We’ve come to the third and final installment in this series on burial rituals and cemeteries in the Florida Panhandle. The first two, if you missed them are here and here. In this post, I would like to present three small cemeteries that I am as intimately connected to as a person can be with a cemetery. Two of them are the final resting place for a good number of my maternal ancestors who were early settlers in that area of the panhandle and the third remains a bit of a mystery, with community stories and references that are both correct and not correct and is likely connected to the small Baptist church in the area that has been serving the community for 181 years. You may not have relatives in any of these cemeteries, but you may find the history and stories surrounding them insightful and instructive when approaching the cemeteries you encounter in your exploration of Florida history, especially the older ones in rural areas, and in looking for your ancestors’ resting place.
Let’s start with the smallest, least understood, and most neglected of the three. Old Yellow River Cemetery lies directly behind Yellow River Baptist Church about a 1/3 of a mile. If you stand facing the church, you will see a well-worn dirt road to your left with a fair amount of debris on it that goes straight to the cemetery. This road was a community access road for more than a century, but the county has allowed it to revert to the current owner of much of the property in the area. This cemetery is now on private property. Many in the surrounding community sometimes refer to it as the Old Black Cemetery because in the memory of many of the older residents of the area, that was who was buried there. But researching the names that have been recorded in the cemetery and cross-referencing them with the census and the Yellow River Baptist Church membership rolls indicates that it is not just black members of the Oak Grove community that are buried there. A little history is in order to possibly put this cemetery into its community context.
There are today around 20 markers that can still be seen in the old cemetery. The tallest, and most visible marker is that of Wyatt FRANKLIN, a member of Yellow River Baptist Church in the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century. Some of his descendants claim that he was at least part Native American. Yellow River Baptist Church was founded in 1840 by a small handful of residents in the general area. They were at the time a Missionary Baptist Church that did accept black members, all enslaved persons in the 1850 membership roll. These black members were recorded in a separate membership list, alphabetized by first name but listing the surname of the owner. The Missionary Baptist Association to which the church belonged struggled with establishing acceptable ways to encourage and minister to these members, trying to find a balance between them being members of the church and not alienating the white population of the church who were in some cases the enslavers. The church was not at its current location for all of the 19th century, moving to its current location in the initial years of the 20th century. In other words, someone who was a member in the 19th century and died during the 19th century is not buried in the existing Yellow River Baptist Church cemetery. This does routinely surface with this church, especially around Reuben and Nancy HART. They both died mid-19th century while actually living in Covington Co, AL and attending Yellow River Baptist Church, in what was then Santa Rosa Co, FL. When you are looking at ancestors who were known members of a church and have no marker in the church cemetery, be sure you know the history of the church before assuming that your ancestor is buried there.
There have been a few people who research this area and the church that have hypothesized that Stewart Cemetery, the second cemetery we will explore, was established for the white residents of the area, including white members of the church that did not want to be buried in a cemetery with black people. It is certainly a possibility since Stewart was also likely established in or before 1840. The first known burial in the cemetery is Joab Horne, a Revolutionary War veteran, who died in 1840. It isn’t known how many graves may have originally been at the Old Yellow River Cemetery. It isn’t clear exactly where the original church was located, though according to church records it was close to the Oak Grove school which is mentioned several times as a location for business meetings for the church and for church services prior to the church’s move to its current location. The school was most likely located in the same general area as the Old Yellow River Cemetery. If the Old Yellow River Cemetery served the church for a bit over 60 years, chances are there were originally more graves than we have markers for now, even if some of the members were choosing to be buried at Stewart Cemetery.
Research would seem to indicate that after the church moved that some black members of the community, and there were quite a few in the early 20th century (see The Black and White of Oak Grove, Okaloosa Co, FL), chose to be buried in the old cemetery after the church moved. The property was purchased by a family that moved to the area between 1910 and 1920 and that may have slowly ended burials there. There has also been some confusion between the Old Yellow River Cemetery and the few headstones that older members of the community remember just beyond the known church cemetery from the 50s and 60s. I believe when the church was cleaning up the cemetery and fencing it in, those graves were included in the newly fenced area because it was assumed they were part of the church cemetery after cleaning up around them. When the church purchased a small acreage just beyond the current fence a few years ago they discovered that the fence had been installed just outside the church’s property line at the time but was now on their property with the new purchase. I believe the grave markers at the far back left of the cemetery, and the obvious graves there without headstones, were those graves that were remembered by some community members including my Mom, and had come to be confused with the graves further east. I remember going to the church not long after the fence was installed and having the sense that the cemetery was bigger. I wrote it off to being cleaned up but I now think it was because it was actually a bit bigger.
Which brings us to Stewart Cemetery. Stewart is a small cemetery on 4 acres of land owned by Yellow River Baptist Church. The cemetery is surrounded by private property not owned by the church so care should be taken to not wander far outside the cemetery. The land where the cemetery is located was originally owned by Dugal STEWART. He sold it to Rosella HARRISON along with some adjoining land in May 1884. She was the wife of Isaac HARRISON, both black residents of the area according to census records. Then in June 1901, the couple sold the 4 acres “generally known as Stewart Graveyard” to Yellow River Church and to “all citizens at large”. In other words, the church bought the land to act as caretaker for the use of the community as a graveyard. It has remained as property of the church since that time, though the struggles to maintain the graveyard and protect it from encroachment has been an ongoing endeavor. Since the 1920s, the cemetery has been encircled by land owned by someone else. From the 1920s until the 1970s, accessing the cemetery was a challenge. The owner of the surrounding property fought to keep people out of the cemetery. He turned his cattle out to use the cemetery for grazing, damaging or destroying a number of headstones in the process. The owner since the 1970s has allowed access. The Florida law requiring access to cemeteries has made the challenges a little less egregious, at least in terms of access by descendants and interested visitors.
