The cemetery as seen in March near the MGM casino at National Harbor. (Michael S. Williamson)

A centuries-old cemetery yards from the MGM National Harbor casino that was the subject of a court battle is being moved.

The Addison family cemetery, on a hill across from the MGM's ride-sharing pickup, is the final resting place for a Colonial family that settled on the banks of the Potomac in the 1600s. Amid legal wrangling, at least 36 bodies buried hundreds of years ago are being exhumed and moved to a nearby church connected with the Addisons.

"They're digging up graves," said Christian Carter, one of two of the family's African American descendants who sued the casino's developer this year, claiming ownership of the property. "It looks like an archaeological dig."

Carter, who filed the suit with fellow descendant Tanya Lyle, claimed ownership of the land as some white Addison descendants approved of plans to move the cemetery. Their lawsuit was dismissed after a Prince George's County District Court judge determined that Peterson Cos., which owns the land, is not on the property illegally — but said a circuit court judge must rule on whether the company's deed properly includes the burial ground.

Andre Gingles, an attorney for Peterson, which is footing the bill for the excavation, said the cemetery move probably would be completed in October. He declined to discuss specifics of the move, citing privacy concerns, adding that a report would be produced by archaeologists after the exhumations.

"This is very private," he said.

The Addison cemetery fell into disrepair as developers slowly absorbed surrounding land for new construction. Gravestones were vandalized, and once-pristine bluffs above the Potomac gave way to highway ramps and the Tanger Outlets shopping mecca.

Before excavators began moving the cemetery Aug. 7, it was whittled down to little more than a fenced-in hill monitored by a security guard in a sea of asphalt. Some family members considered it an inappropriate resting place for a noted Colonial clan and for John Hanson, a Founding Father who served as president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation and was related to the Addisons.

"It's a forlorn place for a graveyard now," said Peter H. Michael, a Hanson descendant and biographer who hopes to find the body of his ancestor at the site. "It sits there practically at the doorstep of what? A casino. Not a dignified place for anybody to be buried."

After a family vote and approval from the Prince George's County Office of the State's Attorney earlier this year, the cemetery will be moved to St. John's Episcopal Church Broad Creek in Fort Washington, Md., a congregation about four miles from the casino that the Addison family helped found.

The MGM National Harbor Casino rises above the tree lines near the cemetery. (Michael S. Williamson)

The Rev. Sarah D. Odderstol, the rector of St. John's, said a 60-by-60-foot plot at the church was set aside for the cemetery. Before the excavation began, she led a service for Addison descendants at the existing cemetery near MGM.

"Hundreds of years ago, when your family first laid its members to rest here, this was the best they had to offer," read a liturgy Odderstol wrote for the service. "Quiet. Beautiful. And a stunning view that served as balm for those who grieved the loss of a loved one here. This space is no longer what it once was."

Odderstol said moving the cemetery goes beyond digging up bodies and returning them to the ground. In days gone by, she said, Christians were buried facing the sunrise to better ascend on the day of judgment — an orientation that conservators will aim to replicate.

"They will put everybody in the ground in the way they came out," she said.

Jennifer Stabler, archaeology coordinator for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said archaeologists identified at least 36 burials, including the bodies of adults, children and infants. Four had nameplates that may allow the bodies to be positively identified, she said.

Carter and Lyle, meanwhile, say they will continue to press their claim for the land near MGM even after the cemetery is gone. They have another lawsuit pending in U.S. district court in Maryland claiming ownership.

"Our case is for the land, not just the bodies," Carter said. "We're saying we own the property and they never had the right to make any decision."