Colonial Park Cemetery: Savannah’s Oldest Burying Ground

 Colonial Park Cemetery

Visitors to Savannah naturally have a lot of questions about  Colonial Park Cemetery, located at 201 East Oglethorpe Avenue. It is indeed an intriguing place. It served as the city’s primary burial ground for 103 years, from 1750 to 1853. Here are a few facts about our cherished burial ground, located at the corner of Abercorn and Oglethorpe Streets.

  The cemetery, if you’ll pardon the pun, is a perfect embodiment of Savannah’s deep ties to tragedy. A walk through Colonial Park is to take a ‘Cliffs Notes’ tour of this city’s early history. In a Spanish moss-draped Southern Gothic city like this one, it’s only natural that we would have a prominent cemetery right in the center of town. Not only does this plot of hallowed ground contain many timeworn graves which provide mute commentary on the very thin line between mortality and the shadowy afterlife of our early colonists.

The Old Burying Ground

  Colonial Park Cemetery, established by Christ Church in 1750, is Savannah’s oldest existing burial ground, but was not the first in the city. As detailed in the chapter ’12 West Oglethorpe’ in my book Haunted Savannah, the first cemetery was the area right off of Wright Square, bordered by York, Whitaker, Oglethorpe and Bull Streets, and was in use for the first seventeen years of the colony’s existence. The city, which was quickly expanding by the middle of the 18th century, saw a need for a larger funerary ground, so by 1750 they designated an area southeast of the existing city. At the time Colonial Park Cemetery was established, the area was a meadow-like field. No squares existed south of Oglethorpe Avenue during this early period, meaning that the townsfolk of Savannah literally paced out a rough area outside of town to bury their dead. As I describe in the Haunted Savannah chapter ‘432 Abercorn,’ there was also a space further south designated for African American burials, as well as a Potter’s Field for indigents and visitors to the city for whom no relatives could be reached to make funeral arrangements. I mention these facts because the surrounding landscape has changed so much over the years that it is difficult for the uninitiated to picture why Colonial Park has so many bodies buried outside of its confines. So the answer to the inevitable question: why Savannah would build on its dead? is that the parameters of the burial ground were poorly-defined in the early days, making it difficult for later urban planners to plot out streets and squares in the area without hitting pre-existing graves.

  There are about seven hundred burial markers in Colonial Park Cemetery, and roughly twelve thousand graves. When I quote these numbers while leading Savannah ghost tours, it always raises skeptical eyebrows, but the number is accurate. The dimensions of the cemetery used to be a good bit larger, but were pushed back in 1896 to accommodate the streets and sidewalks which border Colonial Park, even extending partway out into nearby Abercorn Street. In the 1960’s, workers doing some construction on that particular street began discovering human bodies. As a matter of fact, if you look down the brick sidewalk of the cemetery along Abercorn Street, you will notice a regular pattern of subtle depressions and humps within the walkway, reminiscent of gentle ocean swells. Many people (myself included) attribute this strange feature to the wooden coffins which are undoubtedly under the sidewalk, which have slowly collapsed under the weight of the bricks and earth over them. 

  There are other reasons for this huge disparity between tombstones and body count, however, namely the large brick burial vaults, which are a major feature of Colonial Park. Most of the brick tombs have peaked, house-like roofs, and bookended, squared-off fronts and backs. These family vaults are sometimes erroneously thought of as above-ground burial vaults, but actually when explaining their function to tourists, I often make comparisons to root-cellars. Down near the grass you can usually observe an arched opening, marking the top of the former door which has long-since been bricked in. When Colonial Park was an active cemetery, there would have been a series of steps leading down into the family vault, and if you were to gain access you would find a series of shelves inside which would be the perfect size and shape for a body. Many of the corpses placed in the vault would simply be shrouded instead of placed in coffins. Over time, a combination of heat and natural decomposition would reduce the remains considerably, and the bones would then be moved to a large burial urn in the center of the tomb, and the shelf was then reused, if need be. This process would be repeated over and over again, meaning that the remains of the family would be stacked together inside the urn. This reinforces the idea that even in death, Savannah families are very close.

  Lining the eastern brick wall are many tombstones, some of which are only fragments, which have been broken off or otherwise removed from their original location over the years. A lot of the grave markers within the cemetery have disappeared over the years, either through neglect or vandalism, and the custom of affixing them to the wall undoubtedly arose from the desire to preserve them. 

Button Gwinnett's grave.

Button Gwinnett’s grave.

Noteworthy Burials

  Button Gwinnett (1735-1777) signed the Declaration of Independence, but perhaps even more noteworthy was his ill-conceived duel with Lachlan McIntosh in 1777. His wounds sustained during the exchange of pistol fire did eventually kill Gwinnett, but today his rare autograph is highly prized by collectors. He has a temple-style burial marker for his valuable service in the early years of the American Revolution. Contrary to what some tour guides might claim, the duel with McIntosh did not take place inside the cemetery, instead occurring near the present day town of Thunderbolt, about 5 miles southeast of Savannah.

