Historical Graves Moved to Build Shopping Center

The graves of a family from the 19th century are dug up to make room for a shopping center off Crain Highway in Upper Marlboro.


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.

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“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.

Michael Zang October 07, 2012 at 07:11 PM
A similar thing happened in Parkville. A number of years ago, 17th century graves were removed from to make way for a small house to be built. The grave yard, located along Acton Road, belonged to the Hiss family. The Hiss Mansion is one street over on Willoughby Ave next to Hiss Ave. My friends, who volunteered their time, used to take care of the graves and cut the grass. One day when they came to do regular landscaping, a backhoe was digging the graves up. A lot of human remains didn't make it to the new location. Many bones ended up in the dump truck headed to the landfill.
JustObserving October 08, 2012 at 01:58 PM
It is very sad and I believe some of the government employees involved in the process are also upset and saddened that more development in Prince George's County is causing the destruction of the cemetery. However, those that live in Prince George's County elect the pathetic government officials (aka Jack Johnson and others) who make the decisions on letting development take the county over. Maybe the family members that sold the property in the first place should have made accommodations for the cemetery in the agreements with the developers they sold to. Personally, I would have done whatever I could to ensure that my loved ones would remain where they were buried. I find it sad everyone wants to blame everyone and say there's more they could do when the officials you elect are, when it comes down to it, the ones to blame.
Cecily Hilleary October 08, 2012 at 02:36 PM
The house ended eventually passed on to Effie Gwynn Bowie, who was the county's historian/biographer and author of "Across the Years in PG County." It remained in the Bowie family until the 1980s. In 1987 it sold to developers. This has been pending for many, many years, unbeknownst to many of us. I find it hard to believe they would have wanted the graveyard to go--that's a decision that appears to have rested entirely with the developer(s), though for the life of me I cannot see why the graveyard, as close to the road as it was and resting in a small copse of woods, would have interfered at all with the building of a shopping center. There seems to be plenty of land there--for the living and the dead.
CMACK April 02, 2013 at 02:10 AM
Update to all who are concerned! All of the 15 remains are not reinterred. I go by the cemetery almost everyday and nothing has been done. They moved quickly when word got out aboutan Preservationist and family fighting to keep the cemetery intact. But now they are moving slowly to put these people back to rest. Well to all the Belts, Hodges, Hillearys, Smiths, Bowies,Moores, please look into lost loveones who are not showing up in other cemeterys. They might be in this one. On This Plantation there were about a hundred or so of slaves over a period of time and guess what. No slave grave has showed up after all the houses , club house, community house and big golfcourse has been built. Crazy HUH! Well This has been going on all over the county. There is a site right now that sitting in the woods on a homeowers lot that is clearly a slave-exslave built house that a developer has built all around in Bowie. I searched through the developers development records and he clearly left it out of the record. and the county didn't say or do anything about it in the record. See ! The biggest county of slaves owners at one time and just a piece or two of record about us. A chapel here and a house there. Crazy! There should be Sites all over the place! because We have aerial maps from the early 1930s and satellits photos that show plantation layouts still in the 1960-1990s. Wake-up and get active on sites in maryland.ASK QUESTIONS ! Peace and Love From MACK
MaryAnn Eisler March 29, 2014 at 01:49 PM
Mary Ann Eisler-Gilliam, I am the Grandaughter of Rose Mary Hilleary who died in Hyattsville, Md. in 1952 niece of Levi S. Hilleary originally of Cumberland, Md. who died in Hyattsville Md. in 1938. I am a direct descendants of The "Hilleary" Family. I also have 4 sisters still alive and countless other descendants born in Colorodo, Washington, D.C. and Pa. who are still alive. Posting the removal of graves in two "local" newspapers was not enough. I would like to know who this Henry Hilleary is, never heard of him, he does not come up in our families records. So now I am notified through a fluke of continuing genealogy work that my ansector's bodies have been moved to Trinity Episcopal Church, but hold up maybe not as they have made it there yet. I am appalled and frankly sick to my stomach that their bodies were disturbed from their resting place and not all of the graves moved. Was husband removed from lying next to his wife, were children separated from their parents. I would be positively sure that there is a record that ran with the land that made sure that these graves would never be disturbed. In Cumberland, Md. there is another grave of my ancestors in the back yard of someones home, this would be the Hilleary Family before the date of this grave site. By looking at the Google Earth picture of this year 2014 it does not show the commercial site built as yet. And in closing, Cecily and any other relative please contact me by e-mail at maryanneisler@yahoo.com. With things so far gone we deserve to know where the bodies of our ancestors are. Pictures of the removal and documentation of same must have been recorded. All of this just boggles the mind that someone would be allowed to exhume and remove peoples remains even if there was no one to speak up. Also would like to know how much money was paid to this Henry Hilleary to give consent to let his family's (half) be moved to make way for a strip mall. Also does he not care that they never made it to the Trinity Church Cemetery and where are they now? Again please anyone with information on this please contact me directly by my above e-mail.


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