Florida’s oldest cemeteries and the stories behind them

Bosque Bello cemetery, Fernandina Beach, Florida. (Image via Shutterstock/Bob Pool)

By Crystal Harlan

April 26, 2024

The oldest cemeteries in existence are associated with the Spanish colonial period.

A visit to a graveyard is a voyage back in time. Florida’s cemeteries serve as a testament to the state’s storied past, spanning its eras as a Spanish colony, a US territory, and ultimately a state. The gravestones offer a glimpse into the rich and diverse cultures that have settled here, as well as the hardships of past generations and lives cut short by war, childbirth, epidemics, and natural disasters.

The oldest cemeteries in existence are associated with the Spanish colonial period. Practices changed when Florida became a US territory, and settlers brought new burial customs. Some early Floridians established public and church cemeteries, while others had private family graveyards on their plantations and farmsteads.These are six of Florida’s oldest cemeteries that you can still visit today.

Tolomato Cemetery, St. Augustine

The oldest marked grave in the state is in this Catholic cemetery, which was established sometime before 1788. It’s of Elizabeth Forrester, a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania who died while visiting Florida. She was buried here in 1798. While it’s not the first burial in the state or even in the cemetery, it’s the first one with an individual marker and date that survives to this day.

Among others here are Bishop Agustin Verot, the first Bishop of St. Augustine; Gov. Enrique White, who served during the Second Spanish Period; General George Biassou of Haiti; the first Sisters of St. Joseph; Civil War soldiers; and Father Felix Varela of Cuba, a renowned teacher at the Cathedral of Havana seminar, a defender of human rights, and the publisher of the first Spanish-language newspaper in the US.

Tolomato Cemetery stopped digging graves in 1884 during the yellow fever epidemic, however some families would jump the fence and bury their deceased here anyway, even if not authorized.

The cemetery is on the former site of the village Tolomato, which was occupied by Native Americans who converted to Christianity and Franciscan friars during the first Spanish period.

Bosque Bello, Fernandina Beach

This historic cemetery on Amelia Island is believed to have been established in 1798, but the oldest identifiable grave is of French Soldier Peter Bouissou de Nicar, dated 1813. A new section was added in 1945. It’s reportedly the burial ground of soldiers who fought with Napoleon, as well as in the Revolutionary War, Spanish-American War, and Civil War. True to its name, which means beautiful woods, the graves lie under a canopy of Live Oak trees draped in Spanish moss.

St. Michael’s Cemetery, Pensacola

This cemetery has likely been in use since the mid to late 18th century, but it was officially designated a cemetery by King Charles IV of Spain in 1807. The oldest existing marker of the site dates back to 1812. Although the cemetery was originally established for Catholics, people of all faiths have been buried here.

It’s the resting place of captains of industry, victims of yellow fever epidemics and steam ship explosions, along with those who died in childbirth, as infants, and of old age.

Old City Cemetery, Tallahassee

This is Tallahassee’s first public cemetery, which served as a burial place for both Blacks and whites, however the segregation laws of the time required that Black people be buried in the western half of the grounds. The cemetery was formally established in 1829, but there’s historical evidence that it was a burial ground long before that. Thomas Van Renssaler Gibbs (Reconstruction legislator and educator), James Page (founder of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church), and John G. Riley (noted educator) are some of the notable people buried here. After 1937, most Blacks were buried in Greenwood Cemetery. The last plot in this cemetery was sold in the early 1900s.

Huguenot Cemetery, St. Augustine

Located outside the City Gate, this cemetery was a Protestant burial ground from 1821-1884 and the first public cemetery founded after the American takeover of the city. It was established in response to a yellow fever outbreak in St. Augustine in 1821, after Florida became part of the US, bringing in an influx Protestant Americans. This outbreak caused a major public health emergency in the city because Tolomato Cemetery, the sole active cemetery before 1821, was exclusively for Catholics.

Among those buried in Huguenot Cemetery are Charles Downing, Sr. (1797-1841), an important political figure in Territorial Period Florida, and Buckingham Smith (1821-1845), an English language translator of a number of major Spanish primary source materials. His work is considered foundational to the scholarly study of Spanish Florida.

Despite its name, it isn’t believed to contain any burial sites of Huguenots, a Protestant sect started in the 16th century in France.

Micanopy Historic Cemetery, Micanopy

Founded by the physician HL Montgomery in the early 1800s, this cemetery contains over 2,000 burial sites, including over 100 veterans — some dating back to the Civil War. While the earliest burial is dated 1826, it’s believed that the land has been used as a burial ground since the 1700s, if not before, as this small town was once a Native American trading post.

Among those buried here are six teenagers who drowned in Lake Orange in 1873, after their boat capsized.

RELATED: Top 9 Most Haunted Places in Florida

 

Author

  • Crystal Harlan

    Crystal is a bilingual editor and writer with over 20 years of experience in digital and print media. She is currently based in Florida, but has lived in small towns in the Midwest, Caracas, New York City, and Madrid, where she earned her MA in Spanish literature.

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