Efforts begin to preserve and protect Bradenton’s oldest cemetery

The Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., is hoping to get grants next year to put in action a plan to better preserve and protect the county’s oldest cemetery, which has ties to some of the country’s most historical moments.

The Manatee Burying Ground is the final resting place for some of the area’s original settlers, including Josiah Gates, the first to settle the area in 1842. Among other names dipped in history is Curtis Henderson Stanton, whose family operated steamships on the Manatee River and whose brother died in 1912 while on the first and only voyage of the doomed Titanic.

Stories dot the landscape of the cemetery and tell a tale of a different time in a young and divided nation. There are 11 Confederate soldiers and three Union soldiers in the cemetery, including U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Riggin, who was an assistant to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War.

Dr. John Crews Pelot was the lead surgeon at Andersonville, S.C., the infamous Southern prison well documented as having horrific conditions for Union soldiers.

“But Pelot was a humanitarian,” said Phaedra Carter, supervisor of the historical park. “He wrote letters protesting the conditions at the prison and did his best to make the Union soldiers comfortable.”

And then there is John Cooper Pelot, who on Jan. 3, 1861, chaired the official convention for Florida to secede from the Union. Gates, Curry, Pelot and so many other names that are etched in building Manatee County from the ground up make up the Manatee Burying Ground.

It’s a historical foundation that Carter said needs to be preserved. The historical park is applying for up to $24,000 in grant funding through the state and has tallied $10,000 in matching funds, with $8,000 coming from the city of Bradenton, which owns the property. The city also is bidding out a separate new fencing project to better protect the cemetery.

Carter said she’s seen in other cemeteries where headstones were not only vandalized but stolen. There has been some other suspicious happenings at the cemetery that a new fence will correct, but the grant is geared toward better maintenance and documentation efforts, including ground penetrating radar.

“Some of the graves have a lot of documentation and some don’t have any,” Carter said. “But the biggest thing is that it may look like there is a lot of room here, but we are pretty sure it’s all filled up.”

There is a scattered array of 96 family and individual grave sites at the cemetery, but there is a lot of open ground local historians believe have lost markers over time or for other nefarious reasons. Carter would like to put that question to rest once and for all and make every effort to determine who else is buried at the site.

The Manatee Burying Ground is the county’s first and oldest cemetery, with the first burial being Henry S. Clark in 1850. The cemetery was used for many years but eventually closed off to everyone except descendants of those buried there, with Eva May Gates being the final burial in 1967.

Like Palmetto’s historic Yellow Fever Cemetery, the Manatee Burying Ground contains the remains of many who died during the yellow fever outbreak in the late 1880s. The 1887 church on the historical park’s grounds had to be halted during its first year of construction due to the outbreak and losing half the congregation to the fever.

And like Palmetto, which recently made significant improvements to the Yellow Fever Cemetery, Carter hopes for that and so much more.

“The last time the cemetery was documented was in 1976 by a group of 4-H students and in that short time period, there has been more significant damage, some natural, some vandalism and some stones have disappeared in that time,” Carter said.

While the city owns the property, the historical park offers tours of the cemetery and every October does the “Spirit Voices of Old Manatee,” where actors portray the historical figures in the cemetery and tell their tales. Carter said the historical park and the cemetery are tied together because, “We are telling the same stories as those buried there. That particular event is a great way to get people to digest local history who wouldn’t normally come out.”

Carter said some of the possible funding will be dedicated to training city personnel how to properly care for a cemetery with preservation in mind.

“Cemeteries are special animals when it comes to preservation,” she said. “Part of the grant will be defining appropriate care of the stones on the ground and share that information with city staff. We are wanting to do some documenting at the cemetery and work with the city on a plan. Cemeteries like this one is historic preservation because they are very much like a museum.”

Carter said there are two main questions that she typically gets and one is about whether the cemetery is full. She’s hoping to answer that one with the grant, but the second question ties into the name of Manatee Burying Ground.

“We do get some calls asking us if there are manatees buried there,” Carter said. “We do get a chuckle out of that.”