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City Looks at Former Cemetery Sites

By Kat LuceroCurrent Staff Writer

After human bones found last September in a coffin beneath a historic Georgetown house were identified as age-old remains, Ruth Trocolli took over the investigation.

As the city archaeologist at the D.C. Historic Preservation Office, Trocolli and her team then turned the area into an archaeological site, replacing construction activity. They identified the remains as being an African-American man aged between 25 and 35 years old.

While the surrounding construction continued, the crew encountered more old cemetery shafts near the property’s backyard on the 3300 block of Q Street. Inside pine boxes, they discovered four skeletal remains of African-Americans, with their heads pointed to the west and feet to the east.

Trocolli hypothesized that this area had been an undocumented burial ground for freed slaves before the Civil War. While some parts of her research have yet to be verified, she based her hypothesis on several factors: This hilly section of Georgetown was developed later than its waterfront parts; the neighborhood had a large population of freed slaves; the site is close to a Presbyterian church and its accompanying cemetery, where Civil War soldiers and generals were once buried; and the type of coffin appears to be pre-war style.

“We know that this area was sort of a fringe area at that time. We think that this may have been a burial area outside the former precincts of the Presbyterian church cemetery where slaves, who were freed, were buried because all five of these individuals are African-American,” she said at a presentation last Wednesday at the Mount Pleasant Library about archaeological sites in the city.

Detailing the recent Georgetown excavation, as well as unearthing other mysteries of the city’s past, Trocolli said she has “the best job in the District.”

“[Archaeology] is one of the best ways of understanding the lives of prehistoric people, women, children, the enslaved, tenant farmers and other disenfranchised groups because people leave traces,” she told about 45 attendees.

That’s why Trocolli is also keen on exploring more of what lies beneath a particular house located on 3324 Dent Place that backs to the Q Street burial site. Records show that a renowned freed slave named Yarrow Mamout, who died in 1823, owned and lived in that property.

Along with other historians, Trocolli suspects that “this important man” may be buried in his old property or near it. But the archaeology project is on hold because of a legal dispute over who owns the property.

In addition to these recent Georgetown findings, Trocolli on Wednesday spoke of other old burial grounds in the city. Historic records show that more than 20 active and inactive cemeteries are located throughout the District. But other nondocumented sites, such as the one in Georgetown, she said, may exist below present-day structures — sometimes only in fragments.

The archaeologist explained that when the nascent city ordered the relocation of cemeteries to accommodate its rapid development in the 1800s, not all remnants of burial sites were completely removed.

“Wherever you’re going to have these former cemeteries, you’re almost always still going to have some burials remaining — whether they’re full, partial … or headstones,” she said.

Another example Trocolli highlighted was the discovery of an ornate, cast-iron coffin in Columbia Heights during the construction of an apartment building in 2004. The site was part of Columbian College, the predecessor of George Washington University. The casket was left behind after the entire institution — including its cemetery — relocated to Foggy Bottom.

After the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History acquired this artifact, a team conducted forensic archaeological research that identified the well-preserved body of 15-year-old William Taylor White, a student at Columbian’s preparatory school who died of a congenital heart defect in 1852.

The Smithsonian’s two-year investigation also traced his living relatives, who were informed of the discovery. Trocolli showed photos of two descendants of the boy’s sister — one from the 1940s, the other from 2007 — revealing facial similarities with the Smithsonian’s reconstructive drawing of White based on the remains in the coffin.

“When you look at those faces, my spine still tingles,” she said. “It’s an incredible piece of detective work.”

Another cemetery project Trocolli highlighted involved the Walter Pierce Community Park in Adams Morgan. In the 1800s, the site as two burial grounds for Quakers and formerly enslaved people who belonged to the Colored Union Benevolent Association.

According to Trocolli, neighbors knew about an old coffin sticking out in the hillside of the park but didn’t inform the National Park Service, which owns that part of the land. In a later interview, Trocolli described the situation as a “communication problem” between residents and the Park Service, saying federal officials weren’t even aware of the coffin until she told them.

In 2006, an archaeological team led by late Howard University professor Mark Mack performed a noninvasive archaeological survey at the park. So far the group has discovered a variety of burial remnants including exposed remains of at least nine individuals, an exposed coffin, coffin hardware and fragmented and intact gravestones, according to “The Archaeological Investigation of Walter C. Pierce Community Park and Vicinity” report that was released to the public in May.

Completion of the investigation is awaiting additional results from a technical survey that would determine if cemetery shafts exist below this land. In the meantime, the archaeologist told her audience to stay posted on the fate of the park.

Because of these types of high-profile discoveries over the past 10 years, Trocolli said she wants to the D.C. Council to pass legislation requiring developers to stop construction once a crew encounters a cemetery.

“The city has a fairly significant list of laws related to burials. But we don’t have [laws] to protect cemeteries. One of the things I’d like to work on the next few years is getting a city statute where if you do encounter a cemetery in your backyard … the developer has to stop and you have to make arrangements,” Trocolli said. “We need some kind of [statute] for individual burials and cemeteries because this is going to happen again and again and again wherever we have have these former cemeteries.”

This article appears in the Aug. 28 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.