By Colt Dodd
Nestled behind the Publix next to Pioneer Park, located only a few steps from U.S. 41 lies the Pioneer Whitaker Cemetery, credited as the oldest cemetery in Sarasota. The cemetery is a private graveyard of William and Mary Jane Whitaker, who are the founding couple of Sarasota after they colonized 160 acres of land in the wake of the Second Seminole War. What is perhaps the most striking about this cemetery, right next to the nine by nine foot vault that houses the remains of the Whitakers is a sign erected in 2004 that reads: “Mother of the first white child born in what is Sarasota county April 19, 1852. Three hundred miles west of this highway stood from her home which was burned in 1856 by Indians from whom she fled for safety with the child to a Palmetto log fort on Manatee River.”
Uzi Baram, professor of Anthropology and director of the Anthropology Lab, sat down with the Catalyst to explain the historical significance of the cemetery. In 1939, due to multiple incidents of vandalism, Dr. William R. Whitaker gifted the graveyard to the Sara DeSoto chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who have since been responsible for its upkeep and preservation.
“The DAR has done a very nice job with it, volunteers and leaders of the DAR make sure that the upkeep is there,” Baram said. “Anyone today can go and read the green historical marker, which is to be tremendously outdated and in fact a bit racist.”
Clarissa Thomasson, the first Vice Regent of the DAR Sara DeSoto chapter and author of the book “Surviving Sarasota” commented on the wording of the sign in that it was merely indicates race to set Mary Jane Whitaker apart of the Seminoles living in the area.
“Just because the others were Seminole,” Thomasson said. “She was the first American, basically.”
When the Whitakers arrived in Sarasota after living on the land for five years before they could claim it, they built their house in what is now called Yellow Bluffs. Baram recalls that when the house was bulldozed to build the Sarasota Bay Club, it became of interest to anthropologists.
“That house was on a mound in 1969 and then they built the Sarasota Bay Club… everything was destroyed, including hundreds of burials of Native Americans,” Baram said. “And so, when you think about telling the stories, the Whitakers built their house on high ground, because people always built houses on high ground especially because of these flat lands. It was high ground because it was a burial ground.”
The Whitaker Cemetery, which contains 48 graves of Whitaker descendants has 41 plots available to those that can prove relation to the Whitakers either by birth or marriage. With plots that date back to the 1800s, the cemetery was deemed a historical site in 2004 with a unanimous vote from Sarasota commissioners that also approved of the plaque. The Whitaker Cemetery is not under the power of the Sarasota Historical Society. When the Catalyst asked a representative of the Sarasota Historical Society whether the Whitaker Cemetery was under their jurisdiction, they remarked that the society had “absolutely nothing” to do with it.
“The sign reflects the colonial view,” Baram said. “Whites came and they had white kids and then they had more white kids, and then they took over.”
Baram attributed the Sarasota Historical Society’s dismissal to the emerging issue that organizations may not want to claim responsibility for graveyards because of the cost of upkeep.
“Cemeteries take a lot of effort to maintain. There are lots of people, sadly, that desecrate cemeteries and vandalism is just a constant problem,” Baram said. “[Cemeteries] take a lot of maintenance, keeping the grass mowed, keeping out the weeds, and so who actually owns a cemetery is really important. I’ve worked on two cemetery projects in Sarasota and those have been the issues. I worked at the Rosemary Cemetery, which is where all the other founding parents of Sarasota are buried. I was out there with members of the Rosemary committee – and when I started doing that work, a typical question that any sort of anthropologist would ask, ‘So who is owns it?’ I was told that the city did own it and I did a bit of research and I saw the deed that when I was plotted by the Florida Mortgage company which is a Scottish company that wanted to build Sarasota, it was given to the city. I went to the city and I said, ‘Hey, you own it,’ and I got this look of not being very happy with me.”
The Whitaker Cemetery currently has $60,000 in a trust that is put aside for landscaping upkeep which includes mowing the grass and cutting down trees if necessary. However, when it comes to the deterioration of the stone wall that surrounds the perimeter of the cemetery, which is made of mixture of sand, cement and water, funds must be drawn from elsewhere.
Thomasson remarked that the cemetery has been fortunate in that it has not been subject to a lot of vandalism.
“We haven’t had a whole lot of vandalism, there are a lot of homeless who sleep around the building,” Thomasson said. “They’ve broken the floodlights several times because they don’t want the light shining on them and we did a clean-up about two weeks ago and found a lot of beer cans and bottles and stuff out there…Since none of [the DAR members] live here, when we go [home], we kind of leave it at its mercy…You have to have a sign up here that says ‘no trespassing’ in order for the police to come onto private property. So the homeless have been breaking the sign down and then the police can’t come in. We’re trying to take care of the problem with the trespassing but there’s not much we can do when we’re not here.”
Thomasson said that while it is the DAR’s wish that the cemetery be honored by the community, they do not want to draw too much attention to it. She recalled that recently the DAR was approached by two separate organizations that wish to use the space to film a horror movie.
The DAR prizes educating the public as a means of preserving the local history of Sarasota, which has included programming to teach children on the Whitaker family chronicles. The DAR is dedicated to education, preservation, and patriotic volunteer service projects to better their local communities – which the DeSoto chapter is determined to do with the Whitaker Cemetery.
“I’ve done talks with the Children of the American Revolution and I bring people over from the church and give them a talk and then I’ll say, ‘Some people think the cemetery is haunted, but you don’t believe that, do you?’ and then the kids are all dressed in costume and then they pop up from behind the crypt and talk,” Thomasson said. “It’s just been wonderful. One girl does Billy Bowlegs, the Indian chief and it’s just fantastic.”