18th Century Burials in Alexandria: Anglican Church’s Influence   

18th Century Burials in Alexandria were greatly influenced by the Anglican Church, Virginia’s official religion until 1786. All Virginians were required to attend Anglican services and support the church financially. Non-attendance resulted in fines, with harsher penalties for the enslaved and poor. This dominance shaped Alexandria’s burial history, as the lack of centralized churches or designated burial grounds led residents to establish family plots on their land to serve as makeshift cemeteries. Understanding 18th-century burial customs and the Anglican church’s control provides essential context on the origins and evolution of 18th Century Burials in Alexandria over time.

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.

1915 representation of Pohick Church and its 18th-century congregation. Architecturally mirrored by Alexandria’s Christ Church and the Falls Church. Source: “Historic Virginia Homes and Churches,” p. 390.

Alexandria’s Burial Challenge

In 1749, Alexandria lacked a central church or burial grounds. The distance to existing churches was problematic, so residents began using garden plots as burial sites.

Alexandria’s early landowner’s map from 1987 illustrates the city before establishing churches or burial grounds. Key observation: the tobacco inspection station is between Princess and Oronoco Streets. Tobacco catalyzed Alexandria’s foundation in 1749. The map is sourced from the Fairfax County Office of Comprehensive Planning. See Sources for full map details.

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.

Potomac Yards showcased in National Geographic, November 1936, emphasizing the vast railroad yard. It was adapted from “R, F & P Railroad” by William E. Griffin, Jr., p. 128.

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.

Memorial stone honoring the West Family at Pohick Church in Lorton, Virginia. Image captured by D. Heiby.

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.

Original burial site of the Washington family.

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.

Transporting Hogsheads via a ‘Rolling Road.’ Courtesy of Scottville Heritage Museum, Scottville, Virginia.

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.

Historical Map of Fairfax County (1742-1800)
This map illustrates the evolving boundaries of Fairfax County and Truro Parish during the late 18th century and showcases the region’s significant divisions. Notably, Fairfax County once stretched from the Potomac River in the east to the Shenandoah River in the west. For reference, the city of Alexandria is marked near the letter “L.” Source: “Fairfax County, Virginia A History,” endorsed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, 1978, pg. 38.

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,” 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, Virginia had been considering a more inclusive tolerance law, but political disruptions prevented its passage.

Major Samuel Cooper’s gravestone is in Christ Church Cemetery, Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, Alexandria, Virginia. At just 16, he was part of the iconic Boston Tea Party of 1773. His actions and those of fellow protestors led Virginia’s Royal Governor Dunmore to dissolve the Assembly, preventing a pivotal vote on the Religious Tolerance bill.

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.

Christ Church, Alexandria, VA: An Architectural Gem from 1773.

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.

This is an illustration of the inaugural Meeting House, constructed in 1775, which was tragically destroyed by fire following a lightning strike on July 26, 1835.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church

1795, St. Mary’s Catholic Church (now the Basilica of Saint Mary) founded Virginia’s inaugural Catholic burial site. By 1803, William Thorton Alexander generously donated this land to the church. 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

Alexandrians aspired to more political clout in anticipation of joining the District of Columbia in 1801, as the Federal Government relocated to its new capital. 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].

Map Highlighting the Cemeteries Discussed, with Annotations and Directions by D. Heiby.


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 the city’s tangible and intangible heritage; by rediscovering and conserving these long-lost cemeteries, Alexandria endeavors to bridge its present with its diverse history. As we traverse Old Town’s age-old lanes and churchyards, the myriad tombstones serve as silent testimonies to the beliefs, deaths, and lives that forged this city. Alexandria’s graveyards are an enduring testament 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

Lancaster, R. A. (1915). Historic Virginia Homes and Churches. J. B. Lippincott and Company.

The Alexandria Association. (1956). Our Town: 1749 – 1865. Likenesses of This Place & Its People Taken from Life by Artists Known and Unknown. Dietz Printing Company.

Sengel, W. R. (1973). Can These Bones Live? Kingsport Press.

Neherton, N., Sweig, D., Artemel, J., Hickin, P., & Reed, P. (1978). Fairfax County, Virginia A History. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Smith, W. F., & Miller, T. M. (1989). A Seaport Saga, Portrait of Old Alexandria, Virginia. The Downing Company Printers.

Pippenger, W. E. (1992). Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia: Volumes 3. Family Line Publications.

Greenly, M. (1996). Those Upon the Curtain Has Fallen: The Past and Present in Old Town Alexandria, VA. Alexandria Archaeology Publications.

Wells, K. J. (1997). Reflections of Social Change: Burial Patterns in Colonial Fairfax County, Virginia. College of William & Mary – Arts & Sciences. [Paper 1539626090].

Powell, M. G. (2000). The History of Old Alexandria, VA, from July 13, 1749 – May 24, 1861. Willow Bend Books. (Index by Pippenger, W. E.)

Ricks, M. K. (2007). Escape on the Pearl. The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad. Harper Collins Publishers.

Ring, C. K., & Pippenger, W. E. (2008). Alexandria, Virginia Town Lots 1749 – 1801 together with Proceeding of the Board of Trustees 1749 – 1801. Heritage Books.

Crothers, A. G. (2012). Quakers Living in the Lion’s Mouth. The Society of Friends in Northern Virginia, 1730 – 1865. The University of Florida Press.

Dahmann, D. C. (2002). The Roster of Historic Congregational Members of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. [Unpublished manuscript].

City of Alexandria. (2020). Official Website. [Webpage].

Alexandria Archeology. (2022). Site Report for Hoffman Town Center Blocks 4 & 5. [Web report].

City of Alexandria Archeology. (2022). 1989 Archeology Protection Code. [Webpage].

George Washington’s Mount Vernon. (2023). [Official site].

Mitchell, B. (1987). Map of 1760 Fairfax County, Virginia landowners. Fairfax County Office of Comprehensive Planning. [Edited by D. M. Sweig].

The Fireside Sentinel. (1987). The Alexandria Library, Lloyd House Newsletter, 1(7). Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library. [Accessed in 2023].

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