Family yards

The Sheilds-Robinson family plot, also known as the Poplar Vale cemetery, at Byrd Park

For a long time, Virginians expressed a preference for burial on their own private land. With the colonists’ initial dispersal from Jamestown in the early 1600s, families and servants began a tradition of burying on home properties. This tradition would compete with authorities’ insistence on centralized churchyard burials.

In 1724, the minister Hugh Jones lamented that in Virginia:

“The Parishes being of great Extent (some sixty Miles long and upwards) many dead Corpses cannot be conveyed to the Church to be buried: So that it is customary to bury in Gardens or Orchards, where whole Families lye interred together, in a Spot generally handsomely enclosed, planted with Evergreens, and the Graves kept decently.”

Even in a town like Richmond with its churchyard, many residents continued to prefer home burials. One of the most prominent of these family burial grounds was that of the Adams and Carringtons, established in the early nineteenth century a few blocks from the church on the north side of Marshall Street at Twenty-third Street. It would grow to encompass at least fifty-eight burials, including patriarch Richard Adams and his wife Elizabeth. Revolutionary war veterans, plus William Marshall, brother of the chief justice, were buried there. It encompassed about one-half an acre within brick walls. The Pickett family made use of an adjoining burial lot until all those on the block were removed to Hollywood Cemetery in 1892.

Such private burial grounds could be found in pockets throughout the early city, such as one on Tenth Street and another near Rocketts Landing, associated with the Prosser and Wright families.

African American residents pursued this practice with varying rates of success. In 1811, Christopher McPherson reported that a free woman of color, a widow, had recently chosen to be buried on her own property located above the traditional African Burial Ground and its humiliating associations with the city gallows. But after learning of this, “the Rulers of the city” soon took her body “up out of her grave… the second day after she was buried, in her own Bonafide ground on an eminence, and carried down to this mock of a grave yard.” Similarly in 1820, the free woman of color Lydia Broadnax directed in her will “that a space of ground, twenty feet in length, and twelve feet in breadth, on the back part of the lot on which I now live in the City of Richmond, be laid off and forever appropriated to the use and purpose of a burial ground, and that my body be interred in that place.” Subsequent deed records for her property suggest that her wishes were indeed carried out upon her death in 1827.

Later family burial grounds to be engulfed by the expanding city include the William Catlin family graveyard (dating to the mid-nineteenth century) at 2917 M Street; the Harvie family plot inside Hollywood Cemetery, and the Sheilds-Robinson family plot at present-day Byrd Park. That yard, which served the family’s country house titled Poplar Vale (no longer standing), was in use from 1823 through the mid-twentieth century. Surviving examples in surrounding Henrico County include the Sheppard family burial ground at Meadow Farm, the family burial ground at Walkerton Tavern, and the family burial ground at Nuckols Farm.

In 1853, Richmond’s Southern Literary Messenger expressed a new, skeptical view of the practice when it observed that “This custom of private burial-grounds upon every estate, would answer very well in countries where there was a perpetuation of estates under laws of primogeniture and entail” where such sites could be ensured to remain in family hands. But “change is the order of the day with us, and the graves of our relatives are overgrown with briars and noxious weeds, and the ploughshare sooner or later destroys all vestige of the spot where they rest from their labors.” It pointed to the growing Hollywood Cemetery and other “great and beautiful republics of the dead” as a better solution for its readers.

By 1869, the city had passed an ordinance stating “Nor shall any body be buried in any place in the city other than at a burying-ground owned by the city, except in the burying-ground of the Society of Friends, on Cary [Street], between Nineteenth and Twentieth streets, or that of the Hebrew congregation.” By 1887, the state of Virginia added further restrictions prohibiting any cemetery to be established “within the corporate limits of any city or town, or within four hundred yards of any residence without the consent of the owner of such residence.”

Modern development continues to uncover the older family sites, which are treated on a case-by-case basis by developers and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Virginia state law seeks to protect cemeteries from willful damage, including any from property owners or developers, and it requires owners to allow descendants access. Those seeking to remove a cemetery and its burials must coordinate with the state and the courts to do so.

A rough list of the area’s patchwork of smaller cemeteries can be found here.

For more information, see:

Peyton R. Carrington and Sarah J. Carrington v. Ellen Price et al, Chancery Cause in the city of Richmond, 1890

Harry Kollatz, Jr., “Who Lived and Died Upon This Land: The Robinsons, the Sheilds and Byrd Park,” Richmond Magazine (June 2006): 24

Jeremy M. Lazarus, “Old Forgotten Cemeteries Dot the City,” Richmond Free Press, July 8, 2021

Mary H. Mitchell, Hollywood Cemetery: The History of a Southern Shrine (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1999)

Tricia Noel, “The Lost Cemetery of Church Hill,” The Church Hill People’s News (October 24, 2014)

Lynn Rainville, Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014)

Mary Wingfield Scott, Old Richmond Neighborhoods (Richmond: William Byrd Press, 1950)