At the Yellow Fever Cemetery, occupants are getting new attention

What’s believed to be the original Yellow Fever Cemetery gate stands alone like the tombstones that surround it in Palmetto’s original cemetery named for those victims lost to the 1888 Yellow Fever epidemic.
What’s believed to be the original Yellow Fever Cemetery gate stands alone like the tombstones that surround it in Palmetto’s original cemetery named for those victims lost to the 1888 Yellow Fever epidemic. myoung@bradenton.com

On a quiet acre of old Florida land in the heart of west Palmetto lies a sporadic array of tombstones, many reaching to the sky at awkward angles and barely legible from more than a century of exposure to the elements.

There lay descendants of familiar family names who originally settled on the Manatee River and poured blood, sweat and tears into founding Palmetto and Manatee County. While other local cemeteries bear some of these names, the Yellow Fever Cemetery on the corner of Fifth Street West and 14th Avenue West holds within its hallowed grounds both history and mystery.

Palmetto officials are taking steps to enhance its historical value.

“So many people are touched by the history of this 1-acre site, including me,” Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said. “In the latter years of its use and long before my time, my father had a relative that lost a 2-year-old daughter who is buried in there. Economics of the time did not allow them to put a marker on her grave, but my mother had always wanted to locate her grave and put a marker on it. I often think of that as I drive down 14th Avenue.”

The cemetery bears the name “Yellow Fever Cemetery” because victims of the 1888 outbreak rest within the ground. There are 44 known markers within the cemetery, but assistant city clerk Amber Foley said, “There are likely a lot more people buried there.”

Of the 44 known graves, about eight have been tied to the yellow fever epidemic, but it is unclear just how many of the unmarked graves are the result of the outbreak. The epidemic led to hasty burials, and hard financial times led to many of the early graves having wooden markers that are long lost to time.

Foley led the effort to shed more historical light on the cemetery, successfully garnering a $37,100 matching grant from the Florida Department of State Division of Historical Resources. The funds will pay for a new historical marker featuring Palmetto founder Samuel Sparks Lamb, who donated the land to the city to use as a cemetery.

Historical grants often don’t cover new materials, but Foley was able to get funding for new fencing and LED lighting. Foley, like many, has a love of old cemeteries and the historical value they hold to a community’s past.

A lifelong and generational resident of Manatee County, Foley said, “We went after the grant because we wanted to make this historical place stand out more, and raise community awareness about those who are here. The cemetery is very old and we don’t have a lot of records.”

The cemetery was opened prior to the epidemic and continued to be used until 1910, the year of Lamb’s death. He is buried in Palmetto’s main cemetery at 900 14th Ave. W.

Foley said some efforts have been made in the past to solve the mystery of how many people may rest in the cemetery, but they were inconclusive.

“We would love to hear from the community who believe they may have a relative in the cemetery,” Foley said. “It would be wonderful to be able to recognize who and where some of our original settlers are resting.”

Yellow fever epidemics broke out in the coastal regions of the Americas for centuries. America was only 17 years old when an epidemic hit the first nation’s capital in Philadelphia in 1793. The population was about 45,000 when the fever hit, killing 5,000 people and driving another 17,000 from the city in panic.

The mass exodus of Philadelphia included George Washington and many members of Congress.

Yellow fever returned with a vengeance in 1888, first breaking out in Jacksonville, which boasted 130,000 people. While an estimated 400 died, panic from the epidemic reduced the population to 14,000 despite a military quarantine being placed on the city. Those escaping had to bypass armed guards at every crossroad in and out of the city.

On Sept. 4, 1888, The Florida Weekly Times wrote about life in Jacksonville during the epidemic: “One road leads to Hell and the other to damnation. And whichever one you take, you’ll wish you’d (taken) the other.”

Many did escape, and fear that the epidemic would spread was real. The mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, even offered a $100 reward to anyone capturing an escapee from Jacksonville. How the fever spread remained a mystery at the time. Many believed it was from consuming rotting vegetation, but it wasn’t until much later that the disease was tied to infected mosquitoes.

In some historical documents, Mary Howze was the first known victim of yellow fever in Palmetto and is buried at the cemetery. Many believed that yellow fever was contagious, but evidence points to the contrary. Often coming in two stages, yellow fever caused typical flu-like symptoms in the first stage. The victim would often briefly recover before the second, and more deadly stage began.

The fever would cause a yellow tinge to the eyes and skin, leading to the “black vomit,” caused by bleeding into the stomach. For those where the second stage set in, survival rates were low.

It is reported in some genealogical websites that Howze was taken care of by Mrs. Peter Harllee who was pregnant with Peter Stuart Harllee. It was believed that the young Harllee was born with yellow fever. While both now rest at Yellow Fever Cemetery, it is believed they did not die from the fever.

Stories, rumors and family legacies are what make Yellow Fever Cemetery a Palmetto historical treasure. But so much more history spills out beyond the yellow fever graves when it comes to Palmetto’s legacy and important role in the creation of Manatee County.

“One of the best things about Palmetto is that it is so rich with history,” Bryant said.