Berleith Property: Capital City Slavery Tour

John Threlkeld held multiple political roles in the District’s early history, serving as Georgetown’s alderman and mayor in the 1790s. He also held multiple individuals in bondage throughout his lifetime. Estimates suggest that he owned approximately 25 enslaved persons who either lived on the property at Berleith or who were hired out to surrounding families throughout the District. The Berleith property (also known as Alliance after 1791) was extensive, stretching from what is now the present-day campuses of Georgetown University and Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School up to Tenleytown in Upper Northwest Washington. The entire property constituted over 1,000 acres in the original purchase of the land in 1753 by Scottish immigrant Henry Threlkeld (John’s father).

There is no evidence to suggest that the Berleith property was ever fully utilized as a plantation. Modest agricultural pursuits included sheep farming and orchard maintenance. Enslaved persons likely assisted with the agricultural tasks, household chores, and were “hired out” to various District families. Records of the enslaved individuals living on the Berleith property are scattered across church archives, newspaper archives, and family papers.[1] However, the seemingly random nature of these records (such as the runaway advertisement listed above) can reveal the possible identities of the enslaved individuals who were unable to leave behind their own testimonies.

John Threlkeld posted the following advertisement for “Lyd” in 1808:


Ran away the 9th of November a Negro Girl called LYD, about 17 years old, dark complexion, very full breasted and much pigeon toed; when she went away she was clothed in striped cotton, resembling homespun. She has been employed by the person with whom she lived selling apples, &e. [unclear] at the Capitol and is well known in the city, I will give Five Dollars if taken in the City or Georgetown and if out of the City or Georgetown, and the above reward if twenty miles [unclear—potentially “from home”] for lodging her in the City Jail. It is [possible?] she may pass for a free girl.


This advertisement represents the common practice of posting “runaway slave” ads for lost “property” in slaveholding states. The use of these advertisements in history is extremely important as they provide details—albeit biased details, as the information is coming from the slaveholder and not the enslaved person—about individuals who attempted to escape to freedom. This 1808 advertisement describes Lyd, a seventeen-year old girl who presumably was being “hired out” to a family in the District to pick and sell apples in Capitol Hill. Her “homespun” clothes indicate that she likely made her own clothes or another enslaved person made them for her.[2]

It is unclear why she ran away or if she was ever returned to Threlkeld. She may have been experiencing physical, sexual, or verbal abuse by the family who she labored for. She may have been seeking freedom and fled to a city in the North. She may have decided to “pass for free” and seek payment for her labors. She may have met a man, gotten married, or had a child. The possibilities for her disappearance are endless—but the one thing remains true—she sought freedom of movement, payment for her wages, and the opportunity to make her own choices by leaving the home of her enslaver. Other records related to enslaved persons owned by John Threlkeld include baptism records at the Holy Trinity Church and manumission records. Threlkeld apparently freed one of his mother’s enslaved lady’s maids, Lucy, but continued to enslave her daughter, Betsy (presumably only until the age of 25).[3] It is unclear what happened to either of them after Threlkeld’s death.

In 1826, the Bank of Columbia failed, and John Threlkeld, one the bank’s directors, lost his estate. By 1827, debt collectors had seized the amassed property and sliced it into sellable lots. The enslaved individuals legally owned by the Threlkeld family were taken as well, and presumably split up and sold to separate buyers. The following names are the available record of these individuals:

Charity, Fanny, Sandy, Jerry, Nace, Henry, Jem, Bill, Anne, Lucy

Nancy & her five children: George, Penn, Mary, Francis, Henry

Flora & her eight children: Robert, Jos, Fanny, Mary, Jane, Patty, Betsy, Harry

It is highly probable that these individuals were “sold down South,” as the domestic slave trade flowed out of the District into southern states in the late 1820s. In 1830, only three years after this “family misfortune” John Threlkeld died.

Historic Preservation Status: While the original home and surrounding living quarters for the enslaved have long since been demolished, two buildings with potential ties to the Threlkeld estate remain extant on the Georgetown Visitation Convent property. Visitation’s detailed report on the history of enslavement on their own property provides comprehensive information on the brick domestic outbuilding and the dairy house. The history of the outbuilding is unclear, but it most likely served as the overseer’s living quarters. The second building is presumed to be a dairy house, as it fits the description mentioned in an early inventory of the property.[4] The brick outbuilding is included in the boundaries of the Georgetown Visitation Academy Historic District, but neither structure is individually registered.[5] In the documentation, the outbuilding is referred to as a “slave cabin,” but provides no further context.


[1] For the most comprehensive exploration of these records, see Carlton Fletcher’s article “Slaves of John Threlkeld” entry on the Glover Park History website.

[1] For more information on “homespun” cloth and the methods by which enslaved persons sewed their own clothing, see the following articles: Eulanda A. Sanders’ “The Politics of Textiles Used in African American Slave Clothing,” Textiles and Politics: Textile Society of America 13th Biennial Symposium Proceedings, Washington, D.C., September 18- September 22, 2012,, Josh Freedom du Lac’s “In Search of Slave Clothes: A Museum Director’s Hunt for a Painful Symbol,” Washington Post, (Washington, D.C.), January 20, 2012, and Madelyn Shaw’s “Slave Cloth and Clothing Slaves: Craftsmanship, Commerce, and Industry,” Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 38, (2017):

[2] Fletcher, “Slaves of John Threlkeld,” Glover Park History Website.

[3] Information on these buildings is primarily drawn from “The History of Enslaved People at Georgetown Visitation,” published in July of 2018 through the St. Jane de Chantal Salesian Center.

[4] See the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Section No. 7, page 5.