Georgetown’s Meat Industry

The master butchers were drawn to the District of Columbia by the founding of the federal city. It was they who identified the best use for the land at the northern edge of Georgetown, and whose trade would characterize the neighborhood for most of the century. They bought livestock at their cattle market on Canal Road, slaughtered it in their own slaughterhouses on the heights, and sold it at their stands in the markets of Georgetown and of Washington City.


According to 1865 Georgetown property tax assessments, there were seven slaughterhouses on either side of what is now Wisconsin Avenue, in the northern portion of Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition, in what is now Glover Park. The slaughterhouses belonged to the members of a syndicate of master butchers: Charles Homiller, Benjamin F. Hunt, Christian C. Yeabower, Theodore Barnes, A. Frederick Scheele, Henry Weaver, and Peter Dill.  Joseph Weaver and the Kengla brothers had their slaughterhouses just outside the boundary of Georgetown, in Washington County. (For examples of the butchers combining as a syndicate to promote their common interest, see The Passing of the Butcher Trade.)

Although there were butchers and slaughterhouses at many other places on the periphery of Georgetown and Washington City, the list of butchers affected by the fire at Centre Market (December 19, 1870) suggests that from a quarter to a third were from Upper Georgetown or from Tenleytown, presumably because livestock drovers came from points west of the District. (Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, 1960-62:88; vol.26:66)

Unlike the immense industrial plant that springs to mind when we say slaughterhouse, a 19th century master butcher’s slaughterhouse likely to have been little more than a one-story frame farm outbuilding that was used for both the slaughter and the processing of a harvested animal. The interior of the building might have had an iron rack running the length of the room, which would have held hooks. The floors sloped toward a drain that emptied into a nearby stream. It was also unlikely to have been in continual use; before the advent of refrigeration, its activity was governed by the seasons; hogs, for example, were purchased in late summer, fattened in fall, and killed in winter. “The season for pork butchering is commencing.” (Georgetown Courier, December 5, 1874)

But even if it is small, and only operates for a few months a year, a slaughterhouse is not something people want in their neighborhood. In 1820 the city of Georgetown therefore ordained that new slaughterhouses had to be at a fixed distance from the commercial and residential heart of the city––specifically, north of Madison Street (Whitehaven Parkway), and west of Lingan Street (36th Street). For the rest of the century, the bulk of the land that is now Glover Park was, to a great extent, characterized by the meat industry. (Georgetown Ordinances, June 28, 1820)

A 19th century master butcher was an entrepreneur, with expertise in a great deal more than cuts of meat. He judged, selected, and negotiated the price of the livestock bought from drovers and dealers at annual markets; invested time and money fattening the animals for slaughter; and supervised the cutting, curing, and packing. At the retail end of his operation he presided over his permanent stands in the municipal market houses of Georgetown and Washington, where their clientele awaited them. They were the kings of the marketplace. “Homiller, Yeabower, and jolly Joe Weaver with white aprons, were punctual in attendance with home-killed beef, lamb, and pork, at Western Market during the Civil War.” (Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, 29-30:283)

In its heyday, butchering was a family business; a butcher’s son learned the trade at his father’s side, and was fairly likely to marry a butcher’s daughter.  (If he found the field too crowded with brothers and cousins, a butcher’s son might enter into an allied trade: the advantages to having a livestock broker in the family were obvious.) Collectively, the intermarried families of master butchers and allied trades formed a syndicate, with cooperation ensured by family connection.

Below the master butcher was the journeyman butcher who was employed to assist him. If the journeyman had sufficient promise, he might hope to secure his future by marrying the master’s daughter. If the journeyman already had a family, he could expect to be the master’s tenant, perhaps in the house the master had occupied in earlier days; there were also numerous “tenements” on Back Street, and in the village of Wilberforce. Then as now, not much of what happened in these places made news, unless it was bad. In 1873, a beef butcher named John Wilson, out of employment and drinking, hanged himself at the western end of Henry Kengla’s farm, leaving a wife and five children to fend for themselves. (Georgetown Courier, December 6, 1873)

