Having a sense of one's past is an important human need, and as an agency that traces its roots to 1793, the Architect of the Capitol (AOC) is fortunate to have a richly documented history. It is empowering to learn about the experiences of our visitor guide predecessors. Their history informs what we do and connects us to the long tradition of serving Congress and the U.S. Capitol.
Among those traditions is the centuries-old practice of hosting visitors from around the country and the world eager to see Congress and its monumental home. From the U.S. Capitol's beginning in the early 19th century, local residents styled themselves as guides and shepherded visitors through the U.S. Capitol's corridors.
Vastly increased visitation and concerns about public safety led to the creation of a professional Capitol Guide Service in late 1876.
Vastly increased visitation and concerns about public safety led to the creation of a professional Capitol Guide Service in late 1876. The Capitol Guide Service was the U.S. Capitol's public face to visitors for more than a century, until increased visitation and the need for improved security and additional amenities necessitated change. In December 2008, Congress opened the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, where a team of professional, educated and highly trained staff continues today to inform, involve and inspire guests.
Information about our visitor guide predecessors must be patched together from cursory newspaper references, obituaries and incomplete census records. Several of the men who first led tours through the U.S. Capitol are buried in Congressional Cemetery.
Located in southeast Washington, D.C., just yards from the Stadium-Armory Metro station, Congressional Cemetery marks the final resting place of these first guides as well as senators, representatives, military veterans, Vice Presidents Elbridge Gerry and George Clinton, John Philip Sousa and J. Edgar Hoover. Walking the rows of worn gravestones reminds us that while our time on Earth is transitory, we often leave lasting legacies.
In December 2019, a group from the Capitol Visitor Center Social Committee gathered at the cemetery to place markers on the graves of these guides and learn more about their lives.
Several of the men who first led tours through the U.S. Capitol are buried in Congressional Cemetery.
Born in 1840 in Charles County, Maryland, James E. Cawood grew up in a humble farming household. He married a Virginian, Amie Horton, in the 1860s, and they had four children. In 1876 James was among the first people the U.S. Capitol Police hired to provide tours of the U.S. Capitol as part of the new Guide Service. He lived on 6th Street, NE, where his neighbor was fellow guide, George McCauley.
McCauley is famous as the guide who rescued artist Constantino Brumidi from certain death in 1879 after the aging artist fell from the scaffolding while creating the "Frieze of American History" around the Rotunda. Luckily for them, most of Cawood and McCauley's days were not so interesting, but they nonetheless witnessed the Rotunda become what it is today.
James Cawood died in November 1886. A guide for 10 years, his service was essential to establishing today's Visitor Services Division.
Frank H. Isham was born in New York in 1856. During the 1860s, the Ishams moved to Washington, D.C., where his father served as a doctor in Union army hospitals. Frank married Alice Elmore, an art teacher, on Christmas Eve 1879. Frank had many skills; during the 1880s, he was listed as a plate printer and a government clerk.
By 1887, he was part of the Capitol Guide Service, serving for 18 years and likely filling the roster spot vacated by the passing of James Cawood. Frank and Alice rose to some prominence in the Washington community, as Frank became a Freemason and an active member in many area lodges. He died at the age of 49. Alice continued her work as an art teacher and was remarried by 1920.
John Witel was born in 1841 in England and immigrated to the United States as a young child. He grew up in New Jersey and married Martha Furman on New Year's Eve 1866. They lived in Trenton, where John worked alternately as a shoemaker and a police officer. Martha died 20 years later in 1886, and by the end of the year, John had moved to Washington, D.C., and was listed as "Guide Cap" in the city directory. By 1900, he had remarried and had three children. He died of tuberculosis in 1907.
The stories of these public history pioneers are ordinary, and their names don't resonate with the power of some of the others buried at Congressional Cemetery. John Witel's final resting place, for example, is just feet from the grave of former Washington, D.C. mayor, Marion Barry. Yet the legacy of those who built, maintained and served the U.S. Capitol remains as alive as ever.