Huguenot cemetery, the first public cemetery
In 1821, the fathers of the city of St. Augustine had a problem. A yellow fever epidemic has gripped the city, killing nearly 200 residents. Most of the victims were Protestants.
After Florida transferred control from Spain to the US government on July 10 of the same year, the non-Catholic population increased. However, the only public cemetery, the Tolomato Cemetery on Cordova Street, was strictly for Catholics.
Protestants in the town were usually buried several miles away in a plantation that is now the Fish Island Reserve, a public park at the east end of bridge 312.
On September 27, 1821, the city council selected a half-acre piece of land north of the city gates at the end of St. George Street and opened what is now known as the Huguenot cemetery.
“When the epidemic struck – yellow fever – people were dropping like flies,” said Charles Tingley, senior research librarian of the St. Augustine Historical Society and president of the Friends of the Huguenot Cemetery. “An episcopal minister who came in September said he was burying up to six people a day. This is part of a newly arrived Protestant population of a few hundred.”
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Those who grew up in a tropical climate typically had mild cases of yellow fever and survived, Tingley said. Floridians had stronger immunity, but it hit newcomers much harder, according to Tingley.
“Mostly the US Army soldiers from New England, because the companies that were stationed here were from Massachusetts,” Tingley said. “They buried a few people under duress on the fort grounds, but they needed a better place. They thought the land next to the city gate was public property.”
For those who could pay, the city charged $ 4 for the funeral. The city also used the land as a pottery field for criminals and the needy.
“Interment in the cemetery was reserved for all non-Catholics, black and white, and even a few Catholics who disagreed with the Catholic Church,” Tingley said. “For example, there’s a John Manucy in there who was a member of the Masonic fraternity, and Masons couldn’t be buried in the Catholic cemetery.”
Although the cemetery has been incorporated, the graves of African Americans are not marked.
For four years the land served as a public cemetery for Protestants before a local man, Lorenzo Capella, claimed to own the land.
After several years of discussion and controversy, a local man bought the Capella Cemetery property and then sold it to the Presbyterian Church in 1832. The Presbyterian Memorial Church still owns it today.
In 1884, residents around the cemetery began to complain. Shocked by the unpleasant smells and the bones exposed when graves were dug for new burials, the citizens asked the municipal commission to close the cemetery.
“It was very disorganized,” Tingley said. “You didn’t buy any land. If you wanted your loved ones to be buried near the first person in the family to die, you had to make a fenced enclosure to mark off that it was your own.
“A lot of the wooden markers were gone, mainly during the Civil War,” Tingley continued. “You would bring down a burial shaft and run into a previous burial place. So the city used its health and sanitation regulations to close the two old cemeteries, Huguenot and Tolomato, in 1884.
New cemeteries, such as the Catholic San Lorenzo Cemetery, Protestant Evergreen, and the Cemetery of the First Congregation of the Sons of Israel, have opened outside the city limits.
Although Huguenot has been closed for 137 years, it is still a part of history. On July 23, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“With the help of Andrew Waber of the Florida State Department, Bureau of Historical Resources, we were able to achieve this recognition,” Tingley said. “The state wanted to do this as part of the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the transformation of Florida into American territory.”
The Friends of the Huguenot Cemetery, a small, non-profit group led by Tingley and founded in 1993, works with Memorial Presbyterian Church to preserve and restore the cemetery and tell its story. The next opening of the cemetery is October 16.
In June, the group restored a monument to Laura Roote, who died in 1872 and wife of Rev. Eleazer Roote, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church. Restoration and other projects are funded by donations when the cemetery is open to the public on the third Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. for tours.
“This half acre of land holds a big part of the town’s history,” Tingley said.