Underwater in National Park, an 'Intriguing Find'

1861 grave of Fort Jefferson laborer is discovered submerged within Dry Tortugas National Park
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 3, 2023 1:46 PM CDT
150-Year-Old Cemetery for Soldiers Found Underwater
This image shows an unsigned watercolor painting depicting a hospital and cemetery on an island in the Dry Tortugas.   (Image courtesy of National Park Service via AP)

The graves of dozens of people—including US soldiers—who died at Florida's Fort Jefferson in the late 19th century are now believed to be underwater. In August 2022, divers identified a grave carrying the name John Greer and the year 1861 on a submerged island near Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park, according to the National Park Service. It's believed to be one of dozens that made up Fort Jefferson Post Cemetery before it was lost to rising sea levels. Fort Jefferson was used as a prison during the Civil War, and as the number of military personnel, prisoners, enslaved people, laborers, support staff, and their families grew in the 1860s and '70s, major outbreaks of disease resulted, prompting the erection of quarantine hospitals on nearby islands, per CBS News.

Many of the hospitals were abandoned along with Fort Jefferson in 1873. However, "the fort's future use by the US Marine Hospital Service between 1890 and 1900 again required the development of an isolation hospital on one of the keys," according to the NPS. Patients with yellow fever were known to be treated at the site, and "historical records indicate that dozens of people, mostly US soldiers stationed at Fort Jefferson, may have been buried there." Only Greer's grave has been found so far. He wasn't a soldier, but was employed as a laborer at the fort, where he died on Nov. 5, 1861. His grave is marked by a large slab of greywacke, which was also used to construct the fort's first floor.

"This intriguing find highlights the potential for untold stories in Dry Tortugas National Park, both above and below the water," says Josh Marano, a maritime archaeologist and project director for the survey. "Although much of the history of Fort Jefferson focuses on the fortification itself and some of its infamous prisoners, we are actively working to tell the stories of the enslaved people, women, children, and civilian laborers," including Greer. According to the NPS, "the remains of the hospital, as well as the surrounding cemetery, have been documented as an archeological resource and will be routinely monitored by members of the South Florida National Parks Cultural Resources Program." (More Florida stories.)

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