Stewart Cemetery was recorded in 1981. This recording is on file with Baker Block Museum in Baker, FL. Comparing it to the current headstones identifies a number of markers that have been lost since 1981. Most notably are the headstones for Reuben HART, Jr. and wife Nellie LAMB HART. Today there are memorial headstones for the two of them. When I walked the cemetery around the same time as the recording, I remember an enclosure around the two headstones and they were situated closer to the front of the cemetery, at about the level of the Stewart graves along the far-left line of the cemetery. Which beings us around to the mystery of where Reuben HART Sr. and his wife Nancy RIGDON HART are buried. They aren’t buried at the existing church cemetery. The church didn’t exist at that location when either of them died. They could be at the Old Yellow River Cemetery, but I doubt that. Reuben and Nancy, and his son Daniel, enslaved the majority of the black members of the church. If the hypothesis is correct about a controversy concerning burial of blacks in the same cemetery with white members, Reuben would have likely been opposed to the idea and chose to bury his wife elsewhere, since she died first. That would leave Stewart Cemetery, a burial in a cemetery in Covington County, AL near where they lived, or burial on their own property also in Covington County. There are no headstones for any of these options, so we will likely never know for sure. I am aware that Find-A-Grave has them in Yellow River Baptist Church Cemetery. I have tried to have that corrected without any luck.
Finally, we come to Yellow River Baptist Church Cemetery. As mentioned previously from 1840 until around 1900 the church met in a building that was east of the current location, likely in the same general area as the Oak Grove School and the Old Yellow River Cemetery. In November 1891, Abram DIXON and his wife Ann sold part of the land currently owned by the church to the Old Walton Masonic Lodge #54. The land had previously been owned by a member of Ann’s family. A number of the church members were also Masons, so there is no doubt that communication between the two entities occurred. The two-story building that was the church for a short period in the early 20th century was likely built by the Masons, with possible help by the church, around 1905. What we don’t know for sure is whether the church was using the bottom floor from 1905 to 1908, when they bought the land from the Masonic Lodge, sharing the use of the building. We do know there are several graves from the late 1890s at the far back corner of the existing cemetery. They are Abram and Ann DIXON and William C. and Roseda SAWYER KING. Neither couple are mentioned in any of the church membership rolls, but the church records are pretty slim during the 1890s. Both men were Masons so either the Masonic Lodge allowed burials at the back of their property or there was already some agreement between the church and the Masonic Lodge prior to the construction of the two-story building and the purchase of the property by the church from the Masons. Unfortunately, church records are silent on any of these options. The far back corner also has some unmarked, or unreadable, graves and indentures in the ground that would likely indicate a few other burials. These are the graves that were incorporated into the cemetery when the fence was installed and may have been the graves mistaken as the “Old Black Cemetery”.
If you suspect you have an ancestor in an unmarked grave in a cemetery, it is important to try to trace the history of the cemetery, and the church that is associated with it if there is one. Many churches have changed locations for one reason or another throughout their time. Also look for small cemeteries in the surrounding area that may also be a possible location for your ancestor’s burial. Churches did experience fractures among their members over any number of issues that might have caused an ancestor to choose another location. Even a lapse in church activity for a period could cause an ancestor to choose another location for burial. Which brings me to the final story, also involving the HARTs.
The church experienced a break in their weekly services from about 1916 to 1938. While they had occasional circuit riders come through and they would sometimes have Sacred Harp sings, the only known routine meeting was the homecoming in June of each year. My Mom remembered attending all of these as a very young child before joining the church and being baptized in the river in 1938. Nearly all the HARTs who were members of Yellow River Baptist Church moved their membership in 1902. It is likely they moved their membership to a nearby Baptist church getting started in Blackman, where most of the HARTs lived. That included the parents of Mary Malissa HART KING whose husband, William Franklin KING, was involved in the church as Sunday School teacher, deacon and song leader from 1887 until his death in 1946. He was instrumental in keeping the church memory, activities and records during the break between 1916 and 1938. When his wife died in 1935, the cemetery was unkempt and in poor condition. He chose to bury her at Cotton Cemetery at Good Hope Baptist Church, where her parents are likely buried (though again there is no headstones, but like most churches in this area burial rights come with membership or with family membership in the church). He and a number of their children are also buried there. So, the final point is a person could be an active member of a church and due to uncontrollable circumstances they chose to be buried elsewhere. Be careful about making assumptions without some effort to prove or disprove their likelihood.
Until Next Time.
- Soon to be published, A History of Yellow River Baptist Church: Oak Grove Community, Baker, Okaloosa Co, Florida, 1840-2020 by Sharon D. Marsh
- Baker Block Museum
- Internet Archives, American Libraries Collection, Bethlehem Baptist Association, 1849-1875