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Origins of the Name
The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex is named after Wilkes Street in Alexandria. Wilkes Street, established in 1796 during Alexandria’s expansion, was named in honor of John Wilkes, a British radical politician and journalist.
Wilkes was infamously known as “the ugliest man in Britain” but admired for his defiance of authority. As a member of Parliament, he staunchly opposed the repression of American colonies. His fight for liberty made him beloved by Colonial supporters. Naming the street after Wilkes paid tribute to his far-reaching influence and maverick spirit.
To read more, click on this blog [The Ugliest Man in Britain].
Origins of the Complex
The complex originated due to yellow fever outbreaks in the early 19th century and the resulting need for burial grounds outside of Alexandria’s crowded city limits.
The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1803
In August 1803, Alexandria (then part of the District of Columbia) was devastated by a yellow fever epidemic. Over half of the city’s 6,000 residents fled, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the outbreak. Prominent doctor Elisha C. Dick attributed the epidemic to a massive pile of decaying oyster shells near the waterfront, which emitted an intolerable stench.
Notably, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick was one of the three physicians present when George Washington passed away on December 14, 1799. Dr. Dick made a noteworthy suggestion at the time, proposing a tracheotomy, a novel medical procedure, in an effort to save Washington’s life. However, his recommendation was ultimately overruled. Dr. Dick is also responsible for cutting the pendulum on Washington’s bedside clock, which provides us with the precise time of Washington’s passing at 10:20 that evening.
Dr. Dick’s life journey is equally remarkable. Originally a Presbyterian, he later converted to Episcopalianism, and in January of 1812, he embraced the Quaker faith, relinquishing his dueling pistols and emancipating those he had enslaved. Subsequently, he became a Quaker preacher. Following his death on September 22, 1825, he was laid to rest in Alexandria’s Quaker Burial Ground, located at 717 Queen Street, which is now the site of the Kate Waller Barrett Branch Library.
The human toll was catastrophic. Reverend James Muir, the Pastor of the Presbyterian Meeting House and the Chaplain of Masonic Lodge 22, reported that between August 20th and the first of November 1803, an estimated 175 people were buried in the city’s cemeteries, which far exceeded their capacity. As he stated in his work, “At Penny Hill, during August, September, and October, 120 were buried, forty-one at the Episcopal burying ground, fourteen at the Presbyterian, about ten at the new burying ground on Fairfax Street, in the burying ground belonging to the Quakers and Roman Catholics, perhaps three in each. This amounts to one hundred and ninety-one, but some of the accounts begin earlier in August than the 20th and others extend into the month of November”. He also reported that “yes, double that number have struggled its malignity and have survived” (See “Appendix to Death Abolished: A Sermon” by James Muir, D.D. 1803).
Due to the overwhelming number of deaths, many victims were hastily buried in mass graves. (Notably, Reverend Muir officiated at George Washington’s burial on December 18, 1799. After Muir’s death in 1820, he was laid to rest beneath the north floorboards of the Presbyterian Meeting House located at 321 S. Fairfax Street in Old Town.)
While the epidemic subsided after autumn frosts halted the spread, Alexandria was shaken to its core. The experience revealed the need for burial grounds outside the crowded, unsanitary conditions of the residential areas and busy port neighborhoods along the river.
New Burial Grounds
Alexandria, Virginia, in the early 19th century, grappled with significant challenges in managing burial grounds. This situation became particularly pressing following a 1804 city decree that banned the sale of new graves within Alexandria. As a result, only existing plot owners could be interred in the city, forcing others to seek burial spaces outside its limits.
To tackle this issue, George Deneale, senior warden at Christ Church, and Jonathan Swift were tasked by Alexandria’s four religious congregations to procure a burial site. Their mission was further complicated by the “stoppage of 1809,” an order halting all new burials within the city from May 1st, 1809.
