Searching for the bones of Yarrow Mamout


Mia Carey sinks a shovel deep into the heavy reddish soil of a bleak, empty lot in upper Georgetown.

She stands up holding a bone. “It’s a pelvis,” she announces with a smile, holding it next to another bone to show how they fit together. This discovery is probably from a small mammal, maybe a goat or a sheep. It’s not the thing she’s looking for in her summer-long quest.

She’s looking for the bones of Yarrow Mamout.

Yarrow Mamout was something of a local celebrity in early 19th-century Georgetown. Taken from Africa in 1752 and sold into slavery, he eventually gained his freedom and made himself into a comfortable homeowner and something of a local financier. A Muslim, he prayed toward Mecca in the southeast corner of his snug plot of land and walked the streets of the village, singing chants that were probably from the Koran. He could read and write in Arabic.

And in his later years, he sat for two formal portraits, including one by Charles Willson Peale, one of the most celebrated portrait painters of the 18th and 19th centuries. But after his death in 1823, Yarrow virtually disappeared into a sleepy corner of history.

Now he may literally rise again. Archaeologists are hoping to find traces of the man — bones, a coffin or even just evidence of the home he built — on his Dent Place NW property. There’s about a 50-50 chance that he’s buried there, says assistant city archaeologist Chardé Reid, one of a handful of archaeologists and volunteers who have been working on the dig this summer. It was not uncommon for people to be buried on their property in the 19th century.

Yarrow may have stayed quietly unknown and nearly lost to history if not for the curiosity of local historian and lawyer James Johnston. In 2003, Johnston came upon a portrait of Yarrow in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Public Library.

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