The eastern wall of Colonial Park Cemetery features many broken or damaged tombstones
Colonial Park Cemetery is home to hundreds of weathered tombstones which provide a tangible connection to colonial times. Located on Oglethorpe Avenue, burials began here in the 1700s -- making it Savannah’s oldest remaining cemetery.
The site was not the original place for burials, though. Land in part of Savannah known as Percival Ward was used during the first generation of the settlement for placing the deceased in their final resting place. However, by the mid-1700s, there was a need for a new burial place.
In 1753, Colonial Park Cemetery was laid out. At the time, the location was outside the city limits although today it is more or less in the center of the Savannah Historic District. For the next 100 years, burials would take place here, mostly under the supervision of Christ Church Episcopal. By the early 1760s, the cemetery reached capacity and had to be expanded. Three expansions southward and eastward were made in 1762, 1768 and finally in 1789. The cemetery then was nearly 6 acres shaped in a square with 500 feet on each side.
Unfortunately for history, the church did not keep a record of who was buried during the first fifty years. It did begin keeping a burial record in the early 1800s but its estimated as many as 5,000 individuals may have been buried here before any records were kept. By 1853, as many as 10,000 people had been interred at Colonial Park Cemetery. At capacity and with no room to expand, burials were halted here and Laurel Grove Cemetery opened as a successor.
Although there are thousands of graves in Colonial Park Cemetery, less than 600 tombstones remain. Many of the marble gravestones have been effected by weathering through the centuries. The chiseled names, birth & death dates and other information has become harder to read. Many gravestones were also damaged by vandals and possibly even during the Civil War.
Legend holds Union soldier used the cemetery grounds during their occupation of Savannah. Local families have told stories for generations that these troops damaged many tombstones, although there are no newspaper accounts to verify these stories.
A substantial number of the souls buried at Colonial Park Cemetery fell victim to one of the fifteen different recorded outbreaks of yellow fever during the 19th century.
Perhaps Colonial Park Cemetery’s most famous tie to American history is that one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence is buried here. Button Gwinnett was born two years after Savannah was founded by James Oglethorpe. Originally he made his living as a merchant, and that brought him to the colony of South Carolina. Later, he became a plantation owner and was elected to the Continental Congress. He was the second of fifty six signers of the United States Declaration of Independence. He would be killed in a duel with a political rival outside Savannah less than a year later — not living long enough to see America win its independence from Great Britiain.
Another famed man from the Revolutionary era was once buried here -- General Nathanael Green. He was General George Washington’s second in command during the Revolutionary War and the two men were great friends — Greene even named his first son George Washington Green. Upon his death in 1786 from a sunstroke, he was laid to rest in the old cemetery. However, his remains were later removed and placed in nearby Johnson Square.
History will never reveal the names of most of those people buried in Colonial Park Cemetery but along with the famous and the unknown are some of the original setters of Savannah -- Eight Moravians who died within the first six years of Savannah's founding are remembered with a commemorative marble marker.
In the years after burials ceased, a dispute arose between Christ Church Episcopal and the local government. Back in 1756, the city had granted the church authority to oversee the cemetery and it became the defacto burial place for members of the parish -- although local Catholics and members of other congregations were occasionally buried here. Towards the latter part of the 19th century, church leaders worried the city might one day sell of parts of the cemetery to private individuals or even construct a roadway over part of the land. Seeking to prevent that occurrence, they unsuccessfully sued the city for title of the land. However an agreement resulted in The City of Savannah paying the church $7,500 and agreeing to preserve the cemetery for all time. It was after this, when the city officially had rights to the title of the land, that the formation of “Colonial Park” occurred.
Today large oak trees tower over the weathered tombstones and above-ground brick tombs. Whether it was yellow fever, a duel or natural causes, those at rest in Colonial Park Cemetery are now in one of the most peaceful spots in Savannah. The park lures tourists of all ages who are interested in the stories this land holds. Downtown professionals sometimes sit on a park bench and have a quiet lunch here and neighbors sometimes walk their dogs through the park. If you wish to visit Colonial Park Cemetery, it is located on the corner of Oglethorpe Avenue and Abercorn Street.
Pathways through Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah. Photo courtesy of Redden-McAllister