Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Possible Location of the "Lost" Cemetery, Bayou St. John

These photographs were taken by the WPA around 1938 when they were constructing a bridge at the intersection of Moss St. and Jefferson Davis Pkwy. Moss St. and Jefferson Davis Parkway converge in the area where Bayou St. John intersects with the Carondelet Canal...So, I'm thinking the cemetery was somewhere very near here, if not on this very spot. This area today is completely developed by businesses and homes.
Note: these photographs can be found at NOPL or at nutrias.org

The Cemetery that Vanished: Bayou St. John

Recently I realized that an oft mentioned cemetery of New Orleans was no where to be found. New Orleans is sprinkled with cemeteries and quite often as one drives around a residential area they will come upon a city block or two of cemetery. This attests to the growth of the city and the changes that it has undergone in providing its residents with proper burials. Originally predominately Catholic, New Orleans began to incorporate other faiths who called for their own sacred grounds. Therefore we have the Catholic, Jewish, Society and Protestant cemeteries as well as those cemeteries that are available to all faiths. ( To be sure, most of the cemeteries have allowed burials of those not belonging to the "designated" faith of the cemetery.)

So what of this "missing" cemetery? In my lifetime, it has been commonly referred to as the "Bayou St. John Cemetery" and quite frankly, I took it for granted that it was among the many small cemeteries in New Orleans that I had not had the chance to visit, but would someday make my way around to finding it. Imagine my surprise, when I began researching the city's early establishment of cemeteries, at finding that this cemetery is somewhat of a "ghost" in it's own right.

In the years between the establishment of St. Louis II and St. Louis III cemeteries there became a need for a cemetery considerably farther from the city. This is most likely due to the plagues of 1832 and 1833 when the city realized that after almost 1,000 people died in September 1833 that St. Louis II could not accomadate conditions such as those that followed the very oft occurring epidemics in the city. In a sense, there was somewhat of a rush to find a suitable burial area significantly far enough from the city so as not to endanger the public health.

Not to be confused with St. Louis III, which is very near the bayou, the land for Bayou St. John cemetery was acquired from the prominent Evariste Blanc (in 1834)and the city required any new burials to take place in this cemetery, unless a family already owned an above ground vault in one of the city's other two cemeteries. The first recorded burial was in 1835.

The cemetery was also known as "The City Cemetery", the "First Municipality Cemetery", the "New Cemetery" and "Potter's Field" and it is speculated that it was located somewhere near the intersection of the Bayou and the Carondelet Canal (taken from NOPL records and comments). See Photographs above of where I suspect it was located

It allowed for Catholic, Protestant, and other burials and records indicate that it was being used for burial until 1844 and in 1846 the city asked that burials be discontinued. According to NOPL's take on the matter, after the burials were discontinued the land was divided into lots to be developed and "sufficiently filled in, as to cover the old burial ground thoroughly."

I found one interesting anecdote about this cemetery. According to New Orleans Architecture Vol III The Cemeteries*, a contract was entered into between the city and a Mr. John Arrowsmith to transport the bodies by railroad (built by Arrowsmith) from the Mortuary Chapel in the city to the cemetery. What a ghastly train ride that must have been!

By the 1880's, no evidence of the cemetery or the railroad could be found. They had literally vanished within about 40 years. There is no record that we know of as to bodies being removed or the ground being deconsecrated. We know that the cemetery existed based on records of the city (copies of which can be found at NOPL) and that is all that is left.

This leads me to believe, and this is purely specualtion, well, speculation based on prior cases, that people simply built there houses and businesses on top of the cemetery (human remains included) and streets were laid upon the rail. The only other evidence we have of the city behaving this way in the past, is the accidental findings of human remains found when a parking garage was to be built in the French Quarter. Upon further investigation, it was found that those remains had originally been buried in the city's first cemetery, St. Peter. When it was time to expand the city, the land was simply sold off and residences and businesses just built on top of it, just as in the case of Bayou St. John, with no removal of remains or deconsecration.

Another interesting anecdote, again, purely speculation which bears further investigation, is that, during the time Bayou St John cemetery was being used, the sexton of the Catholic cemeteries was also keeping records for Bayou St. John. His name was Jacques Demourelle....an ancestor of mine!

Note: According to my research, Bayou St John cemetery and Girod Street cemetery were indeed two different cemeteries. Girod Street was formally closed in the 1950's and most of the remains were removed to different cemeteries with the grounds being deconsecrated as well.

For more information on Bayou St. John Cemetery visit:


*New Orleans Architecture was edited by Mary Louise Christovich, authors were the editor as well as Leonard Huber and Peggy McDowell, published by Pelican in Gretna, 2004