An apprentice, indentured to learn “the art and mystery” of a trade, occupied its bottom rung, and in the District of Columbia, as in many other places, apprentices were often orphans.(Joseph Collins, apprenticed to Henry Kengla, in 1836; William Tracey, to Jacob Kengla, in 1839; Robert Cox, to Jacob Kengla, in 1839: in Provine, Register of District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeship, 1801-1893, 1998)

Although their lives left few documentary traces, and many details are now lost to us, the case of one local apprentice, who appears repeatedly in the records over a span of four decades, provides a general idea of apprenticeship in action. “John Threlkeld of Georgetown certifies that (John) Baptist was born free, and that he knew his mother, Mima, alias Diana, alias Mary Baptist (also free born).” (DC Free Negro Register 39, October 3, 1831)

The little boy––for whom it was urgent to secure his freedom papers while those who knew the status of his deceased mother were still available––reappears in the records nine years later. “John Baptist, an orphan negro child who was 9 on January 1 instant, is apprenticed until age 21, with John Barnaclo to learn the art of gardening and farming.”

In return for feeding and clothing the boy, and giving him a place to sleep, John Barnaclo––the warden of the Georgetown Poor House––got twelve years of work from John Baptist, at the end of which he transferred the young man to work for a German butcher who lived south of the Poor House. “With the consent of the Trustees of the Poor of Georgetown, John Baptist, a colored orphan, is apprenticed to serve until January 1, 1853 with Christian Yearbour of Georgetown, to learn the trade of butcher.” In short, John Baptist, who had been set to work at age nine, could begin to be paid for his labor when he was twenty-four.  (Provine, Register of District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeship, 1801-1893, 1998: no.1824, January 21, 1842; no.2135, August 19, 1850; John Baptist married Mary Shipley in 1866, and in the 1872 directory of Georgetown, was listed as a butcher, living at 293 High Street.)


“Public sale, deed of trust executed by the late George Baltzer to secure a debt: a yellow man named Sam Dorsey, age about 20 years, a butcher.” (Intelligencer, July 14, 1815. The Baltzer family were the first generation of Georgetown butchers.)


In addition to journeymen and apprentices––the former received wages, the latter did not––the master butchers of Georgetown also had the option of owning some workers outright. Although early censuses show that, at the beginning of the 19th century, when they established themselves in Upper Georgetown, the Kengla, Homiller and Weaver families were not slaveholders, they appear to have accommodated to prevailing conditions; by the time of Emancipation in the District of Columbia (1862), these three families owned upwards of forty slaves (whose names are on record because local slaveowners were permitted to file claims for compensation for their freed slaves).

Although the 1862 compensation claims did not require it, some claimants did specify the kind of work their slaves had done. So we learn that the butcher Henry Kengla had a slave named Nathan Brooks, and that Brooks was also a butcher.  (This is probably the same Nathan Brooks, committed August 3, 1858 as a runaway slave by John W. Gross, and released September 14, to Charles Kenley [i.e. Kengla]. (Hynson, Jerry M., District of Columbia Runaway And Fugitive Slave Cases 1848-1863, Willow Bend Books, 1999)

But even if a local compensation claims doe not specify a freed slave’s pre-war occupation, his post-war history still permits an inference. We know, for example, of Abraham Hawkins who, until 1862, had been the property of the butcher Charles Homiller; after the Civil War, Hawkins lived on Back Street [Tunlaw Road], and is listed by the census as a butcher.

In all probability, most if  not all of the other adult men, held as slaves by local butchers until 1862, had been employed in the trade of their owners, who could either employ them in their own operations, or hire them out to another member of the butcher syndicate. (That it cost less to rent a slave with skills than to hire a free man, goes without saying.)


Post Script

After the Civil War, as the volume of livestock arriving in the District of Columbia by rail increased in relation to the volume delivered by drovers, the master butchers of Upper Georgetown were compelled to relocate some of their operations to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’s livestock depot along First Street NE, and later, to the Washington Cattle Market at Queenstown, and then to the Union Stock Yards, on Benning Road, which opened in about 1888, and would be Washington’s main livestock depot and slaughterhouse for four decades. (See The Passing of the Butcher Trade.)

At the same time that local meat production was giving way to the growing national system of railroads and stockyards, open land on the periphery of Washington, formerly devoted to agricultural use, was becoming desirable for suburban development.



Carlton Fletcher

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