This may seem like a morbid subject but as family historians it is very helpful to understand how our ancestors handled the death of someone in the family. I can’t tell you the numbers of times I’ve heard someone lament not being able to find a death certificate or even the burial location of one of their ancestors in the Florida panhandle. When I ask when they likely died, I often get back an answer in the early to middle 19th century. The next several posts will explore the burial practices, the oldest existing cemeteries in the northwest Florida panhandle and then I will finish up with a detailed exploration of the three cemeteries in the Oak Grove, Okaloosa County community.
When Our White Ancestors Died
Today when someone dies they are whisked away to the funeral home where professional mortuary practices are completed, then family and friends come for a viewing, followed by a church service and/or a burial service at the grave site. Family are minimally involved in the preparation and burial of the family member. That was not the case in the early 19th century when white settlers from the United States began migrating into the northwest Florida panhandle. Many of the earliest settlements were along the Florida and Alabama border, generally next to rivers, and well away from Pensacola, which was where the Spanish tended to congregate until the territory was transferred to the United States. Professional mortuaries did not come into general existence until the latter half of the 19th century. Unlike some areas that had been settled for a century or so, there was no effort to record deaths by the government and the few churches that were not Catholic did not often record births and deaths in any kind of consistent manner. These facts were not considered a part of the church’s role by some early Protestant churches and they did not have the church structure and bureaucracy that supported these records in the Catholic and Anglican (Episcopal) Churches. Early newspapers might report the death of a well-known person and if the deceased owed someone money they could petition the estate for redress, the death would be a part of the court case or be mentioned in notices in the paper concerning the estate settlement.
When our U.S. white ancestors began arriving around 1820 there were no existing graveyards in the piney woods where most of them settled. In that first decade or so after our ancestors began arriving, any burials likely took place on the family’s property somewhere. Family, usually the women and occasionally with neighboring women’s assistance, took on the responsibility of preparing the body for burial and viewing. Viewing was usually limited to neighbors and family unless the person was well known outside the community and occurred not long after death and in the home. After viewing, the male members of the family, and occasionally neighboring men, would carry the body to the grave site, always feet first. The deceased would most often be buried in a box that had been made by the family or a neighbor, but if a coffin wasn’t available they were wrapped in a cloth and buried directly in the ground.
Churches and community graveyards began to appear as settlements increased. The most prominent Protestant denominations in Florida were the Baptist and Methodist. Both of these denominations were blessed with circuit riding preachers in the earliest days of Florida as a territory of the United States. Prior to the transfer from Spanish control, the Catholic Church was the only State sanctioned religious denomination, though there are a few examples of clandestine meetings around St. Augustine and were likely also a few around Pensacola since the Spanish had eased a bit on religious tolerance during the final years of its control of West Florida. These would have been in people’s homes or a clearing near someone’s home. After transfer from Spain, other religious denominations were allowed but spread was slow due to small settlements and just a handful of circuit riders. Many of the earliest Protestant churches were established by missionaries from Alabama and Georgia who conducted services and assisted with organization of the church.
Once churches began developing in the panhandle, church cemeteries often followed. Since most of these limited burial to members of the church, non-religiously affiliated graveyards also slowly developed. Often a member of the community would donate a small piece of land for a graveyard, just as a number of churches got their start with a dedicated building when a community member donated the use of the land for a church. It was customary to bury the deceased facing the rising sun. In all of my years of visiting cemeteries, I don’t believe I’ve ever found one with the head to the east and the body facing west. If Native Americans and enslaved were buried in the same cemetery with white settlers, they would be congregated on the northern edge of the cemetery.
Embalming began being widespread after the Civil War. That means that our ancestors before that time who died were washed, dressed and buried within a very short period of time. If they died while enlisted in a war, such as one of the Seminole Wars, they would have been buried, if possible, where they fell or around where the unit was camped. Many of these graves were not marked, except for a rock or large stone at the head or a small wooden cross that quickly deteriorated. If they died away from home either working or visiting, the same often applied. There was no way to keep a body cool, especially in Florida, to move it any distance by wagon. So, as family historians looking for a grave site for early Florida ancestors, we might try to determine where the family lived (land records), where the person may have died (newspapers), or whether there was an estate or the person died without a will (court records and newspapers) and a person owed money requested the courts to require settlement of debts from the family. It is not likely that the grave will be found unless the deceased was visiting a populated area, like Pensacola. Then they might be buried in a local graveyard but likely had no headstone with a name on it.
A good example of the above is the case of John BARROW, early settler in the upper Yellow River area of what is now Okaloosa County. Let’s travel through establishing a death day for him since there is no marked grave for him. We know that John BARROW was living in Pulaski County, Georgia, at least from 1809 to 1818, based on his service as a juror and the remaining tax records for that period. According to his father’s will in 1812, he was given the remaining section of land that was a part of what he had been given earlier by his father. Quite a number of families left Pulaski County for Alabama and Florida during the period of 1814-1820. John is on the tax rolls of Pulaski County for 1818 and then appears on the Conecuh County, Alabama census for 1820 among a number of families from Pulaski County and his brother Absalom’s family. In 1824, he is in the Congressional Record in a Report of Claims to Land in Florida as having settled 15 acres in what was then Escambia County, Florida. He is not in the 1830 census in either Escambia or Walton County but his son Richmond is a head of household in Walton County with an older woman in it that is likely his mother.
Searching court records in Escambia County, Florida provides us some clues. Charges were brought against him in 1824 that do not appear to have resulted in a trial. He sells a slave to a John Williams in July 1824. And then in November 1828 a Thomas Goff brings a suit against the estate of John BARROW, naming all of his children and his wife. That resulted in a judgement by default (a judgement in favor of the person bringing the suit because the defendant does not appear in court to respond to the complaint). In 1829 and 1830 a series of notices in the Pensacola Gazette notifying all persons that the estate of John BARROW will be administered and anyone having a claim should present the claim as soon as possible. Instead of a window for his death of a decade, it now can reasonably be assumed he died between the selling of a slave in July 1824 and the lawsuit against his estate by Thomas Goff in November 1828. We still don’t have a grave and likely won’t have. There were no graveyards or cemeteries around his home between 1824 and 1828 that are known and some evidence still exists of its presence. He was likely buried on his family’s property somewhere.
Next month we will look at some of the oldest cemeteries and graveyards in the Panhandle.
Until Next Time
- National Museum of Funeral History
- Death and Dying in the 18th and 19th Century
- Burial Customs and Cemeteries in American History