Deneale and Swift’s efforts were instrumental in establishing the first cemeteries outside Alexandria’s boundaries in Fairfax County, Virginia. These cemeteries, located on Spring Garden Farm, were strategically placed south of Duke Street, north of Hunting Creek, and east of Hooff’s Run. This ensured the availability of appropriate and accessible burial sites that complied with city regulations and met the community’s needs.
Interestingly, in 1796, George Gilpin, the Fairfax County surveyor, had surveyed this farm, designating 128 lots for a new housing community. However, this planned community eventually went bankrupt.
The first cemeteries include:
Penny Hill (1796) – Penny Hill Cemetery, originally situated along Great Hunting Creek, was relocated to its current location on the 700 block of S. Payne Street in 1796 by the City of Alexandria. This cemetery served as the official municipal burial ground for nearly 180 years. While historical records account for 906 burials that took place during the 20th century, only 11 gravestones have endured the test of time. Penny Hill Cemetery primarily served as the final resting place for indigent paupers and the impoverished. It is also believed that Freedmen who passed away in the early years of the Civil War (1861-1863) were interred at Penny Hill before the establishment of the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, located at 1001 S. Washington Street.
Trinity Cemetery (1808) – The resting place of Alexandria’s inaugural Methodist congregation, this cemetery boasts numerous tombstones adorned with symbols like entwined hands, anchors, sacred scriptures, and doves—iconography closely linked to the 19th-century Great Awakening, a religious resurgence that surged across the United States during the early 1800s.
Christ Church Cemetery (1808) – The cemetery is the final resting place for prominent families hailing from Northern Virginia, and it holds the remains of over twenty individuals spanning both the Lee and Mason lineages. To this day, the cemetery remains in use by members of the historic Christ Church congregation. Among its notable features are a multitude of obelisk-shaped grave markers, which were in vogue during the mid-1800s. Additionally, the cemetery boasts stones with a colonial-style design dating back to the early 1800s, showcasing the craftsmanship of local stone carvers William Chauncey and Charles Lloyd Neal.
St. Paul’s Cemetery (1809) – Established in association with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, this cemetery owes its creation to the diligent efforts of Daniel McLean, a founding member of the church. To create this burial ground, Daniel McLean acquired lots 79, 80, 89, and 90 of the Spring Garden Farm. Among its notable interments, The Female Stranger’s grave garners the most visitors in Alexandria. Furthermore, it serves as the final resting place of Wilmer McLean, the son of Daniel McLean. Wilmer McLean’s residence in Appomattox Court House holds historical significance, as it was the site where General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. Following the cemetery’s establishment, Benjamin Latrobe designed a new church on South Pitt Street for the congregation, consecrated in 1818. Today, St. Paul’s Cemetery serves as the resting place for over 1,500 members of the congregation and the community.
Presbyterian Cemetery (1809) – Established officially in 1809, Alexandria’s Presbyterian Cemetery has, for over two centuries, celebrated the city’s Presbyterian heritage. With deep historical roots, including earlier burials predating its official founding, this cemetery serves as a living testament to Alexandria’s rich history. It’s the final resting place for associates of George Washington and numerous Revolutionary War veterans, embodying their enduring legacies among over 2,500 burials. As an active and historical site, it continues to bridge the past and present, preserving memories and stories that transcend time.
As Alexandria expanded over the 19th century, more cemeteries were added to accommodate the growing and diverse community:
Methodist Protestant Cemetery (1829) Established following a schism within the Methodist Denomination, this church emerged when a faction of members separated from Trinity Church. Their place of worship was situated on the 100 block of North Washington. Tragically, in 1952, a devastating fire consumed the building, erasing all historical records. Today, the cemetery associated with the church lies abandoned, serving as a silent testament to its past—initially lots 99, 100, 108, and 109 of the Spring Garden Farm.
Home of Peace Cemetery (1857) – Founded in 1859, Beth El Congregation’s cemetery has been a cornerstone of the Alexandria Jewish community. It comprises multiple sections acquired from Union and Penny Hill cemeteries in various years: 1860, 1864, 1894, 1910, 1927, and 1929.
