Let me start by saying that I do not have connections in every county in the Florida panhandle. Both sides of my family are mostly congregated in the northwestern end of the panhandle: Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, and Holmes counties. In the 20th century when family began moving out of the area they skipped over the rest of the panhandle and settled in Jacksonville, Ft. Myers and the central peninsula. So my genealogy research in Florida has tended to concentrate in these northwestern counties. Especially the boots on the ground research. This post isn’t intended to be an exhaustive presentation and may not capture the oldest cemetery in each county because I haven’t visited every cemetery either on foot or with Find-A-Grave. Knowing where the oldest cemeteries are that currently still exist gives us clues as to where our ancestors settled, and which areas had grown sufficiently by the time of the first burial in the cemetery to set aside land for a community or church cemetery. But keep in mind that the headstone with the oldest date may not be the oldest burial. The oldest may have had no markers or the markers have deteriorated or been removed over time.
I am an avid cemetery visitor. My Mom used to tell folks that my car would automatically stop at cemeteries. I even had a bumper sticker on a previous car that said, “Caution, I brake for cemeteries.” She never mentioned that she enjoyed the stops as much as I did. We were driving around in Walton county one Saturday and I spotted a good-sized church cemetery. I just managed the turn without some serious skidding. We got out and started walking and both spotted a tall headstone in the middle of the cemetery. Mama laughed and said that it must be where one of her King family was buried. They did like their large headstones. When we made it over to it, to our surprise, it was a King family couple, a distant cousin of mine and hers. At another cemetery where we were looking for Kings, we found the graves and two good sized King snakes sunning themselves on the grave slabs. Another time we were looking for the burial location of one set of my great2-grandparents and her great-grandparents. We parked and looked out over a large cemetery. Mama expressed the concern that this effort would take all day. I suggested we split up. I stood for a moment and looked over the cemetery and just felt drawn to the far back corner. I said I would start there, and she could start in the front. I ambled back looking to both sides in case I got lucky. I arrived at the back and looked to my left and there they were. Cemeteries are a wonderful place of peace and genealogical information, and they can tell a story about a community and the people who lived there, if you learn to slow down, walk it with respect and pay attention to the markers.
As I mentioned in the previous post, graveyards and cemeteries did not appear as soon as folks begin moving into a new location. It generally required a bit of time for the community of neighbors to develop so that one or more burial sites were needed or desired. Once churches were established they would often set aside land for burials, but many churches restricted burials to members and their families. Prior to the establishment of these communal burial sites, folks would have been buried on their family’s property. The headstones would have been small, carved by a family member or a simple cross. Easily lost to time. The flip side of that is the graveyard still exists but it is likely that the earliest markers are long gone, and the remaining ones are later burials.
Here is a good place for some words of caution. Be careful about assuming you know where your ancestor is buried because you know where he attended church and that church and cemetery still exists. Current churches are not always in the same location they were in during their early years in the 19th century. You need to do a little research on whether the church was previously located elsewhere. The other is pay attention to the headstone. Does it look newer than it should given the approximate time your ancestor died? Is the death date missing or not specific? This may be a memorial headstone placed by an ancestor years later. It may or may not be correctly placed and it may not mean your ancestor is actually buried there. This is not uncommon with men who died during a war and his body was not brought home. Later family wanted to memorialize him and placed a headstone that may or may not have accurate information on it.
Before you set out on a day of cemetery hopping, check out the cemetery on Find-a-Grave and see if it would be interesting to you to visit on foot. Try to get a good idea of where it is located. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself driving up and down a dirt road trying to “see” where I needed to go. While I like to drive dirt roads in the Spring, I have also gotten on a couple that turned into paths crossing creeks with two 2 x 12 boards. There will likely not be phone access in some of these locations so take some snacks and drinks and pay attention to residences since you might have to walk back to one to use the phone.
And a final word of caution. Many of the oldest graveyards are now on private property. While access must be allowed to these graveyards in Florida, that isn’t absent any conditions. Ask permission before you enter private property. And if access is only allowed at certain times, then be respectful and follow that requirement. Given those issues the following are some of the oldest cemeteries I’ve found in the panhandle based on the oldest marker or the likelihood or knowledge that it existed before the remaining markers.
Escambia County, Florida
- Old Vaughn Cemetery in Molino
- St. Michael’s Cemetery in Pensacola
- St. John’s Cemetery in Pensacola
- Ft. Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola
- The Old Warrington-Woolsey Cemetery
Santa Rosa County, Florida
- Milton Benevolent Cemetery in Milton
- Old Springhill (Bass Cemetery) north of Milton
- Coon Hill Cemetery near Chumuckla
- (Old) Calvary Cemetery in Munson
Okaloosa County, Florida
- Old Yellow River Cemetery between Baker & Laurel Hill
- Stewart Cemetery between Baker & Laurel Hill
- Magnolia Cemetery between Baker & Laurel Hill
- Old Ebenezer Cemetery between Baker & Laurel Hill
- Old Bethel Cemetery in Crestview
Walton County, Florida
- Euchee Valley Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Eucheeanna
- Gum Creek Cemetery in Glendale
- Hatcher Cemetery in Freeport
Holmes County, Florida (there are quite a few “Family” Cemeteries in Holmes County with only a few headstones)
- Andrews Family (or Homestead) Cemetery
- Bethlehem Cemetery
- Mount Ida Methodist Church Cemetery in New Hope
- Clarkston Cemetery
- Cravey Cemetery in Vernon
- Dunn-Raley Cemetery in Miller’s Ferry
- Everett Cemetery
- Simmons Family Cemetery
- Gunlock Cemetery – while this cemetery appears to only date back to the early 20th century, I was struck by the number of infant graves.
- Sandy Mountain Cemetery in Fountain
- Watts Gainer Cemetery
- Bazzell Cemetery
- Boone Family Cemetery in Hornsville
- Braxton Cemetery
- Campbellton Baptist Cemetery in Campbellton
- Carter’s Mill Cemetery in Marianna
- Cartledge Cemetery in Cottondale
- Comerford-Pelt Cemetery in Marianna
- Coonrod Cemetery in Malone
- Ephesus Community Cemetery in Campbellton
- Hart Cemetery
- Owens-Bellview Cemetery
- Old Sardis Cemetery
- Spears Plantation Cemetery
- Atkins Cemetery in Blountstown
- Ayers Cemetery
- Grantham-Linton Cemetery
- Messer Cemetery
- Woods Cemetery
- Old Saint Joseph Cemetery in Port Saint Joe