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Submerged Island Off Florida Reveals Secret: Civil War-Era Cemetery

Livia Albeck-Ripka 6-8 minutes 5/5/2023

The site, discovered by marine archaeologists about 70 miles from Key West, Fla., once held a quarantine hospital and cemetery for those stationed at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas National Park.

Devon Fogarty, wearing diving equipment, examines a gray slab grave marker.
Devon Fogarty, a University of Miami graduate student, examining the headstone of John Greer, which was found underwater during a survey at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida in August 2022.Credit...C. Sproul/National Park Service, via Associated Press

Joshua Marano was flying over the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2016 when he noticed a strange pattern in the water. Mr. Marano, a maritime archaeologist with the National Park Service, consulted some old nautical charts, expecting he might find the ruins of a lighthouse or beacon.

Instead, he found a whole island.

The island, about 70 miles west of Key West, Fla., had long since been submerged and eroded by rising tides and storms. But Mr. Marano’s research revealed that it had once held a quarantine hospital and cemetery for those stationed at Fort Jefferson, a Civil War-era military fortress in the Dry Tortugas National Park.

“There was dry land here at one point. There was a structure on that island at one point,” Mr. Marano said in an interview. “When did it disappear?”

About 200 years ago, 11 islands made up the Dry Tortugas National Park. Today, there are just six. The changes are a combination of natural processes, as well as the effects of climate change.

It was not until August, six years after his initial discovery, that Mr. Marano and some of his students at the University of Miami, where he is an adjunct lecturer, as well as other colleagues, were finally able to survey the site. Wearing snorkels and fins, they swam in straight lines, he said, searching for remnants of life.

“The very first thing we came across was a single post,” Mr. Marano said. “Basically like a pipe sticking out of the sand. Nothing around it. Nothing else nearby.” But then, he said, “we find another, and then we find another one, and then we find another.” The spacing of the posts matched measurements of the hospital in public records he researched after seeing the strange pattern in the Gulf of Mexico. “This is a pretty good bet,” he said, “that this is that building.”

Nearby, one of Mr. Marano’s students, Devon Fogarty, swam up to a slab of sandstone that was covered in algae and sand. But there was one clean spot where there appeared to be an inscription. Then they realized: It was a gravestone.

“I didn’t believe it,” Ms. Fogarty said in an interview, noting that records showed people had been buried at the Dry Tortugas, but that she had never expected to find a gravesite so well preserved. “It felt like it shouldn’t be happening.”

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Credit...C. Sproul/National Park Service, via Associated Press

The next day, the archaeologists returned with their brushes, clipboards and Mylar (polyester film you can write on underwater), determined to decipher the inscription of the watery grave. They made a rubbing. It was illegible. Then, they dribbled sand over the lettering. As if by magic, the sand settled into the carving. It read: “JOHN GREER. Nov. 5. 1861.”

Despite its representation in popular culture, marine archaeology is rarely as exciting as Scooby Doo plucking a zombie in a deep-sea diving suit from the ocean, or the plot of the 1985 film “The Goonies,” in which a group of young misfits find treasure in a ship after discovering an ancient pirate map. But an intact grave marker? It comes close, Mr. Marano said. “To have a smoking gun like that, it’s just it’s a once in a million chance.”

Hans Van Tilburg, a maritime archaeologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was not involved in the survey, described the finding as “fantastically interesting.”

Shipwrecks, Dr. Van Tilburg added, tend to get all the attention, but there are all kinds of underwater sites, he said, that “have great information about the past.”

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Credit...National Park Service, via Associated Press

During the American Civil War, Fort Jefferson was used as a military prison. The islands surrounding it housed not only prisoners and military personnel but also enslaved people, laborers and their families. Outbreaks of mosquito-borne yellow fever killed dozens of people during the 1860s and 1870s on the island, according to the National Park Service.

Further research revealed that Mr. Greer had worked as a laborer at the fort, and that the slab on his grave was made from greywacke, the same material used in its construction. He never picked up his final paycheck, nor is there any record of him having been in the hospital, suggesting he may have died a somewhat sudden, violent, death. Dozens of other people were interred at the cemetery, according to historical documents, which also showed that the quarantine hospital had been used to treat yellow fever patients between 1890 and 1900.

For now, the archaeologists plan to leave Mr. Greer’s grave undisturbed. Nor will they reveal the exact location of the site, as is common practice.

“In the Florida Keys, we’re in the birthplace of modern treasure hunting,” Mr. Marano said, adding that there was a common misconception that things found in the water fell under the rule of “finders keepers,” but that in fact, such artifacts belong to the public and are well protected by federal law. “A lot of times we want to leave it in place,” he added, “because it’s going to be better protected.”

Kirstin Meyer-Kaiser, a marine biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who was not involved in the survey but has studied the connection between underwater sites and marine biodiversity, said that leaving human artifacts in place was also likely better for any marine wildlife. “It was not supposed to be there in the first place,” she said of the relics. “But after a certain amount of time, any man-made object turns into a habitat.”

Dr. Van Tilburg, the NOAA archaeologist, said that his field was just beginning to comprehend the impacts of climate change on the cultural heritage of the marine environment, but that those in shallow environments, like the Dry Tortugas site, were likely to be the most at risk from storms and other ocean changes. Still, he said, where possible, the gold standard was to leave things where they are.

“Things that are submerged,” he said, “have a story to tell.”