Union Cemetery (1860) was established by individuals from the Washington Street Methodist Church. This congregation separated from Trinity due to disagreements over the Northern anti-slavery and Southern pro-slavery factions within the Methodist denomination before the American Civil War.
Alexandria National Cemetery (1862) – The second oldest national cemetery and serves as the final resting place for more than 3,500 Civil War soldiers, among them 123 whose names remain unknown. Additionally, the cemetery holds 249 graves of United States Colored Troops, who belonged to the 28th, 29th, and 30th regiments, originating from Indiana, Illinois, and Maryland, respectively.
Bethel Cemetery (1885) – The cemetery with the highest activity within the complex boasts more than 20,000 burials, as confirmed by its owner, Mr. James Click. Several Mausoleum can be found in Bethel.
Black Baptist Cemetery (1885) – Located across Hooff’s Run, this cemetery contains over two dozen burials. In 1885, the Silver Leaf (Colored) Society of Alexandria founded the Black Baptist Cemetery, west of the Alexandria National Cemetery. This African-American burial association ensured members had caskets, funerals, and final resting places. Eventually abandoned, the cemetery became a landfill in the mid-20th century. Development plans in the 1980s and 1990s prompted archaeologists to study the site. They found headstones, footstones, coffin fragments, and hardware, revealing its history as a burial ground and leading to its protection.
Douglas Cemetery (1895) – Established in 1895, this cemetery is dedicated to the memory of the renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Presently, the City of Alexandria oversees its maintenance, although it has fallen into a state of disuse. An interesting distinction within the cemetery’s layout is observable: the eastern section follows a chronological order of burials, reflecting the sequence of individuals’ passing, while the other half of the cemetery reveals a tradition of interring relatives side by side. Historical records imply that nearly 2000 individuals may have found their resting place at Douglass Cemetery. Nevertheless, today, fewer than 700 grave markers remain visible.
Agudas Achim (1933) – Established as the most recent addition to the complex, this cemetery is dedicated to serving the Aguda Achim Hebrew Congregation. The congregation was founded shortly before World War I by Orthodox Jews who had immigrated to Alexandria from Eastern Europe. Agudas Achim’s cemetery is still active.
In 1847, a significant event reshaped the region’s boundaries: Alexandria and Alexandria County (which would be renamed Arlington County in 1920) were retroceded back to Virginia from the District of Columbia. This change in jurisdiction had implications for the development and governance of the area. As the city of Alexandria grew in the subsequent years, so did its cemeteries.
In 1913, Alexandria incorporated more than 1300 acres of land from Fairfax and Alexandria County, encompassing the cemeteries located in the Wilkes Street Complex. With the city’s expansion, the cemeteries adjusted their boundaries to cater to the increasing population. The Presbyterian Cemetery, originally established in 1809 as a modest “one square” plot, stands as a remarkable example of this expansion. Over time, it has acquired additional land and now covers an impressive seven acres.
The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex is the final resting place for many noteworthy people who shaped Alexandria’s and American history:
- Over 40 known Revolutionary War veterans including Colonel Dennis Ramsay, friend and confidant of George Washington. And Major Samuel Cooper, who participated in the Boston Tea Party.
- Robert Allison, Jr. who was killed in the Battle of the White House on September 5, 1814, a battle that many historians agree directly led to the British attack on Baltimore later that month.
- Over 3,900 Union troops are buried at the Alexandria National Cemetery, established in 1862, the second oldest national cemetery in the country, including 249 United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) and four civilians killed during the pursuit of President Lincoln’s assassin J. Wilkes Booth.
- Wilmer McLean, whose home in Appomattox Court House was where Robert E Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant on April 9, 1865, is buried in St. Paul’s Cemetery.
- African American leaders like Shields Cook, a member of the Grand Jury who indicted Jefferson Davis after the Civil War.
- General John Mason who sent Francis Scott Key on the mission that inspired the writing of the Star Spangled Banner.
