The Lesser Cemeteries of Amelia Island

The Lesser Cemeteries of Amelia Island

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T

he cemeteries of Amelia Island have stories to share about the island’s incredible history. The bones of Timucuan Indians, African-American slaves, plantation owners, the founders of the island’s shrimping industry, a local champion of Cuba’s Jose Marti, Amelia Island lighthouse keepers, victims of the yellow and typhoid fever epidemics, Catholic sisters who nursed the victims of yellow fever, and veterans of many wars—from the American Revolution to the present day—are buried in island cemeteries and burial grounds.

It is an enormous responsibility caring for and protecting the graves of those who have gone before us. There are stringent laws protecting graves and cemeteries on both the federal and state level. This is critical in the protection of both the remains and the historical information many of these graves reveal. Amelia Island has many caring and dedicated people who protect the surprising variety of burial grounds located on the island.

BOSQUE BELLO CEMETERY

The most well-known is Bosque Bello Cemetery, translated as “Beautiful Woods,” which was said to have been established by the Spanish in 1798, with the first recorded burial of a French soldier, Peter Bouissou de Nicar, in 1813. The cemetery is located at 1321 North 14th Street near the entrance of historic Old Town Fernandina Beach. The City of Fernandina Beach added a “new” section in the mid-1940s.

In early 2018, two public meetings were held at the Fernandina Beach library to solicit interest in forming a volunteer-based Friends of Bosque Bello group. Friends groups are a common way to provide additional support and resources for cemeteries. A team of interested volunteers stepped up to address the challenges of protecting and maintaining the historic cemetery.

In March this year, the first organized clean-up of Bosque Bello Cemetery took place. Volunteers at the cleanup were required to have participated in a Cemetery Resource Protection Training (CRPT) by the Florida Public Archaeology Network prior to the first clean-up. Citizens and groups, including the following, responded enthusiastically: Amelia Island Fernandina Restoration Foundation, Amelia Island Genealogical Society, Amelia Island Museum of History, Amelia Island Trails, Amelia Tree Conservancy, Bertram Garden Club, Duncan Lamont Clinch Historical Society of Amelia Island, and the Historic District Council of Fernandina Beach.

Future plans include the establishment of a columbarium. A columbarium is a place for the respectful and, usually, public storage of urns holding the cremated remains of the deceased. Currently, there is no such facility at Bosque Bello. So-called “cremains” may be buried in plots of a size to accommodate coffins.

The Columbarium Steering Committee, under the leadership of Nan Voit, director of the Parks & Recreation Department in the City of Fernandina Beach, has pounded stakes in the ground to outline the site location. Local architect John Cotner has presented conceptual drawings of a columbarium, which were received with great enthusiasm by the group.

Bosque Bello is the largest of the island’s cemeteries. There are many other cemeteries that are on protected land with designated caretakers. Many early grave markers were made of wood and have disintegrated over time. In some cases, vandals have damaged cemetery markers. In addition, there are many unmarked graves.

ST. PETER’S CEMETERY

The Duncan Lamont Clinch Historical Society sponsors a field trip each year. In 2018, the organized tour showcased some of the so-called “lesser” known cemeteries on Amelia Island. The first stop was the beautiful and haunting St. Peter’s Cemetery, where Chip Wood, caretaker of the historic burial ground, took the group on a tour. Many of Fernandina’s former leaders and members of St. Peter Episcopal Church are buried there.

Wood pointed out some of the more interesting tombstones and burial sites sheltered by the beautiful old oaks dripping with Spanish moss. In 1872, the county surveyor who laid out the new town of Fernandina surveyed and divided the cemetery into plots.

Church records reveal a wide variety of causes of death, including yellow fever, consumption, neuralgia of the heart, congestion of the brain, killed by a train, shot, or drowned. The Delanys, an Amelia Island African-American family known for their talent with cement and stone, created many of the tombstones in the cemetery.

FERNANDEZ RESERVE BURIAL GROUNDS

The next stop was the Fernandez Reserve Burial Grounds located between St. Michael Catholic Church and St. Michael Academy. The group gathered in front of the wrought iron fence that surrounds the historic tombstones. The Fernandez Reserve is also known as Villalonga Park and is situated on the site of the Spanish land grant originally given to Domingo Fernandez. The family burials date from 1833 to 1892.

