Historic Cemeteries of Alexandria
Introduction to Alexandria Cemeteries
The oldest legible tombstone surviving in Alexandria is that of Isaac Pierce, erected in 1771 in Christ Church yard. All earlier grave markers have disappeared or have become illegible and impossible to date precisely. Many of Alexandria’s gravestones of even more recent date have also disappeared, as have some entire cemeteries. Old Town, the historic core of Alexandria, Virginia, still contains fifteen historic cemeteries. At least 23 additional burial locations have been identified in the Historic District; some are adjacent to churchyards, and others are abandoned family cemeteries.
In early America, small family cemeteries were not uncommon. The 1755 diary of a Mrs. Brown, an English visitor to Alexandria, noted, “It is the custom of this place to bury their relatives in their gardens.” The oldest existing church cemeteries in Old Town date from the last third of the 1700s. Land on which Christ Church stands was sold to the parish in 1774, although vestry records indicate burials as early as 1766. The land on which the Old Presbyterian Meeting House stands was sold to that congregation in 1772. St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery dates from about 1795. The Penny Hill Cemetery, a municipal burying ground on South Payne Street, was purchased in 1795.
In 1804, the Alexandria Common Council decreed that graves were not to be dug “in any ground within the corporation, not opened or allotted before the twenty-seventh of March, eighteen hundred and four.” While some burials occurred in the existing cemeteries after that date, the Council’s action prevented the founding of any new cemeteries within the limits of Alexandria. Local churches looking for places for new cemeteries settled on a area southwest of the corner of Wilkes and Payne Streets, then called Spring Garden Farm. The Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex has grown to include 13 cemeteries, including the adjacent Black Baptist Cemetery immediately west of Hooff’s Run from Alexandria National Cemetery.
Over the years, many of the small family cemeteries disappeared. In some cases, there is historic evidence that burials were removed and reinterred in a formal cemetery. In some instances, it is possible that only the headstones were removed. This practice is not unique to Alexandria, or even to urban America. As land use changes over time and families move away, burials may be moved to more suitable locations or simply lost to the ravages of time. African American residents of Alexandria faced other challenges. Their graves, for example, were sometimes marked with short-lived wooden markers, or with shells, ceramics, or other ephemeral materials rather than permanent grave markers.
Information on tombstones is valuable to genealogists and local historians. Data such as birth and death dates, names, spellings, personal relationships and occupations may be available nowhere else. Stone inscriptions, or the tombstones themselves, can disappear with time, but Alexandria historian Wesley Pippenger has published several volumes of Alexandria tombstone inscriptions, preserving this valuable historic resource and making the information more readily available.
Archaeological Investigations of Alexandria's Cemeteries
The work of Alexandria Archaeology, and of archaeological consultants working for developers because of requirements of the Archaeological Protection Ordinance, have led to the archaeological investigation of several important Alexandria cemeteries -- some known and some forgotten over time. The Virginia Antiquities Act mandates a permit from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for the excavation of unmarked graves. Such permits are obtained before work begins on a known cemetery site, or, in the case of unexpected burials, work is halted while a permit is obtained. The goal of Alexandria Archaeology's cemetery excavations has been to record the location of graves and, when possible, to preserve them in place. When necessary, burials have been moved to new locations, based on the wishes of families or descendant populations.
The Black Baptist Cemetery, Contraband and Freedmen's Cemetery, and Bloxham Family Cemetery are preserved on City parkland, with appropriate memorials built or in the planning stages. Archaeological work in 2011 at Fort Ward Park will lead to a plan for preservation of gravesites located in the park, remnants of an African American community that predated the park's creation. A few burials at Christ Church and the Quaker Burying Ground (Barrett Library) were moved to other portions of those sites in advance of construction. The West Family burials were moved to Pohick Church at the request of the descendant family, and the burials at the Colross and Preston Plantations had been removed early in the 20th century to make way for construction.
It can be difficult for the untrained eye to detect the presence of graves in Alexandria soil, particularly if the remains are not well preserved. Archaeologists are able to detect subtle differences in the color and texture of the soil, to differentiate between the fill of a grave shaft and the surrounding soil, often allowing them to find the outline of the graves without disturbing the remains, if any, of the coffin below. In places where Alexandria burials have been exhumed by archaeologists, they are usually poorly preserved because of soil conditions. In consultation with families or descendant populations, archaeologists may work with physical anthropologists from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, or from local universities, who may be able to determine the sex and age of human remains, and to glean information about disease and nutrition, even from the most fragmentary remains.
Researchers working with Alexandria Archaeology conducted a non-invasive geophysical survey at two historic cemeteries maintained by the City. This project is partially funded through a Certified Local Government grant from VDHR. Fieldwork at Penny Hill Cemetery and Douglass Memorial Cemetery took a week and a half in mid-October 2019.
Find these cemeteries in the listings above to see the archaeological site reports.
- Black Baptist Cemetery, African American Heritage Park, Holland Lane
- Bloxham Family Cemetery, 116 South Quaker Lane
- Christ Church Cemetery, 118 N. Washington Street
- Colross Plantation Family Cemetery, 525 N. Fayette Street
- Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery, 1001 S. Washington Street
- Douglass Memorial Cemetery, Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex
- Fort Ward Park, African American Burials, 4301 W. Braddock Road
- Penny Hill Cemetery, Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex
- Preston Plantation Family Cemetery, Potomac Yards
- Quaker Burying Ground, 717 Queen Street
- West Family Cemetery, 2400 Mill Road
The following publication can be viewed at the Alexandria Library, Local History/Special Collections, or, by appointment, at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum.
- Bromberg, Francine W., Steven J. Shephard, Barbara H. Magid, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy Dennée, and Bernard K. Means. To Find Rest From All Trouble: The Archaeology of the Quaker Burying Ground, Alexandria, Virginia, Alexandria Archaeology Publications, 2001.
- Bruch, Virginia Irene. Beneath the Oaks of Ivy Hill. Alexandria, Virginia, 1982.
- Greenly, Mark. Those Upon the Curtain Has Fallen: The Past and Present Cemeteries of Alexandria, VA , Alexandria Archaeology Publications, 1996.
- Kaye, Ruth Lincoln. St. Paul's Cemetery Records. Alexandria, VA, October 1991.
- Miller, T. Michael. Burials in St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery Alexandria, Virginia 1798-1983. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, Inc., 1986.
- Miller, T. Michael. "Ghosts, Goblins & Graveyards--A History of Alexandria Cemeteries" in Artisans & Merchants of Alexandria, Virginia, Vol. II, Appendix VIII. Includes tombstone transcriptions and burial data for several Alexandria cemeteries.
- Pippenger, Wesley E. Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia: Volumes 1-4. Family Line Publications, Westminster, MD, and Heritage Books, Inc., Bowie, MD.