- James Murray Mason, known for writing the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and being involved in the Trent Affair, which almost caused war to break out between England and the United States at the beginning of the American Civil War.
- Julius Campbell, Co-Captain of the 1971 Virginia State Champion football team told about in the hit movie Remember the Titans.
- Joseph H. McCoy, lynched in 1887, and Benjamin Thomas, lynched in 1899, are buried in Penny Hill.
- William Wolf Weisband was a Soviet spy that many blame for the Korean War.
- Joseph Bruin, a slaver, whose Alexandria slave pen served as the backdrop for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s observation of a slave auction that inspired scenes in her anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
- And of course Alexandria’s most visited grave, that of The Female Stranger.
The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex still serves Alexandria today while commemorating its long history. Key features include:
- 9 active cemeteries with ongoing burials
- Expert-led tours by Superintendent David Heiby
- Special events like Wreaths Across America and Flag-In Day
- Lush canopy with rare trees like the 150-year-old Tulip Magnolia
- Opportunities for walking, exploring nature, and connecting with history
The complex has grown substantially over the past two centuries. Currently, it spans 82 acres and consists of 13 historic cemeteries with over 35,000 burials, showcasing Alexandria’s heritage. The cemeteries offer a tranquil natural setting for walking, exploring history, and connecting with nature.
Whether you’re a history buff, nature lover, or just passing through, the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex provides an enriching glimpse into Alexandria’s storied past. Experience this national treasure!
Sources of Information:
Muir, J. D. D. (1803). Death Abolished: A Sermon. Occasioned by the Sickness which prevailed at Alexandria during August, September, and October, giving detail of that Sickness and some of the views of Providence in such calamitous visitations. WITH AN APPENDIX, Containing facts relating to the origin of the Sickness – the extent of the morality – the labors of the committee of health, and the contributions for the relief of the poor. Cotton and Stewart. Alexandria, Virginia.
Greenly, M. (1996). Those Upon the Curtain Has Fallen: The Past and Present Cemeteries of Alexandria, VA. Alexandria Archaeology Publications.
Pippenger, W. E. (1992). Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia: Volumes 1 – 5. Family Line Publications; Heritage Books, Inc.
Blanton, W. B. (1931). Medicine in Virginia in the Nineteenth Century. Garrett & Massie, Inc.
Cromwell, T. T., & Hills, T. J. (1989). The Phase III Mitigation of the Bonstz Site (44AX103) and the United States Military Railroad Station (44×105) located on the South Side of Duke Street (Route 236) in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. James Madison University Archeological Research Center. Project #0236-100-107, C 501. Submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Hahn, T. S., & Kemp, E. L. (1992). The Alexandria Canal: Its History & Preservation. West Virginia University Press for the Institute for the History of Technology & Industrial Archaeology.
Gardner, W. M., Snyder, K. A., Hurst, G., Walker, J. M., & Mullen, J. P. (1999). Excavations at the Old Town Village Site, Corner of Duke and Henry Streets, Alexandria, Virginia: An Historical and Archeological Trek Through the 200-Year History of the Original Spring Garden Development. Report prepared for Eakin and Younentob, Alexandria, Virginia.
Ricks, M. K. (2008). Escape on the Pearl. The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad. Harper Collins.
Rothman, J. D. (2021). The Ledger and the Chain. How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America. Basic Books.
Munson, J. D. (Compiler). (2013). Alexandria, Virginia Alexandria Hustings Court Deeds 1783 – 1797. Heritage Books.
Munson, J. D. (Compiler). (2015). Alexandria, Virginia Alexandria Hustings Court Deeds 1797 – 1801. Heritage Books.
City of Alexandria. (n.d.). Information on cemeteries. [Official Website].
City of Alexandria. (n.d.). Information on Alexandria’s archaeology. [Official Website].
Boundary Stones of the District of Columbia. (n.d.). Information on DC boundary stones. [Official Website].