Mystery lies beneath planned housing site

Homes: Neighbors of a Prince George's County property want to see if it holds graves of slaves or Indian artifacts before it is developed.

August 10, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

FORT WASHINGTON - Since the 1820s, five members of one of Prince George's County's wealthiest families of the time have been buried here in a field with an expansive view of the Potomac River, now on the edge of what is an ever-busier road.

Until June, that is, when a man who wants to turn 23 acres, including the Lyles Family Cemetery, into an exclusive housing development persuaded a judge to let him move the graves, clearing the land of what could have been a spooky amenity.

The graves of Dennis Magruder Lyles and his four young children were moved by developer Leo Bruso within hours of the judge's decision, dug up with a backhoe and reburied at a nearby church beside other family members. But the debate over the waterfront parcel - which may or may not be considered historic, which may or may not contain the graves of the Lyles' slaves, which may or may not be the remnants of an Indian settlement first documented by Capt. John Smith in 1608 - is still churning.

Where Bruso had hoped to lay the foundation by the end of the year for the 23 high-end homes he will call "Florida on the Potomac," instead there is no progress. The development is wrapped in legal squabbles that promise to push the project at least into next year - squabbles with the state's attorney's office over whether the graves were rightfully moved from where they had been for nearly 200 years, and with neighbors over whether the property should be protected by the county as a historic site because of artifacts that could still lie beneath.

Dawn Davit lives just down the river from where Bruso's development is proposed - and has become, during the past year, the developer's main adversary. The president of the Potomac Valley Citizens Association, she has long been concerned about what might be built on that riverside property. Even before she knew the details, she worried about too many houses on too little land with too many driveways dumping out onto Riverview Road.

She wanted that cemetery - with the markings on its raised tabletop grave markers still legible - protected. So, originally, did the county's Historic Preservation Commission. A letter in June 2001 from the commission chairman spoke of the cemetery property's "historic significance" and recommended that it stay put.

But he changed his position in an October letter, after reviewing more documents, saying the land was "incorrectly" considered historic.

Davit, above all, says she wants to know for sure what else is below the surface before anything more is done to alter the land - if there are more Indian artifacts like those found in the late 1980s, if there are more graves, as documented over the years

"Do the archaeological study, do the ground-penetrating radar," Davit said. "Let's find out before you let this man [Bruso] go in. It is a treasure trove of information there not to be totally ignored."

Uncertain maps

Old county maps show a second cemetery on the property, and Davit suspects, without any real evidence, that the plot contains the graves of the Lyles family's slaves. "There had to be deaths in the slave community," she said. "I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to say, indeed, that is where these people were buried."

But a letter to Bruso from a mapping official with the U.S. Geological Survey recommended removing the second cemetery from local maps, quoting a county official who said they are mislabeled. What was believed to be a grave marker turned out to be a concrete post used as a gate support, the letter said.

In the 1980s, Marriott Corp. planned to build a retirement community on the site, which has been known as Tent Landing because, some believe, Lyles' farm was called the Tent Landing Plantation. In its plans was a wrought-iron fence that would have enclosed the family cemetery where it stood, blocking it off from the rest of the property. In the course of its site preparation, Marriott did preliminary archaeological work on a small section and found thousands of pieces of pottery believed to date to the Piscataway-Conoy Indians who inhabited the land until settlers came, said David A. Turner, a local historian. The rest hasn't been examined.

"There are 12,000 years of Native American history that's on that land dating back before the birth of Christ," said Fort Washington resident Jay Winter Nightwolf, a Native American activist and radio show host. "It's of historical value, just [like] Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, and this is fact."

Marriott abandoned its plans. Then came Bruso.

One of his first stops was the Historic Preservation Commission. The property, not far from the District of Columbia line, was one of about 500 on the county's inventory of historic resources - one notch below the designation of historic site, which requires greater attention to preservation.

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