In 1821 control of Florida changed yet again – this time the Spanish flag was replaced with the American flag as Florida became a United States territory. How this came about is a story in itself, but that’s not what we’re discussing today. Instead, we are here to discuss the history of the Huguenot Cemetery located just outside the city walls in St. Augustine. Although there was a transfer of government in early July of 1821, not much else changed right away. St. Augustine was still a very Spanish and very Catholic town. While Americans had been migrating to Florida during the years of negotiations, there were no civil systems to support them. Land ownership issues had not yet been addressed and the only religious institution – and cemetery – in town belonged to the Catholic Church. When a yellow fever epidemic hit in September, no one was prepared.
During Spanish rule, Protestants had been buried on Anastasia Island. This was no longer suitable. A committee was appointed to find a suitable location for a Protestant burial ground. They selected a location just outside the city gate in an area that in earlier days served as a cleared no-mans land just outside the towns defensive walls. It was assumed that because of its original purpose, it was owned by the Spanish crown therefore was now government land. The city council agreed and plans went forward to quickly turn this land into a burial ground to handle the growing number of epidemic victims.
Unconfirmed stories described fever victims buried in mass graves. This is quite possibly true based on confirmed stories of the large number of deaths. Rev. Andrew Fowler, an Episcopalian minister from Charleston, spent most of October and November in St. Augustine ministering to the sick and dying. He reported conducting 95 funerals during that period.
Four years later, the commission established to handle disputes over land ownership was presented a claim by Lorenzo Capella that he had title of the land being used for the graveyard. Before the commission could rule on the claim, Capella sold the property. It took another seven years of negotiations and resolutions to finalize ownership with the Presbyterian Church.
The graveyard remained open for burials until 1884. Local residents began petitioning the city council to close both the Protestant and the Catholic graveyard located nearby, complaining about possible health issues resulting from the cemeteries being located so close to residential areas. A resolution passed to close the cemeteries with the last burial on August 13th.
Throughout its time of active burials, no known Huguenot was ever buried in this graveyard. However, it is possible there is a grave belonging to a parishioner of the Huguenot Church in Charleston, South Carolina. To the local population it was known as the Public Burying Ground, the Protestant Ground and the Old Protestant Graveyard. It appears that the name Huguenot Cemetery was more a result of the increase in tourism in the 1870s. One can see references to the Huguenot Cemetery in various travel articles and books about the area, but Florence Mitchell, in her history of the cemetery, states:
Legal documents, throughout the cemtery’s history, have prefaced the name of the cemetery with the expression, “known as,” whether describing the Protestant or Huguenot Cemetery. It seems that no one ever bestowed a formal name on the cemetery.
After the graveyard was closed it began a long period of neglect. Several short-lived projects made attempts to clean and repair the site but it wasn’t until 1979 that a project began which worked to restore and protect this historical site. Today the Friends of the Huguenot Cemetery, Inc. provide the oversight to insure the graveyard receives the care it deserves. To learn more about the Friends, contact the Memorial Presbyterian Church office, 36 Sevilla Street, St. Augustine, FL 32084.
- Mitchell, Florince S. Sacred to the Memory: A History of the Huguenot Cemetery, 1821-1884 St. Augustine, Florida. 1998, St. Augustine: Friends of the Huguenot Cemetery, Inc.
- Harvey, Karen. America’s First City, St. Augustine’s Historic Neighborhoods – Second Edition. 1997, Lake Buena Vista: Tailored Tours Publications, Inc.