Work began Friday at the Manatee Burying Grounds cemetery in Bradenton to rediscover more than 30 known-to-exist, but lost to time graves and potentially more that are unknown within the hallowed grounds of Manatee County’s oldest established cemetery.
Workers using ground penetrating radar began the tedious task of mapping the cemetery, which at first sight looks sparse from the limited number of headstones, but that actually contains at least 92 known burial sites.
“That’s what we’re hoping the GPR can help us do,” said Bridget Donahue-Farrell, curator for the Manatee Historical Village, which oversees the cemetery owned by the city of Bradenton.
“They will basically send radar waves into the soil and will map out an electric grid so they can measure where the disturbances are,” Donahue-Farrell said. “So if they find a disturbance by about 6 feet by 4 feet, they know that more than likely it was probably a grave at some point. So we’re hoping they will be able to help us find out where these unmarked graves are.”
The last survey of burial sites occurred in 1976 and over the last four decades, about one-third of the markers were either vandalized or lost to the years. The cemetery opened in 1850 and for 42 years was the final resting place for some of Manatee County’s most famous names.
It closed in 1892 but burials continued for some who wished to be laid to rest in their family plots. Eva Gates, a descendant of Manatee County’s first settler Josiah Gates, was the last to be buried in the cemetery. That burial took place in 1967 in the family plot where Josiah Gates and his wife Mary are buried.
Though vandalism is unfortunately commonplace in cemeteries, Donahue-Farrell said there are other factors that contribute to the overall mystery.
“Sometimes the missing headstones isn’t about vandalism,” she said. “It’s because they didn’t use them initially. A lot of times poor individuals would use either wooden markers or sometimes they would basically use trees as markers. So what we see here is these trees may have actually marked someone’s burial site.”
The question of where will be much easier to answer than who.
“There’s no real way to know that,” Donahue-Farrell said. “Sometimes if you come across sales of burial plots you might be able to know that this belonged to this family. Unfortunately, those documents aren’t always available. But what we can know is that someone is buried here and we can make sure that we respect that spot as their final resting place.”
Officials began seeking the grant funding in the may of 2017 when first planning restoration efforts. The grant was awarded recently through the Department of Florida Historical Resources. The historical park’s staff is working with the city, the Manatee County Historical Commission and the Manatee County Clerk of Court’s Department of Historical Resources.
The funding will eventually help pay for an interactive website where visitors can click on the burial sites and receive as much historical information there is on the individual. That could be Gates, or perhaps Brig. Gen. John Riggin, who served as aide de camp to Civil War legend and eventual President Ulysses S. Grant.
“The whole point is that we can map the cemetery to provide more up to date records and that we can have a better physical map so when people are visiting they can point out where the different burial sites are,” said Donahue-Farrell.
Phaedra Carter, deputy director of historical resources, said by the end of the project there should be an establishment of best practices in grounds and grave marker maintenance in order to preserve the cemetery well into the future.
“This project strives to protect and preserve this important piece of local history as an educational resource for generations to come,” Carter said in a prepared statement. “After all, every tombstone has a story to tell, and when viewed collectively as a cemetery, these sentinels create an outdoor museum.”
For more information about the historical park or to visit the cemetery, visit manateevillage.org.