Florida Cemeteries are Historic Markers in St. Augustine

It’s no secret that Florida’s Historic Coast has some of the richest history in North America. But in an ironic way, ancient cemeteries are living markers to those historic roots and no more so than the Tolomato Cemetery in the heart of old St. Augustine, Florida.

There are several historic cemeteries in the ancient city. But the Tolomato Cemetery is slightly off the main thoroughfares of St. Augustine. It’s just a block or two west from the main tourist shopping hubs in a quiet 1-acre lot on Cordova Street. The stories of these departed souls detail an historical account of some of the evolution of St. Augustine full of whispered ghost stories that lie beneath Spanish moss and local legend.

Paranormal Activity
Can the apparition of a young boy rumored to have died in the cemetery after falling out of a tree be seen in the trees? It depends on who you talk to and maybe you can hear the spirit of that boy giggling in the boughs.

Some say the poltergeist of “Chief Tolomato” can be seen and heard wondering through the grounds. The cemetery itself rests next to one of the many ghost tour businesses in St. Augustine as the city is long rumored to be one of the most haunted in America.

The supernatural stories surrounding the Tolomato Cemetery are many. But local skeptics point out if a visitor sees the ghost of Chief Tolomato, it’s pretty miraculous because in terms of historical record, there never was a Chief Tolomato. Still, to the believers, the ghosts are there and no skeptic is going to shake spirit hunting.

The Meaning of Tolomato
The word Tolomato can’t be directly connected to Native American tribes and is more of a geographic locator or moniker. Tolomato is cited in several different areas of Florida’s Historic Coast including the Tolomato River. The waterway is a blend of several tributaries and mixes with the Intracoastal Waterway near the Atlantic coast.

Some historians trace the word Tolomato to a geographic location in Georgia where some Native American tribes were known to congregate.

The cemetery is a snapshot of old St. Augustine in its – and North America’s -- formative stages. The site was an Indian Franciscan mission founded somewhere between 1705 and 1706, according to estimates from historians. There was a chapel, but the materials for that original structure were taken down and used to build other religious buildings in St. Augustine.

But when the Minorcan immigrants arrived from the island of Minorca off the coast of Spain, the Greek Orthodox Catholic adherents got government (St. Augustine was under British rule at the time) approval to use the site for their burials beginning in 1778. The Tolomato Cemetery was used for continual burials until 1884.

The grave sites note outbreaks of yellow fever that swept through St. Augustine on and off throughout its history as can be evidenced by clusters of grave sites that include entire families who unfortunately died during the spread of the disease.

Some of the grave markers were originally made from wood which have vanished with time and many were never marked at all. The remaining 100 grave markers are usually in some sort of granite, stone or concrete, but the effects of time have worn off many of the inscriptions.

There are Spanish governors of the area during Spanish rule who are buried there. A Catholic Bishop, The Rev. Father Felix Varela, was buried there before his remains were removed and returned to Cuba. And there is a modernized small chapel built in his name at the site that is still used for modest religious ceremonies from time to time.

Immigrants and settlers from Spain, Cuba, Ireland, Haiti, Africa, France, Italy, Greece along with veterans from both sides of the U.S. Civil War are among those who have their final resting place at the Tolomato Cemetery.

The grave site is not the oldest in St. Augustine. It’s the oldest with grave markers. There are grave sites that date back to the 1570s in the Old City. But at the time, custom was to burry the dead in unmarked graves, often under the buildings that stood during the period.

The Tolomato Cemetery site itself has had a ghostly association with St. Augustine over the centuries. After the 1800s, it sometimes went to seed and disrepair. There were times in the city’s history that the location was basically forgotten and overgrown.

The non-profit Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association takes care of the site now and opens the cemetery for public visits on the third Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. That visitation time is free.  Special reservations can be made for educational and historic tours. The volunteer association does ask for donations because those contributions fund the upkeep of the site.

The cemetery is home to the oldest known grave marker in the state of Florida along with about 1,000 other grave sites.

The grave marker of Elizabeth Forrester is still visible, though much of the wording has faded. Elizabeth Forrester, who at 16 had just relocated from Philadelphia, PA, contracted an illness and died in 1798.