Until 1786, Virginia’s official religion was the Anglican Church. All Virginians were required to attend its services and financially support it. Non-attendance resulted in fines, with harsher penalties for the enslaved and poor. This dominance shaped early burial practices and locations.
Virginia Parishes: Beyond Religion
The Virginia Assembly designated areas as “Parishes” in the 1600s and 1700s. These zones were not just religious landmarks but also administrative regions. Each Parish had its priest, victor, rector, and church.
Truro Parish & Alexandria’s Emergence
Founded in 1749, Alexandria was part of Truro Parish, which covered areas now known as Arlington, Fairfax, and Loudoun Counties. Worship was limited to Occoquan’s Sanctuary, the Chapel at Goose Creek, and William Gunnell’s Farmhouse until Falls Church was established in 1734.
Alexandria’s Burial Challenge
In 1749, Alexandria lacked a central church or burial grounds. The distance to existing churches was problematic. Residents began using garden plots as burial sites.
Lost Family Burial Grounds
Urbanization led to the loss of many historic burial sites, including the Alexander Family Burial Ground, which was replaced by Potomac Yards. Some remains, like those of John Alexander and Dr. William Brown, were relocated to Pohick Church to preserve history.
Alexandria’s Efforts to Preserve History
The Archeological Protection Ordinance of 1989 mandates archaeological digs before construction in certain zones. This has led to the discovery of previously lost family cemeteries, like the West Family burial ground.
The West Family Legacy
The West family’s private burial ground was discovered during groundwork for the Hoffman Cineplex Complex. The remains were reinterred at Pohick Church. Alexandria’s West Street and the West End neighborhood testify to the family’s influence.
Mount Vernon’s Brick Tombs
The Washington family vault at Mount Vernon highlights the era’s preference for brick tombs. George Washington and his family were initially buried in a tomb near the Potomac River but were later moved to a new brick tomb. In 1831, Washington and other family members were relocated to the “new tomb” at the foot of Mount Vernon’s Vineyard Inclosure, built as per his will. Nearby, a distinct cemetery for enslaved people at Mount Vernon stands as a testament to the lives of the enslaved.
Alexandria’s Burial Evolution
After its establishment, Alexandria set aside ‘Penny Hill’ as its primary municipal burial ground, predominantly for the enslaved, freed African Americans, and those unaffiliated with any religious denomination. The name is derived from Pennyhill Field in Surrey, England, renowned for its 1588 beacon set up as a warning against the Spanish Armada.
In 1796, against the backdrop of urbanization and growth, the town relocated the municipal burial ground to the west of Alexandria. Located on the 700 block of S. Payne Street, the Penny Hill cemetery served as a resting place until 1976. Today, only a handful of gravestones remain, marking the final resting place of over 1,700 individuals.
Cameron: A Nearby Trade Hub
Close to Penny Hill was the community of Cameron, where Scottish merchants like John Carlyle and William Ramsay prospered. Named in honor of John Hamilton (1656 – 1708), the second baron of Cameron and a renowned Scottish patriot, Carlyle and Ramsay played significant roles in the tobacco trade, shipping their products to Scotland and Britain. Thanks to its location near what is currently Telegraph Road, Cameron became a vital trading center until the establishment of Alexandria in 1749.
Truro Parish’s Evolution
Truro Parish split in 1748, forming Cameron Parish. Another division in 1764 birthed Fairfax Parish, covering modern-day areas like Alexandria and Arlington County. Within this region, the main church was Falls Church, complemented by the Episcopal Chapel of Ease near Alexandria.
Religious Freedom’s Dawn
Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which brought William of Orange and Mary to the English throne, the 1689 Toleration Act granted religious freedoms to certain Protestant denominations such as Presbyterians, Quakers, and Baptists. However, it’s important to note that this act did not extend these freedoms to all; Catholics and non-Trinitarians, for instance, remained excluded. In the colony of Virginia, while these newly tolerated groups could worship, they were subjected to strict regulations. Their places of worship were designated as “Meeting Houses,” and they were required to keep doors and windows shut, even during the intense heat of Virginia summers, to prevent outsiders from hearing what was deemed “blasphemy.” By 1772, there was consideration in Virginia for a more inclusive tolerance law, but political disruptions prevented its passage.
Alexandria’s Burial Landscape
By 1762, Alexandria’s population had grown to over 1,200 inhabitants. Accompanying this expansion, a church was constructed by 1773, which is now recognized as the Christ Church Episcopal. The churchyard served as a burial ground until 1809.
Presbyterian and Quaker Burials
By the mid-1760s, Alexandria’s Presbyterians held their services at the Assembly Hall. Later, they constructed a Meeting House on South Fairfax Street. In 1784, the Quakers set up a burial ground on Queen Street. However, in 1809, burials were relocated to the Friends cemetery in the District of Columbia.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church
In 1795, St. Mary’s Catholic Church founded Virginia’s inaugural Catholic burial site. By 1803, William Thorton Alexander generously donated this land to the church. Situated at 1000 S. Royal Street, Alexandria, VA 22314, Virginia’s oldest Catholic Cemetery has a storied history. Discover more [here].
Discovering Alexandria’s Past
Recent efforts have uncovered 23 additional burial sites in older parts of the city. The Alexandria’s Archeology Museum showcases artifacts from these discoveries.
Alexandria’s Growth and Wars
By 1799, Alexandria had evolved from a 60-acre settlement to a major port city. It played roles in the French and Indian War and the American Revolutionary War. Names like Mason and Lee in graveyards signify the city’s contributors.
Political Hopes and Challenges
In anticipation of joining the District of Columbia in 1801, as the Federal Government relocated to its new capital, Alexandrians aspired for more political clout. Yet, the 1803 yellow fever outbreak shifted burial customs, prompting the creation of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. Explore its rich history and importance [here].
In wrapping up, the burial sites of Alexandria offer a fascinating window into the city’s early history. They reflect the Anglican church’s prominence in colonial Virginia and Alexandria’s challenges in creating appropriate burial spaces for its varied populace. Landmarks like the Pohick Church and tales of pioneers such as the Wests transport us back to the 18th century. The rise of religious liberty and the expansion of congregations, notably the Presbyterians, have left indelible marks on both the tangible and intangible heritage of the city. By rediscovering and conserving these long-lost cemeteries, Alexandria endeavors to bridge its present with its diverse history. As we traverse the age-old lanes and churchyards of Old Town, the myriad tombstones serve as silent testimonies to the beliefs, deaths, and lives that forged this city. The graveyards of Alexandria are enduring testaments to its storied journey from a tobacco hub to a bustling colonial center, and its pivotal role during the Civil War and beyond.
Sources of Information
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Smith, W. F., & Miller, T. M. (1989). A Seaport Saga, Portrait of Old Alexandria, Virginia. The Downing Company Printers.
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City of Alexandria. (2020). Official Website. [Webpage].
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City of Alexandria Archeology. (2022). 1989 Archeology Protection Code. [Webpage].
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