The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex: A Historical Gem in Alexandria, Virginia

Introduction to Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex

Nestled in the heart of Alexandria, Virginia, the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex is a testament to the city’s rich history and cultural heritage. This sprawling burial ground, spanning nearly 82 acres, encompasses 13 historic cemeteries and is the final resting place for over 35,000 individuals.

Origins and Development

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1803

The complex’s origins can be traced back to the early 19th century when Alexandria grappled with the terrifying prospect of disease spreading through contaminated groundwater. The devastating Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1803 brought the dire situation to the forefront, which claimed numerous lives and overwhelmed the city. In August 1803, Alexandria, then part of the District of Columbia, was ravaged by the epidemic, causing over half of the city’s 6,000 residents to flee in the face of the outbreak’s magnitude.

Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick’s Role

Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, a prominent physician in Alexandria, played a significant role during this critical time. He attributed the epidemic’s cause to a massive pile of decaying oyster shells near the waterfront, which emitted an unbearable stench. The fear was that decomposing bodies in the city’s cemeteries would leach their bodily fluids, known today as necro leachate or necro slurry, into the groundwater and spread the disease through contaminated wells. You can read more about Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick at this [link].

City Edicts and Burial Restrictions

Alexandria’s city officials took decisive action in response to the mounting crisis caused by the Yellow Fever Epidemic and the concerns about groundwater contamination. In March 1804, they issued an edict preventing the sale of any new burial plots within the town, restricting burials to those plots that had been previously purchased or allocated.

However, as the fears of disease spread persisted, the city council took even more stringent steps. On May 1, 1809, they issued a second edict, known as the “stoppage of 1809,” which forbade the burial of anyone within the town, even in previously allocated plots, unless specifically approved by the town council. This drastic measure effectively halted all new burials within Alexandria’s boundaries.

The Human Toll and Mass Graves

The human toll of the Yellow Fever Epidemic was catastrophic. Reverend James Muir, the Pastor of the Presbyterian Meeting House and the Chaplain of Masonic Lodge 22 reported the staggering impact of the disease. In his work “Appendix to Death Abolished: A Sermon” (1803), he stated that between August 20th and the first of November 1803, an estimated 175 people were buried in the city’s cemeteries, far exceeding their capacity. “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 November,” he wrote. Reverend Muir also noted that “double that number have struggled its malignity and have survived.”

Gravestone Commemorating the Pascoe Children, Victims of Yellow Fever, in the Presbyterian Cemetery: William passed away in 1805, Charles in 1806, and another William in 1807. The children’s gravestone uniquely features a hand-carved skull and bones at the top, reminiscent of a New England-style gravestone!

Due to the overwhelming number of deaths, many victims were hastily buried in mass graves, adding to the already dire situation in the city’s cemeteries. Notably, Reverend Muir had officiated at George Washington’s burial on December 18, 1799, just a few years before the epidemic struck. After Muir’s own 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.

Location of the new Fairfax Street burial ground in Alexandria, which was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1843 during the construction of the tide locks for the Alexandria Canal

Establishment of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex

Faced with these challenging circumstances, city officials and religious leaders sought to establish new burial grounds outside the crowded and unsanitary conditions of the residential areas. The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex emerged as a solution. Alexandria’s four religious congregations tasked George Deneale, senior warden at Christ Church, and Jonathan Swift to procure a suitable burial site.

Alexandria Gazette. (June 26, 1806). Four Congregations were seeking a place of interment. Retrieved October 23, 2023, from

Interestingly, the Spring Garden Farm had been surveyed by George Gilpin, the Fairfax County surveyor, in 1796. Gilpin had designated 128 lots on the farm for a new housing community. However, this planned community eventually went bankrupt, making the land available to establish the cemeteries.

The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex emerged as a solution to the burial crisis, with the first cemeteries established on the Spring Garden Farm in the early 1800s. The complex takes its name from Wilkes Street, which was established in 1796 and named after John Wilkes, a British radical politician and journalist known for his support of the American colonies (to read more about John Wilkes, please click [here].)