Jean Mann has written a book, Family Legacy: The Last Spanish Land Grant in Florida, which traces the genealogy of Domingo and Mary Fernandez descendants and offers a history of the historic burial ground. Mann became interested when the St. Michael’s wanted to expand the footprint of its church building, which would have encroached on the Fernandez Grant. In Mann’s opinion, the one-acre burial ground is the last Spanish Land Grant in Florida still owned by the descendants of the original grantee.

THE JUDD CEMETERY

The Judd Cemetery is located on the busy First Coast Highway near Phillips Manor Road. Jane Phillips Collins, whose ancestors are buried on the property, is a member of the Judd Cemetery Association and she is very familiar with the history of the small cemetery. The land that includes the cemetery was purchased by Jehiel S. Judd in 1884. A portion of the property was used as a burial site, which eventually evolved into the Judd Cemetery. Originally from Iowa, Judd bought the property sight unseen for farming. Unfortunately, he died while visiting the island and is buried on the property.

Many families that lived in Amelia City are buried there, including several Gerbing family members. The parents and other relatives of Gustav George Gerbing, famed for his azalea and camellia plants and gardens, are buried in the Judd Cemetery. Gerbing grew up on the Amelia River on a property first purchased by his father in 1897.

The noted horticulturist developed Gerbing Gardens, which was a popular tourist attraction for many years. The gardens, with their breathtaking displays of camellias and azaleas, were located near the present day cemetery.

THE VAUGHN CEMETERY

Just south of the Judd Cemetery on First Coast Highway, located on the west side next to Waterwheel Cigar, is the Vaughn Cemetery. Jane Phillips Collins, an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, has been instrumental in preserving and protecting the Vaughan burial grounds. John Daniel Vaughan was a veteran of both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The original monument was placed prior to the Civil War and was later destroyed. Currently, a six-foot-tall, four-sided obelisk marks the grave of John Vaughan.

Tradition says that this obelisk and the original monument were placed by the U.S. government. It is thought that John Vaughan was the only veteran of both the Revolution and the War of 1812 buried in Florida.

In 1797, he received a grant from the Spanish for a large tract of land on Amelia Island. He later received one hundred acres bounty land for service in the American Revolution and Indian Wars. Indications are that others are buried in the small cemetery, but no definitive list of interments is known to exist.

THE FRANKLINTOWN CEMETERY

Further south on AIA on the left of the entrance to the Plantation Point development, a large sign marks the entrance to the private Franklintown Cemetery. George Green, a member
of the Franklintown Cemetery Association, has taken responsibility for protecting and maintaining the cemetery. In 1971, when no deed was found, the owners of what is now Plantation Point deeded the cemetery and an access easement to the trustees of the Franklintown Cemetery Association.
The configuration of the present fenced area matches the 1971 deed description, but old-timers say that the missing deed covered a larger area and unaccounted-for graves remain outside the fence. During the yellow fever epidemics on the island, many bodies were buried without any markers, and some are probably buried outside the cemetery’s current grounds.

The recorded deed gives the trustees the right to determine who can be buried on the grounds. Burial privileges are restricted to those who are descendants of the Harrison Plantation slaves. The deed reads: “All descendants and their spouses of those colored workers prior to and at the close of the War Between the States belonging on and to the old Harrison Plantation.”

Many of the obvious graves are unmarked. Of those marked, a high percentage are military, including a grave for a Union soldier. A practice of shallow burial with the top of the encasing concrete vault exposed is common. The first Nassau County resident to die in the Vietnam War is buried in the cemetery.

THE HARRISON FAMILY CEMETERY

The Harrison family burial ground, another private cemetery, is hidden from view and is surrounded by modern development. The property is listed on the original Spanish Land Grant of 1793. It was given to Samuel Harrison.

The cemetery is a land-locked fenced and gated one-acre parcel, with an easement onto First Coast Highway/A1A. Access is limited to Harrison descendants and invited guests. Immediately upon entering the parcel, you will find plaques for the historic Harrison Family Cemetery and one describing the Guale Indians, who are buried there.

In the early days of the development of Amelia Island Plantation, a burial ground was discovered that contained the remains of the Guale, Native Americans who occupied the island for generations. They had been Christianized and buried at the site of a Spanish mission. The Dorions, owners of the property, started an archeological investigation in 1985, which later was supported by Florida state agencies. The Guale remains were reinterred in the Harrison Family Cemetery in 1985. A plaque marks the spot.

Thanks to the City of Fernandina, descendants of family members buried in private burial grounds and the dedicated volunteers who maintain and protect our sacred cemeteries our history is protected
and preserved.