How many of us are charmed by cemeteries?
It's not an uncommon interest. The technical term for those of us who share this fascination is "taphophile," also known as "tombstone tourists" or "grave hunters."
While some would find this subject bordering on the macabre, its important to note the vast wealth of information held in these repositories. They are, in fact, outdoor museums. From the symbolism held in their artful decorations to the details recounted in their inscriptions, each headstone has a story to tell -- quite literally.
The oldest cemetery in Manatee County -- and, actually, one of the oldest organized burying grounds on the Gulf Coast of Florida -- is "The 1850 Old Manatee Burying Grounds." Located along 15th Street East, just a block south of State Road 64, the land for this graveyard was deeded to the small community of Manatee on May 30, 1850, by Josiah Gates and his wife, Mary M. Gates.
It was the first public graveyard in the area, and served as such until 1892, when it was closed to all but immediate family members of people already buried there. It seems fitting that the final internment on this site, in 1967, was of a direct Gates descendent: Eva May Gates, granddaughter of Josiah and Mary.
At its first use, the cemetery
had only been designated for two months. Henry S. Clark, an early settler and merchant trader, died on July 27, 1850, during an attempted return voyage to his former hometown of Canton, N.Y. His headstone can be seen today. It had become enfolded in the trunk of an old cedar tree, but has been removed from the trunk and set into the ground for preservation.
There's actually a rather amusing tale about Mr. Clark's burial. You see, his friend and employee, Charles Macy, was graveside for Mr. Clark's internment. As it happens, the water table in this area is quite high. As a result, Mr. Clark's casket was lowered into quite a bit of standing water. This greatly disturbed Mr. Macy. He was quick to tell the widow Clark that he would prefer not to be buried in such a manner. Unfortunately for Mr. Macy, he passed shortly thereafter from consumption. Mrs. Clark, being the resourceful sort, did the only thing she could to fulfill Mr. Macy's wishes. She placed his remains in a barrel of whiskey for preservation until his family could venture south to retrieve him for a proper burial somewhere less soggy.
Many veterans are buried in this little cemetery. There are 11 Confederate soldiers, three Union Army veterans, and a private who served in the Seminole War, Josiah Gates Jr. It is interesting to note that three members of the Florida Succession Convention -- Ezekiel Glazier, James Cooper and John Cooper Pelot -- are buried here.
Also laid to rest in this old graveyard is Dr. John Crews Pelot, who eventually became assistant to the head surgeon at the notorious Andersonville Prison. Here Dr. Pelot advocated, in vain, for more humane treatment of prisoners. Contrast these notables with the fact that famed Union General Ulysses S. Grant's Aide de Camp, Brigadier General John Riggin, also rests here, and it would seem time and perspective heals all wounds.
In the Manatee Burying Ground, 94 graves can be distinguished, and many more lie unmarked within its boundaries. The headstones stand as silent sentinels of the past. Although time and weather have worn many of the markers and inscriptions, the memory of these determined and resourceful settlers lives on. Many endured wars, hurricanes, hostile (and not so hostile) natives, as well as epidemics of yellow fever to secure a home for their families and for future generations, here on the banks of the Manatee River.
Just dying to learn more? (Pun intended!) You may visit Manatee Village Historical Park to borrow the key to the cemetery between 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and the second and fourth Saturdays of each month.
Also consider attending Spirit Voices from Old Manatee. This is a dramatic cemetery tour that provides an opportunity for audience members to come face to face with the past -- its triumphs, tragedies, even a few humorous recollections. The program takes place on select weekend evenings in early October, beginning at Manatee Village Historical Park, and continuing by torchlight in the 1850 Old Manatee Burying Grounds. Audience space is limited. For ticket information, contact Manatee Village Historical Park at 749-7165.
Phaedra Rehorn, supervisor of Manatee Village Historical Park, is a self-proclaimed taphophile who enjoys drawing connections to the past through primary source materials such as artifacts, documents, the inscriptions of tombstones and their symbolic art.