  Lachlan McIntosh (1725-1806) was a born military leader and strategist. His service in the American Revolution took him from Florida all the way to Michigan, and he was a trusted subordinate to George Washington. But he is unfortunately most known for shooting his rival, Button Gwinnett, in 1777.

  Susannah Gray’s (1791-1812) stone informs us that she “departed this life by the will of God, being killed by lightning on the 26th of July, 1812.” Her correct age is 21 years, not the 121 years and 1,124 days listed on her slab. This alteration is the handiwork of the Union troops in General William T. Sherman’s army, who camped in the Colonial Park Cemetery in 1864. Another changed stone is Josiah Muir, whose altered inscription reads that he died at the age of eleven, and was survived by his wife Mary, age seventeen, and his son Lewis, aged twelve. Among many others that the Union troops changed are Captain Jonathan Cooper, aged 1700 years, and Phillip D. Woolhopter, aged 1,491 years.

  Archibald Bulloch (1730-1777) would have been immortalized forever as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but he instead decided to focus his efforts on Georgia’s defense against Britain. He died somewhat mysteriously shortly before the conflict spread to the South, but his contributions to U.S. politics were far reaching, including his family line: Archibald’s great-great-grandson was President Theodore Roosevelt.

  The Habersham Family Vault is a prominent brick crypt on the northern edge of Colonial Park Cemetery. Please see the chapters titled ‘Little Gracie’ and ‘Old Pink House’ in my book, Haunted Savannah, for more details about this key Savannah family.

‘The Dreadful Pestilence’

  Observant visitors to Colonial Park Cemetery will notice a certain year recurring as the terminus date on many tombstones: 1820. Not only was Savannah struck with a Great Fire, burning much of downtown, but the city was then laid low by a yellow fever epidemic that particular year. Yellow fever was one of the most feared diseases in seaport cities. Symptoms of yellow fever included black, bloody vomit, a jaundiced color, hemorrhages from the nose, gums, and bowels, and a fever-induced descent into delirium and coma. Death usually followed. It killed a tenth of the population in 1820, totaling nearly seven hundred people.

  Savannah residents during that time period endured a nightmarish spectacle, with the wealthier citizens fleeing away from town in droves to escape the dreaded killer disease. The remaining citizens burned tar, paradoxically hoping to clear the air by generating billowing black smoke, and even fired cannons down city streets in an attempt to help combat the illness. Many people believed that poisonous vapors from the swamp or even the burial grounds were responsible for the affliction. Some doctors prescribed that sufferers of yellow fever should drink turpentine or even water laced with tar to ease symptoms of the disease, with disastrous results. It was not until the turn of the 20th century that physicians began to understand that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes, not communicable from person to person.

  Today there is a plaque located inside Colonial Park Cemetery which is dedicated to the 1820 yellow fever victims. 

A view from the fence along Abercorn Street, looking east into Colonial Park Cemetery.

A view from the fence along Abercorn Street, looking east into Colonial Park Cemetery.

Deriving Meaning From Bones

  A cemetery is ultimately more than a place to bury the dead. If you’re attuned, a burial ground often tells a story. How old is the place? How affluent were its citizens? How did the city grow? By that measure, Colonial Park Cemetery speaks volumes about the people and the relative wealth of the population. Began in 1750 when Savannah was a grubby, somewhat underfed seaport, the early simple headstones reflect that hardscrabble existence. As the city grew, though, it witnessed a renaissance of commerce and culture. In a century-plus worth of burials at Colonial Park Cemetery, the later tombstones are more elaborate. Ultimately what we have is a snapshot of a seaport, echoing both boom and bust.

  Colonial Park represents much more than a collection of random tombs and burial markers. Early Savannahians were confronted with the prospect of disease, imprecise medical care, a staggering infant mortality rate, and unsanitary conditions. They responded to that adversity by erecting a simple yet elegant burying ground. As their city grew they embraced Colonial Cemetery, literally wrapping their streets and homes around it, as a reminder of the razor-thin and all-too-familiar line between vitality and decay.

  I often point out the powerful acquaintance that those early residents must have had with death. Sometimes it makes my crowd just a trifle uncomfortable as I talk about it, but I illustrate this deep familiarity with the concept of afterlife by pointing out that on the southern edge of Colonial Park Cemetery, there is a children’s playground. The plot of ground on which it is located was within the original confines of the cemetery. So welcome to Savannah, I’ll say on our Haunted History Ghost Tour, where children literally play on the dead.   

For more writings by James Caskey, please check out his book all about the ghosts and legends of New Orleans, Louisiana. For more history about this fascinating spot, please check out Elizabeth Piechocinski’s masterful book on the subject, The Old Burying Ground. I hope you enjoyed this small sample of our devotion to historical accuracy. Thanks for reading.

All materials © 2017 Cobblestone Tours. Web site by Websy Daisy.