Bonaventure: A Historical Sketch

I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light.

– John Muir, “Camping Among the Tombs,” 1867

Steeped in art and history, Bonaventure Cemetery has long been one of Savannah’s most scenic places, world-famous for its aesthetic mixture of funerary art, historic landscaping, and beautiful natural setting. Bonaventure has been drawing visitors, including artists, since the 1830s. Today, as many as 450,000 people per year are thought to visit the cemetery annually, among them families of the interred, funeral attendees, and particularly tourists and commercial tour groups.

The location was initially developed as a 600-acre plantation by the English Colonel John Mullryne in the early 1760s. Mullryne established his residence on a bluff overlooking the Wilmington River (originally called St. Augustine Creek), giving the land the name “Bonaventure” meaning “good fortune.” Mullryne is said to have planted Bonaventure’s first avenues of live oaks with trees spaced 15 feet apart. In the time of the Revolutionary War, Mullryne and his son-in-law Josiah Tattnall were staunch Loyalists. When Savannahians ousted and arrested royal Governor Sir James Wright in 1776, the two men aided his escape through Bonaventure to a British naval vessel nearby and fled Savannah themselves. After the British retook the city, French commander Comte d’Estaing and allies of the revolutionary forces commandeered Bonaventure during the ill-fated Siege of Savannah in 1779. After the bloody battle, Bonaventure became a hospital where French, Haitian and allied casualties were likely buried.

In 1782 the Bonaventure property, having belonged to Loyalists, was confiscated and sold to John Habersham, but was purchased back in 1785 by Tattnall’s son, Josiah Jr., who later became a Governor of Georgia.  The Tattnalls established the first cemetery at Bonaventure, and in 1802 Josiah Jr.’s wife Harriett became the first adult to be buried in the family plot. Commodore Josiah Tattnall III, a decorated naval officer in the Mexican War and later the Confederate navy, was the last of the family to own the site. In 1846, he sold the property, excluding the Tattnall private cemetery, to Peter Wiltberger, who intended to develop 70 acres of Bonaventure as a public cemetery.

By the 1830s and ’40s Bonaventure’s oak avenues had matured into a dense canopy that captivated visitors and inspired the romantic poem “Bonaventure by Starlight” by Henry Rootes Jackson, published in the Southern magazine The Orion in 1842. This period also saw the beginnings nationally of a “rural” or “garden cemetery” movement. Church graveyards and urban cemeteries had become crowded in cities like Savannah. Civic leaders began looking for rural locations that would be more hygienic locations to bury the dead, and wealthy individuals sought out garden-like environments where their families could be recognized with prominent memorials. Laurel Grove became Savannah’s first rural cemetery when it opened in 1853, with segregated North and South sections for white and black burials respectively. Wiltberger called his new cemetery at Bonaventure “Evergreen,” a name that, like “Laurel Grove,” emphasized the natural beauty of the location.

In 1868, Wiltbergers’s son William formed the Evergreen Cemetery Company of Bonaventure. In the years just following the Civil War, the cemetery drew numerous visitors including photographers and writers. Sierra Club co-founder John Muir famously camped out in Bonaventure in 1867 while stranded in Savannah awaiting funds to be sent to him during his thousand-mile walk from Kentucky to Florida. Muir extolled the beauty of Bonaventure’s natural setting, animal, and plant life in his chronicle of that journey.

In 1907, Evergreen was sold to the City of Savannah, which opened it as a public cemetery, although initially for white burials only, and renamed it “Bonaventure Cemetery.” The acreage of Bonaventure, which had increased in the 1860s, expanded again in 1909, when adjoining land was purchased by Congregation Mickve Israel to add a Jewish section to Bonaventure. Mickve Isreal was the first of three synagogues to purchase interment rights for the purpose of reselling them to congregants. A Jewish burial chapel was added in 1917. In 1994 the Bonaventure Historical Society was formed to encourage preservation and education at the site, and in 2001 Bonaventure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. When Bonaventure came under city management it was operated for decades under the City of Savannah Park and Tree Commission and is currently operated by the Department of Cemeteries.

To learn more about the art and history of Bonaventure Cemetery, visit our incredible exhibition, Bonaventure: A Historic Cemetery in Art at the Jepson Center March 2 – September 23, 2018!