1850 Burying Grounds
BY LIZ REED
CO-FOUNDER OF PSOBFL
AUTHOR OF HAUNTED MANATEE COUNTY
OWNER OF DOWNTOWN BRADENTON GHOST WALK
Manatee Historical Village is located at 1404 Manatee Avenue, just about one mile east of downtown Bradenton. The village is an open-air
museum and includes the 1903 Wiggins store, boat works building, vintage pioneer farmhouse, smokehouse, sugarcane mill, replica barn, church,
schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, steam locomotive and our first courthouse. Each historic structure has been painstakingly restored to its original appearance and function.
The locomotive, Old Cabbage Head, got its name from the shape of its stack and has been a landmark in Bradenton for almost 70 years. It was built for the rough and dangerous logging industry in the Big Bend region of Florida in 1913. In 1948 it came to Manatee County to haul lumber for the local fruit crate industry. The locomotive was retired in 1953 and purchased by the Manatee Historical Society.
The Bunker Hill schoolhouse served the area from 1908 to 1929. It was then purchased by Benjamin D. Gullett, who converted it into a home for his family, a role that it filled for 60 years until the family donated it. In 1989, it was moved to the historical village and restored to a one-room school. There are two doors on the old schoolhouse because boys and girls were segregated at the time and sat on different sides of the room.
Built in 1859, Manatee County’s first courthouse is the oldest surviving one-room courthouse in the state. After its function as a courthouse came to an end, it was used as a parsonage for the Manatee United Methodist Church and then as rental housing. It was moved to the historic village in 1975.
The Stephens House, a cracker-style home elevated on short stilts, was built in 1912 and was originally to be found on a farm near Ona, in what is now Hardee County. Staff and visitors alike have reported seeing disturbing apparitions in the old house. In the gift shop area, a clock has repeatedly flown off the wall. Upstairs, the heavy footsteps of a man have often been heard. Maybe it’s Will Stephens himself, checking on the house he built. Once the footsteps start, they tend to continue for a long time.
Construction of the church started in 1887 but stalled due to a major yellow fever outbreak that killed the pastor, many in the congregation and many others in Bradenton and surrounding areas. The church was completed in 1889. Around the altar, shadowy movements have been reported. Above the altar, the cross has frequently been found turned askew. Visitors have reported the uneasy feeling of being watched all the time while inside the church when there is no one else around.
Visitors to the Historical Village come and go. Meanwhile, the spirits continue
with their daily routines, often letting guests know that they are still around.
Just across 15th Street East from the historical village lies the old Manatee Burying Grounds.
Established in 1850, less than 30 years after Florida was purchased from Spain,
it is the oldest cemetery in Manatee County and one of the oldest on the Gulf Coast. The land was deeded by Josiah Gates and his wife, Mary. It was closed in 1892 to all but the immediate family. The last to be laid to rest there was Eva May Gates, in 1963, the granddaughter of Josiah and Mary.
There are 15 Civil War veterans known to be buried on the site. Eleven were Confederate soldiers, and four were from the Union. The highest ranking is Union officer Brigadier General John Riggin. Riggin served as a colonel and aide-de-camp to Union General Ulysses S Grant during the war. Riggin was responsible for communicating vital information to highranking officers, such as General Sherman and President Lincoln’s Secretary of War. He was given the promotion to brevet brigadier general in 1865.
After the war, Riggin settled in New Orleans where he met his wife, Fannie. They moved to Florida in 1874, as it was believed the environment would be beneficial to Riggin who suffered breathing problems because of a war injury. In 1886, at the age of 51, Riggin succumbed and was laid to rest in the old Manatee Burying Grounds. Fannie is believed to have been buried next to him when she died in 1930, but the grave is unmarked, and she has not been identified positively. Ironically, they are buried by the graves of Confederate soldiers. One hopes the former enemies are resting in peace together now.
There are 94 graves that can be distinguished. Although time and weather have rendered the markers and inscriptions unreadable, their memory lives on.
Surveys conducted using ground-penetrating radar indicate there are up to 135 additional graves within the burying grounds. Some were never marked. Others likely had crude wood markers that rotted away long ago. There are no records to indicate who these individuals are or how they came to be buried here. They have been lost to history.
Those in the Manatee Burying Ground suffered through wars, hurricanes, Native American attacks and yellow fever to secure a life for their families and future generations to come.
Mysterious white streaks have shown up in pictures taken inside the Manatee Burying Ground, both during the day and at night. Visitors have reported feeling a cold breeze or the touch of an invisible hand when walking around this quiet resting place. Should you visit, you may get the feeling you’re not quite alone. It may feel as if someone is walking along with you. You may hear the crunching of leaves under an invisible foot. Sometimes you will hear voices but will not be able to make out what they are saying. Perhaps some of those who lie forgotten in unmarked graves are trying to reach out, trying to communicate and tell their stories.
To tour the burying ground yourself, you may visit the Wiggins Store in the village and request the key. Once inside, remember to treat the site with the respect it deserves. Act as if you’re being observed during the entirety of your visit because you are.