In a surprising ‘not your everyday’ discovery, Dry Tortugas National Park has found the 19th-century equivalent of a lockdown retreat – a yellow fever quarantine hospital and cemetery, submerged and out of sight near Garden Key. Apparently, this was the chilling vacation spot for U.S. soldiers from Fort Jefferson who contracted the lively little virus between 1890 and 1900.
Only one grave has been found so far, but historical records indicate there could be dozens more. So, it’s safe to say it wasn’t the most popular place to be stationed. The cemetery, now dubbed the Fort Jefferson Post Cemetery, is probably not going to make the top of anyone’s travel bucket list anytime soon, unless you’re into that sort of thing.
According to the National Park Service:
Dozens of people were interred in the Fort Jefferson Post Cemetery, and while most of them were military members serving or imprisoned at the Fort, several were civilians. One of those civilians, John Greer, was employed as a laborer at the fort and died there on Nov. 5, 1861. While the details surrounding his death are unclear, his grave, located during the survey, was prominently marked with a large slab of greywacke, the same material used to construct the first floor of Fort Jefferson. The slab was carved into the shape of a headstone and inscribed with his name and date of death.
“This intriguing find highlights the potential for untold stories in Dry Tortugas National Park, both above and below the water,” said Josh Marano, maritime archeologist for the south Florida national parks 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.”
While mostly known for its use as a military prison during the American Civil War, the islands and waters surrounding Fort Jefferson were also used for a naval coaling outpost, lighthouse station, naval hospital, quarantine facility, and more generally for safe harbor and military training. As the population of Fort Jefferson swelled with military personnel, prisoners, enslaved people, engineers, support staff, laborers, and their families, the risk of deadly communicable diseases, particularly the mosquito-borne yellow fever, drastically increased. Major outbreaks of disease on the island exacted a heavy toll on those staying there, killing dozens throughout the 1860s and 1870s.
Given the increasing population and lack of space on Garden Key, several of the nearby islands were equipped with small structures for use as quarantine hospitals in the 1860s. While the plainly built facilities on the islands were considered minimal at the time, the transfer of sick and dying patients to these small islands, isolated from the congested Fort Jefferson, likely saved hundreds from a similar fate. Although the use of many of the quarantine hospitals on the surrounding islands ceased after Fort Jefferson.
The uncovering of this underwater blast from the past came courtesy of the park’s cultural resources staff, members of the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center, the Southeast Archeological Center, and a University of Miami grad student. Who knew archaeology could be such a splash? Since the discovery, they’ve been up to their goggles in historical records, working to learn more about this hidden chapter of history and the unlucky individuals who were part of it.