More than six graves of a prominent Prince George’s County family from the 1850s have been dug up and moved to make way for a shopping center in one of the largest development projects in Upper Marlboro. Some family descendants say they tried to stop the developer to no avail.
Archaeologists excavated the graves of the George W. Hilleary family, buried in the 1850s on the Beechwood Mansion property off Crain Highway last week.
“I tried to stop this,” Cecily Hilleary, a descendant said. “I went out there and told them I was not happy.”
George W. Hilleary was a brother of a great aunt’s husband about five generations back, Cecily learned through Ancestry.com. She said George’s grave is one of those removed.
Another descendant, Margaret Whippee, who now lives in Anne Arundel County, said her great, great-grandfather, the late Henry Hilleary, was also buried on the site.
“I don’t see any reason to [move the graves],” she said. “The developer should have built around it; marked it with a little fence.”
Cecily, of Potomac, learned of the planned relocation earlier this year from a local activist. She contacted the state’s attorney’s office and the county’s historical society, but said she was told there was nothing she could do legally.
The shopping center will be built on 28-acre lot next to the 1,200 acre-Beechtree neighborhood off Leeland Road, which will contain at its completion about 1,700 single-family homes, 500 townhouses and 240 multi-family units. Ground broke on the development in 2002, according to The Washington Post.
More than 20 years ago, Ryko Development was approved to develop on the property, according to Jennifer Stabler, an archeology planner coordinator with Prince George’s County’s Historic Preservation staff. They were given permission by the state’s attorney’s office to excavate the graves on Oct. 14, 2009, if they filed the correct paperwork and received permission from the family, the state's attorney's office confirmed Monday.
The Houston-based developer contacted a family member—also named Henry Hilleary of Centreville, MD—to receive permission and it was granted, the family confirmed.
Henry Hilleary said on Tuesday that he made his decision based on what he believed the family would have wanted.
"If it were me, I would rather be moved and buried in a cemetery, than remain in the middle of a shopping center," he said. He said he was contacted nearly a year before the dig after no one else responded to an advertisement in the paper.
Stabler said the developer advertised the project twice in local papers and also filed legal documents with the county’s health department.
John Erzen, a spokesman for the Prince George's County state's attorney's office, also confirmed the 2009 advertisement was published in The Washington Post and the public was given 15 days to respond to the ad with concerns.
Several calls were made to landowner Vienna-based VOB Limited Partnership, which represents Ryko locally, but they were not returned. A call made to Ryko's Houston office was also not returned.
The Hillearys were a well-known family who settled in Prince George’s County sometime in the 1600s and owned the Beechwood Mansion property starting sometime in the early 19th century, according to Maryland Historical Trust documentation. The home and land were passed down through the generations and after the original home burned down in 1913; it was rebuilt to what it looks like today as a part of the county’s historical sites.
Although there are no plans to remove the mansion, the graves of its owners no longer exist on the property.
“[The graves were] not designated a historic site or a part of the county's historic plan,” Stabler said, “but we encourage the developers to keep the cemetery in place. We don't like these things to be moved.
Stabler said it is legal in Maryland to move graves, although it’s discouraged. The Maryland code outlines in what circumstances a grave can be moved, according to Erzen. He said the state's attorney's office followed the code and its requirement for this project.
Archaelogists removed the remains and in the coming weeks will be analyzing what they found, she said.
There may not be much left to analyze, Stabler said, because soil in the area is acidic and preservation techniques in the 19th century were unsophisticated.
“They should be able to find teeth or buttons,” she said, adding that the grave shafts will be treated with care and respect. “A physical anthropologist will study to see if they are male or female and if they had died of a disease.”
Three markers designate the graveyard, Stabler said—noting its occupants were two males and one female who died in the mid 1850s and early 1860s. She also said the excavation has revealed a number of unmarked graves that were first thought to be those of children but now are believed to be those of adults, possibly slaves.
“I think we have a pretty good idea of who they are from the unmarked records,” she said, noting they could also be the remains of family members buried before the 1850s.
Stabler noted that two other graveyards remain on the property but there are no plans to remove those. However, there are plans to move an old tobacco barn and intergrate it into the shopping center, according to county documents.
After they are studied, the remains will find their final resting place at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Upper Marlboro, where Stabler noted other family descendants are buried. Stabler said the developers would pay for the interment. Whippee said the late Henry Hilleary's wife is buried at the church.
“I’m not happy about this at all, I’m really not,” Cecily said. “There could be slave graves because slaves were buried with the family. I think it’s a shame.”
This story was updated to include comments from Henry Hilleary, the descendant that gave developers permission to dig. An update on this story can be found: Archaelogists Say 15 Buried in Hilleary Cemetery.
What do you think: Should gravesites be moved for development in Prince George's County? Tell us in the comments.