pancaked. Owsley’s team sorted through each layer and then removed the remains to his laboratory  back at the museum. (They found evidence the tomb had been vandalized at one time—one man buried there is now missing his cranium.)

There, Owsley continued sorting and matching bones. From the bones, he could determine the gender and approximate age of the individual. The shape of the metal casket handles helped to narrow when that person was buried—the style of the hardware is often distinctive to a time period, Owsley says. Meanwhile, Deborah Hull-Walski, a collections manager in the museum’s anthropology department, was putting together a complete genealogy of the family.

The team eventually determined that the tomb held the remains of 16 people, including 13 skeletons and three still preserved in their coffins. The bodies of several individuals—those whose coffins had sat near the bottom of the vault—had completely disintegrated. “That’s not unique to this tomb,” Owsley notes. In the damp conditions found at the lower levels, a mineral called brushite begins to form and breaks up the bones.

Owsley continued sorting and identifying bones, matching them with records and refining his information, repeating the process three times to be sure that he could match the correct name with each set of remains. The now-separated skeletons were finally carefully packed into white plastic bins, each labeled with the person’s name. The cemetery will transfer the remains to a coffin before they are reinterred within the vault.

Matching Owsley’s findings with Hull-Walski’s genealogical research, the family now has a rich, if somewhat tragic, history. (The Causten’s living family members will receive a copy of the research later this summer.) Though James Hyman Causten Sr. lived a long life, dying in his 80s of a heart attack, “his kids were not so lucky,” Owsley notes. The Carvallo branch of the family, for example, lost five of six children. Two small children buried in the vault, aged three and seven months, died of dysentery.

Those who were buried in the vault weren’t its only residents, it turns out. Hull-Walski’s research also revealed that the Causten Vault had eight temporary burials during its time, including two former first ladies. One of these was Dolley Madison, the wife of President James Madison whose niece, Annie Payne, married into the Causten family. Dolley died in 1849 and was first interred in Congressional Cemetery’s Public Vault for two years. Annie Payne Causten then moved the former first lady’s remains across the lane to the Causten Vault. There her casket stayed until 1858, when Dolley Madison was finally laid to rest next to her husband in the Madison family cemetery on the grounds of the Montpelier in Virginia.

Madison was briefly joined in the Causten Vault by Louisa Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams, after she died in May 1852. Her body was then removed to the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, where she is entombed with her husband.

Remains like those found in the Causten Vault have proven invaluable for Owsley’s research, he says. By studying bones left behind after death, he can determine an individuals, age, gender, physical size and dental health—even whether they had infections, arthritis or some type of trauma. Bone chemistry can tell him about exposure to toxic metals like lead. But, he says, “context is crucial,” and it’s rare to have so much additional information about how people lived and died long ago.

Through the remains of people long dead, Owsley is hoping to paint a picture of life in the Chesapeake area over the last 400 years. He has concentrated on the 17th century—reconstructing life in Jamestown, Virginia, for instance—but has begun to look farther afield, at individuals in Ghana and England, for example. He hopes to be able to compare rich and poor, urban and rural, slave and white, “to look at this process of becoming American,” he says.

The Causten Vault is one piece of that grander puzzle. And, Owsley says, “it enhances what we can do with the [remains] where we don’t have that record.”




To Discover What Life Was Like in 19th Century D.C., a Smithsonian Scientist Investigates a Tomb

Forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley digs into an 1835 vault and reveals the startling history of a famous Washington family

Sarah Zielinski
June 11, 2014



 Carlton Fletcher

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