Holy Trinity’s African American Community and the Cholera Epidemic of 1832

by Peter J. Albert

(Pictured: A page from the parish death register describing the layout of graves in The College Ground on the Georgetown campus and in The Upper Grave Yard (Holy Rood Cemetery). Holy Trinity Church, Deaths, 1818-1867, Digital Georgetown Manuscripts Collection.)


Washingtonians read about the approaching cholera epidemic with horrified fascination in 1832. First reported in Asia in 1829, it was in Moscow by 1830, Poland and Germany by 1831, London in early 1832. Jumping the Atlantic barrier, it was in New York by June and Philadelphia by July. “We collect in our columns to-day all the information we can lay our hands upon relating to the dreadful malady whose appearance may now be daily expected among us,” a Washington newspaper reported. (1)


Cholera’s symptoms were terrifying – acute diarrhea, spasmodic vomiting, painful cramps, then chills, dehydration, and darkening and puckering skin. Death could come within hours of the onset of symptoms. Killing roughly half of those who contracted it, its causes were a mystery. There were no known remedies. (2) “To see individuals well in the morning & buried before night . . . is something which is appalling to the boldest heart,” wrote one observer. (3) Newspapers told readers to avoid tobacco, alcohol, and raw vegetables, as well as any excitement, “for that will bring on the disease.” (4)


While it claimed fewer victims than tuberculosis or malaria, and its grip on Washington was brief (it had vanished by November), the disease was “novel and terrifying.” (5) The Daily National Intelligencer reported the first cases in the city on Aug. 22. Holy Trinity’s records, kept by pastor Stephen Dubuisson, S.J., noted the first cholera death in the parish on Aug. 29 with the passing of George, an enslaved man. (6)


Fr. Dubuisson’s records indicate that 50% of the parishioners who died of cholera during the epidemic were Black. (7) By contrast, 44% of those dying in the parish and buried at Holy Rood Cemetery during the remainder of the decade, between 1833 and 1840, after the epidemic had ended, were Black. (8)


Who were Holy Trinity’s African American parishioners who died in the 1832 cholera epidemic? Here are Fr. Dubuisson’s notations, together with the fragments of information available from the 1830 census: (9)


August 29 George – black – servt of Miss Jane Sewall – chol.


September 4 Clare – black – servt of Mr Jos. Semmes – chol.


“ “ Jenkins (Dennis) – black – free – chol.

(The 1830 census recorded Dennis Jenkins as head of a household of 5 free African Americans: a male and a female between 24 and 35, a female between 36 and 54, and two females over 55. Editor’s note: The census recorded ages in spans of years. For Black individuals, slave or free, the age categories were under 10, 10 to under 24, 24 to under 36, 36 to under 55, 55 to under 100, and 100 and over.)


“ 6 Sarah – black – servt Mrs Widow Semmes – chol.

(The census recorded Eleanor H. Semmes as head of a household of 9 Whites and 4 enslaved persons.)


“ 7 Leonard – (Butler) – black – a servt of Mr Birth – chol.

(The census recorded James Birth as head of a household of 6 Whites, 2 enslaved persons, and 1 free African American.)


“ 8 Butler (Frances) – coloured – free – chol.


“ “ Brooks (Henrietta) – black – free – chol.


“ 9 Hull (William) – chol.

(The census recorded William Hull as head of a household of 2 free African Americans: a male and a female between 10 and 23. Fr. Dubuisson’s notes do not mention that he was an African American.)


Woodward (Silvester) – black – free – chol.

(The census recorded Sylvester Woodward as head of a household of 6 free African Americans: a male and a female between 36 and 54, 3 children under 10, and a female between 10 and 23.)


“ 10 Butler (Phillis) – black – free – chol.


“ “ Ignatius – black – servt of Capt Scott – chol.


“ 13 Henry – black – servt – of Mr Waring – chol.

(The census recorded Henry Waring as head of a household consisting of 1 White male – himself – and 3 enslaved persons.)

“ “ Coffee (Nancy) – black – free – chol.


“ 15 July Ann – black – servt of Mr Eden Clarke – chol.


“ 16 Mary Baptist – black – chol.


“ 18 Downs (Susan) – free – coloured – chol.

(The census recorded Susanna Downes as head of a household of 6 free African Americans – 4 children under 10, a female between 36 and 54 and another over 55 – and an enslaved female under the age of 10.)


“ “ Ignatius – black – servt of Mrs Manning – chol.

(The census recorded Mary Manning as head of a household of 5 Whites and 4 enslaved persons.)


“ “ Conwell (Elizabeth) – coloured – free – chol.


“ 19 Butler (Sarah) – black – free – chol.

(The census recorded Sarah Butler as head of a household of 3 free African Americans: a female over 55, a male between 10 and 23, and a child under 10.)


“ 20 Butler (Harriet) – black – free – chol.


“ 23 Burges (John) – black – free – chol.


October 2 Mary – black – servt of Mr. Smoot – chol.

(The census recorded Walter Smoot as head of a household of 5 Whites and 6 enslaved persons.)


“ 9 Sarah – black – servt of Mrs Elizabeth Fearson – chol.


“ 13 John (Dyson) black – servt of Mr Chew – chol.

(The census recorded Samuel Chew as head of a household of 6 Whites and 2 enslaved persons.)

Holy Trinity parishioners who died in the cholera epidemic of 1832 were buried in the College Ground, the parish cemetery located on what is now the Georgetown campus. Land for Holy Rood Cemetery was purchased in 1832, but burials did not begin there until 1833. (10)


1 The Daily National Intelligencer, June 19, 1832.


2 Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago, 1962), pp. 2-3.


3 Quoted in Rosenberg, p. 3.


4 The Daily National Intelligencer, June 19, 1832; The United States Telegraph, June 19, 1832.


5 Rosenberg, p. 4.


6 Holy Trinity Church, Deaths, 1818-1867, Digital Georgetown Manuscripts Collection, Georgetown University Library, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Washington, D.C., p. 52. Stephen Lariguadelle Dubuisson, S.J. (1786-1864) served as pastor of Holy Trinity from 1825 to 1826 and again from 1831 to 1833.


7 Ibid., pp. 51-54.


8 Ibid., pp. 271-72, 278, 282, 292, 296, 300-301.


9 Ibid., pp. 52-54. Many of these individuals cannot be located by name in the 1830 census. The enslaved were only recorded with hash marks, nor were women named unless they were heads of households so they, too, were often enumerated with hash marks.


10 Carlton Fletcher, “Holy Rood Cemetery,” Glover Park History: Historical Sketches of Glover Park, Upper Georgetown, and Georgetown Heights by Carlton Fletcher. See also Fletcher, “Slave Burials in the Old College Ground,” ibid.