The first cemeteries of the complex were established in the early 1800s on Spring Garden Farm, strategically located south of Duke Street, north of Hunting Creek, and east of Hooff’s Run. This location ensured that the new burial grounds were sufficiently distant from the city’s wells and residential areas, mitigating the risk of groundwater contamination.

Notable Cemeteries Within the Complex

  • Penny Hill Cemetery (1796)
  • Trinity Cemetery (1808)
  • Christ Church Cemetery (1808)
  • St. Paul’s Cemetery (1809)
  • Presbyterian Cemetery (1809)
  • Methodist Protestant Cemetery (1833)
  • Home of Peace Cemetery (1857)
  • Union Cemetery (1860)
  • Alexandria National Cemetery (1862)
  • Bethel Cemetery (1885)
  • Black Baptist Cemetery (1885)
  • Douglas Cemetery (1895)
  • Agudas Achim (1933)
1933 depiction of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. Published in Alexandria Archaeology Publications Number 88 (p.26). Scale unspecified.

Retrocession and Annexation: Impact on Cemetery Boundaries

As Alexandria grew and evolved, so did the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. The retrocession of Alexandria to Virginia in 1847 and subsequent annexations led to the expansion of cemetery boundaries to accommodate the growing population. The Presbyterian Cemetery, for example, started as a modest “one square” plot in 1809 but has since grown to cover an impressive seven acres.


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 Old District of Columbia Boundary Line is highlighted prominently on the map, a significant demarcation in the region’s history. The map illustrates the successive annexations of land that have shaped Alexandria since its founding in 1749. Notably, the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex is just south of the ‘BOUNDARY’ label on the map. This visual representation, generously provided by the Alexandria Archaeology Commission, offers a clear view of the cemetery’s location in relation to the historic boundary line.

Key Historical Figures Buried Here

The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex is a place of historical significance and the final resting place of many notable figures who shaped Alexandria and American history. From Revolutionary War veterans and Civil War soldiers to African American leaders and influential politicians, the complex is a treasure trove of stories waiting to be discovered, including:

  • Over 40 known Revolutionary War veterans
  • Union troops, including United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.)
  • African American leaders like Shields Cook
  • General John Mason and James Murray Mason
  • Dr. Holmes Paulding, a U.S. Army surgeon
  • William Wolf Weisband, a Soviet spy
  • Joseph Bruin, a slaver
  • The mysterious “Female Stranger”

    Visiting the Cemetery Complex Today

    The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex continues to serve the community today, with several active cemeteries still conducting burials. Visitors can explore the beautiful grounds, take part in expert-led tours, and attend special events celebrating the complex’s rich history. The lush canopy of trees, including the majestic 150-year-old Tulip Magnolia, provides a serene and peaceful environment for quiet reflection and connection with the past.

    Plan your visit to the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex today and experience the rich history and serene beauty of this extraordinary historical site in Alexandria, Virginia.

    • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
    • Parking: Available on Wilkes and Hamilton.
    • Address: 1475-1501 Wilkes St, Alexandria, VA 22314
    • Expert-led tours by Presbyterian Cemetery Superintendent David Heiby most Saturdays
    • Special events like Wreaths Across America and Flag-In Day
    • Opportunities for walking, exploring nature, and connecting with history
    Tulip Magnolia, Virginia’s State Champion Tree, is in the Presbyterian Cemetery of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex and photographed by D. Heiby.

    In conclusion, the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex is a historical gem that showcases Alexandria’s deep roots and cultural heritage. Its 13 historic cemeteries, spanning over two centuries, offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives and legacies of the individuals who helped shape the city and the nation. By preserving and cherishing this remarkable cemetery complex, we ensure that future generations can continue to learn from and be inspired by the stories of those who came before us.

    References and Further Reading

    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].

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    One reply on “The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex: A Historical Gem in Alexandria, Virginia”

    Never knew Dr. Elisha Dick was involved in the yellow fever outbreak in Alexandria.until I read this blog.Keep up the good work David

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