Last weekend, I visited what I know think of as Tolomato Cemetery’s cousin: Bosque Bello Cemetery in Fernandina Beach, founded in 1798 during the Second Spanish Period. This makes it a close relative of Tolomato Cemetery.
Tolomato Cemetery was first used as a cemetery during the British Period, when the Minorcans arrived and established their community in the north end of the city; but it really entered into its own as the parish cemetery for the town during the Second Spanish period, one of the most interesting eras in St Augustine’s interesting history. And what was happening in St Augustine at that time?
The big parish church of St Augustine, which became a cathedral in 1870 with the designation of St. Augustine as a diocese with its own bishop, had just been finished and dedicated in 1797. Fr. Miguel O’Reilly was the parish priest of the church, and Gov. Enrique White (a Dublin born Spanish citizen) was the governor of Florida. Jesse Fish, Maria Evans, don Juan McQueen, Miguel Isnardy, Pedro Benet and a host of other colorful characters were alive and well in St Augustine. With the exception of Miguel Isnardy, who is buried somewhere under the floor in the Cathedral, and Jesse Fish, all of these people are now buried at Tolomato Cemetery.
Outside of little St Augustine, the new United States was consolidating and already testing the borders of Spanish Florida. Meanwhile, on the Continent, that famous Corsican, Napoleon Bonaparte, shown glowering below, was preparing for the coup of 1799 against the French government, which would set him on a quest to conquer all of Europe. In 1808, he would invade and conquer Spain, whose far flung empire would still manage to limp along with little help from the patria madre. The Napoleonic Wars produced complicated European alliances, not always the same at all times in all places, and of course spilled over into the New World with our War of 1812, which ended in 1815 and involved most of the major European powers.
Meanwhile in Spain, the anti-Napoleonic “government in exile” in Cádiz wrote a Constitution in 1812 -the very same Constitution that is commemorated by the obelisk in St Augustine’s plaza mayor, erected in 1814. But unfortunately, by 1814, the absolute monarch, Fernando VII (Ferdinand the Seventh) was back in control, and ordered that all Constitution monuments be taken down…an order that never got to or was ignored by St Augustine. Of course, all of this commotion had major effects on Spain and its colonies, and one of its minor but enduring effects was the origin and name of the town of…you guessed it, Fernandina Beach, named after the despised and tyrannical Fernando VII. Still, we kept our obelisk…and created more, as you see below.
If Fernando was so unpopular, how did the town get that name? It was bestowed by Governor Enrique White in 1811, right after Fernando (below) had returned to Spain upon the eviction of Jose Bonaparte, and around the time that one of the Second Spanish Period’s most interesting but most neglected figures, George J. F. Clarke, was employed as Surveyor General of East Florida.
Clarke was born in St Augustine during the British Period, became a Spanish citizen with the change of governments in 1783, and was baptized in St Augustine as a child in the 1780s during the Second Spanish Period, and then pursued a long career under various flags in the military, politics, agriculture and even scholarship. He died in 1836 in St Augustine, under yet another flag – this time, that of the United States, and as a US citizen – and is buried somewhere at Tolomato Cemetery.
Clarke’s most important or best known work was the platting of the town of Fernandina Beach and his subsequent government and military work in the protection of what is now known as Amelia Island from pirates and British marauders.
His ties with St Augustine remained very strong; his Irish-born mother, Honoria Clarke, had been widowed when her children were young and had bought a property at the corner of St Francis and Charlotte Streets, where George grew up. This property, of course, is now known as the Tovar House, after an earlier owner, and is part of the Oldest House complex.
When George Clarke was finally out of public life on Amelia Island as the result of governmental changes, he returned to St Augustine and devoted himself to agricultural research and development. One of his closest collaborators was another gentleman scholar, Napoleon’s great nephew Prince Achille Murat, whose distinctive little house on the corner of Bridge and St George Streets is currently hosting an archeological dig turning up layers of our earliest history.
