I got there early Wednesday morning before the August heat and humidity of the Sunshine State took full effect.
My goal was to explore Palatka’s West View Cemetery, just off Crill Avenue near the railroad overpass. I’ve passed the tranquil site hundreds of times since coming to Putnam County, and wanted to see more of it.
I knew Florida’s first elected governor – William Moseley – was buried there. I discovered much of Palatka’s history was buried there as well.
“It’s a Who’s Who in the history of Palatka,” said Larry Beaton, historian for the Putnam County Historical Society. “When I was a little boy, I would walk the cemetery with my grandmother. She would point out the people who were important in Palatka who were buried there.
“You think about the significance some of those people had …”
My interest in the cemetery was piqued as the city prepares for Saturday protests regarding the Confederate monument. There are planned protests on either side of the hot-button issue – one calling for it to be relocated from the grounds of the Putnam County Courthouse and another opposed to that idea.
One of the options proposed by some as a site for relocation is West View Cemetery. Surrounded by oak trees and other Florida flora that offers a buffer from the heat, the cemetery is the final resting place for several Civil War soldiers from the North and South, Black and White.
The Putnam County Board of Commissioners plan to decide what’s next on the statue issue later this month. West View – which is owned by the city of Palatka – could be an option but the board wants to look at others. Maybe a better idea will be presented.
Regardless, there is no denying the historical significance resting within West View.
I talked with Beaton – a historical encyclopedia for Putnam County – this week to get some insight on the cemetery. He sent me a PowerPoint presentation put together by Mary E. Murphy for a historic tour of the site in 2003.
Murphy and her husband, Lynn Hoffmann, have devoted countless hours to photographing and documenting the known cemeteries in the county.
“A cemetery is a place where you go and meet your ancestors,” Murphy told me Thursday afternoon. “You learn about them from the engravings on their monuments. It’s a way to connect with your history and your past. If you want a peaceful place to go visit, West View is such a beautiful place.”
Murphy said the first known graves in the cemetery are from 1841 – two soldiers from Fort Shannon who died of yellow fever.
“You walk around some of those monuments, particularly in the older section, and you will find names of people who have had Palatka city streets named for them,” Murphy said.
She said many graves in West View – up to 1,000 – are unmarked.
Scrolling through the PowerPoint, I knew I needed to visit the cemetery myself. I was there for just an hour, only scratching the surface of the history the cemetery encompasses.
One of the first markers I found was for Capt. Richard Adams. According to Murphy’s information, Adams was a Vermont native who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. One of his tasks was helping care for the wounded.
Following the war, Adams returned to Palatka and assumed command of the Hart Line Steamer, the only boat on the river as all others had been captured. Adams was one of Palatka’s best-known residents, serving as city treasurer and on the city council.
A headstone marks his grave and that of his wife, Emily Holland. There is also a marker at ground level. Brushing off some leaves, I saw it read, Richard J. Adams, 1833 – 1912, C.S.A.
I thought about the dash in between the date of his birth and death. Those are the details we don’t truly know about any person’s life – North or South, Black or White, rich or poor, good or bad.
As I walked through the cemetery, I came across other monuments for those who have died. The markers include those for World War I, World War II and Vietnam veterans. Beaton said there are veterans of the Spanish-American War buried there, too.
There is a marker for Mary Emily Boyd. In October 1862, Boyd went to the Palatka riverfront and pleaded with Union troops for them not to burn the city down. According to Murphy’s PowerPoint, Boyd went as shells were falling, telling the Northern gunboat commander there were mainly women in town who were powerless to prevent the violence of men. Boyd said the men who were left were elderly or disabled and the majority of residents were women and children. The gunboats later left without further incident.
There are markers there for Judge James Burt and his wife, Fannie Russell Burt. James Burt was a leading Palatka resident who helped spur the area’s growth in the late 1800s, serving as commissioner, postmaster, surveyor and judge. Beaton said Judge Burt also established the Palatka suburb of Newtown, where newly-emancipated African-Americans bought land to build homes, stores, schools and churches.
Fannie Burt, the daughter of an Army surgeon, was from New York. She was taken as a prisoner in St. Augustine during the Civil War. One of the founders of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, she came to Palatka originally with her uncle, Benjamin Alexander Putnam – for whom Putnam County is named.
I also found the striking monument for Moseley, elected as the state’s first governor in 1845.
There is so much more history there, so I’ll go back soon to explore again. Many of the markers contain Bible scriptures; some have words that have faded with time, making them illegible.
Most of the markers, of course, contain dates of the person’s birth and death.
That we know about them – and then there’s the dash.
Wayne Smith is the editor of the Palatka Daily News. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.