Where does the cemetery come in? Bosque Bello was founded as part of the town of Fernandina Beach in 1798, and is in the “Old Town” area, about a mile from its better known newer downtown area, which was the result of a 19th century move of the town’s activities for commercial reasons. The cemetery is owned by the City of Fernandina Beach.
But my visit last week had nothing to do with any of this, but instead was related to St. Augustine’s own Sisters of St Joseph. I was simply tagging along with someone who was doing a research project on the history of the Sisters, many of whom are buried at Bosque Bello. So I found St Augustine and Tolomato connections everywhere, starting with the sign below.
The sign is in front of the house below, which had been bought by Bishop Verot and where he installed some of the Sisters to work in nursing and education in Fernandina Beach. It is still a private residence, and in this photo, you even will catch a glimpse of the resident and his Halloween flag on the porch!
In the lore of the Sisters, the house has an odd name: The Pin House. The name comes from the yellow fever outbreak of 1877, when people would leave their sick family members on the porch of the house, with notes pinned to their clothing identifying them and asking the sisters to take care of them.
We have to remember that nobody knew what caused or spread yellow fever at that time. It was a terrifying and uncontrollable disease, much like ebola, and people feared that it was communicable through contacts with infected victims. It would only be in 1905, another twenty five years or so, when it would be established that yellow fever was spread by the bites of infected mosquitoes. But Bishop Verot (shown below) sent the sisters out to help the sufferers at that time and they went willingly, despite what could easily be expected to be their fate. The Sisters of St Joseph cared for the patients as best they could, but yellow fever has a very high mortality rate and in that pre-antibiotics era little could be done, so there were many, many deaths from the dread disease.
In fact, several of the SSJ died, including two of the original eight French sisters who had arrived in St Augustine in 1867 at the invitation of Bishop Verot. Along with many other yellow fever victims, they were buried in Bosque Bello. Below is the grave of one of the sisters, Mother Marie Celinie Joubert, located in the SSJ plot in the old part of the cemetery.
The cemetery and town were platted in 1811 under Gov. Enrique White, who was a great urban development enthusiast, the same year as the never-realized plan for Tolomato Cemetery that would have meant laying it out in an orderly pattern of rows, aisles and numbered plots, as we see below. But many things were happening in Spain and the US at that time, so the Tolomato plan was never completed, although Old Town Fernandina Beach was in fact constructed according to plan and is the last colonial city to have been built on the grid plan provided in the Leyes de Indias, the Spanish master plan for colonial development in the “Indies.”
The earliest marked grave at Bosque Bello dates to 1813, and was that of a French soldier who died in Fernandina Beach. We have to remember that Fernandina Beach was the site of many conflicts – between the Spanish and the British, between the Spanish and the (mostly French) pirates, between the French and the Spanish and the British and the American governments…between everybody and everybody, in fact. And it even had a short-lived independence movement, to complicate things further.
The other graves in the old part of the cemetery give a view of life on Amelia Island. There are, of course, many graves of children. The lamb was a common motif on the burial markers of children, such as the one below, for 4 year old J. R. Nelson, who died in 1902.
There are the usual large markers for important men, the smaller markers for their wives, and many military markers. Of interest were the many markers for those who died in or were veterans of the Spanish American War, such as that of Alvin Willis, below. Much recruiting of soldiers for the Spanish American War was conducted in the Jacksonville area, and these stones reflect the impact of this now nearly forgotten war.
Bosque Bello still lives up to its name – Beautiful Woods - because the woods are still beautiful. The cemetery has the requisite Florida live oaks with Spanish moss, and it also has a large number of old red cedar (cypress) trees. You can see the remains of these trees at Tolomato Cemetery, although we only have a couple of specimens still standing. But Bosque Bello has some dramatic and healthy examples still thriving.
There is the odd modern touch of a huge power plant that steadily hums or throbs, depending on the demand at that time of day, in the background at the cemetery. If you look at the photo below, you can see the top of the stack. But it is a regular sound, not particularly obtrusive, and simply makes the visitor marvel that everything changes and yet is still the same.