Old Bayview - Not Just Another Cemetery
Remarks by Monsignor Michael Howell
July 28, 2002
"Of all other places, a cemetery should be arranged in such a manner as to be attractive, and instead of presenting a dreary and repulsive appearance, be a favorite spot to pass away a leisure hour. Lots should be arranged in a regular order so that walks could be laid out; the fences should be kept in repair, and ornamental shrubbery be allowed to grow. Our cemetery is in a wretched condition. The fences are down; what improvements have been made are scarcely visible, and weeds and brush grow with impunity. Would it not be well for the proper authorities to look into the matter and apply the remedy?" (Ranchero, Feb. 15, 1860) While those words might seem apropos even today, they address the condition of Old Bayview Cemetery in 1860, when it was only 15 years old. But those words indicate how the history of the cemetery not only reflects the history of our area, but also a long history of efforts aimed at restoration, preservation, and improvements. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the city of Corpus Christi, that has been a goal of a number of our local citizens and organizations - the preservation of these sacred grounds and the preservation of the stories of those whose remains now find rest from their earthly labors.
The present site of Old Bayview Cemetery comprises approximately three and a half acres bounded by West Broadway St., Waco, St., Ramirez St., and the I-37 access road. It is presently owned and operated by the City of Corpus Christi and has been designated an Historic Texas Cemetery and a State Archeological Landmark by the Texas Historical Commission. U. S. Army engineers laid out the site during he encampment of Brig. General Zachary Taylor just prior to the American War with Mexico. Henry L. Kinney, founder of Corpus Christi, provided the land, and Col. Ethan Allan Hitchcock chose the location. Although soldiers who died of disease or natural causes were interred in the cemetery, the best known burials of that period were of the soldiers who died as a result of the explosion of the steamship Dayton in 1845.
Subsequent to 1846, the cemetery became a community burial ground, but no burial records prior to 1896 survive other than that provided by the gravestones and the obituaries found in extant newspapers. Old Bayview was the only Corpus Christi public cemetery in the early days of our city until the establishment of Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in 1866 and Hebrew Rest Cemetery in 1875. As noted in the opening quote from the Ranchero of February 15, 1860, there was a struggle to protect the burial ground and make needed improvements even in the early history of the cemetery. Newspaper articles from the 1870s and 1880s discuss numerous complaints and seek to elicit action from the local population. One article notes that a good cemetery as much as the public and private buildings of a community is a "measure of the refinement" of a city (Nueces Valley, April 25, 1874). Another article laments the "ruminating cows...inquisitive hogs...tumble-down conditions of the fences", calls the conditions of the cemetery a "public disgrace" and insists that "by the care of the dead can be formed an estimate of the appreciation of the living" (Semi-Weekly Ledger, April 27, 1881). Conditions finally led to the call for the formation of a cemetery association as early as 1886 (Corpus Christi Caller, August 15, 1886), and between 1896 and 1913, the Bayview Cemetery Association worked to lay out a new Bayview Cemetery, kept records of burials in both Old and New Bayview Cemeteries, and sought funds to clean up and beautify the grounds. However, as it seemed to be a losing proposition, many began to transfer out the bodies and grave markers of their loved ones, especially with the establishment in 1914 of Rose Hill Cemetery, a privately owned cemetery with perpetual care. Numerous transfers occurred in those first few years as pioneer families despaired of any solution.
As late as the 1940s, newspaper articles continue to decry the conditions of the Old Bayview Cemetery and call for a permanent fence to prevent "future invasion of the livestock and chickens" (Corpus Christi Caller, 1941 from scrapbook of Mrs. Hettie May Anderson Biggio). One article notes that "when we visited the cemetery last Sunday, a goat was staked to roam over the graves in one corner of the lot. A sheep slept on another plot. Chickens scratched everywhere. And clothes flapped on a line strung across several beautiful old granite markers" (Corpus Christi Caller, 1940s). Meanwhile dedicated individuals worked personally to try and preserve the cemetery and to inspire community involvement by also seeing that the stories of the pioneers buried there would also be preserved. One of those individuals was Eli T. Merriman, whom we honor today as we dedicate this website to him in recognition of his tireless efforts for the cemetery and its residents. Eli had a deep respect for the memories of the city ancestors, which included his own parents, and a zeal for the care of their final resting place. Like other individuals such as Mrs. Mary J. Fullerton who had personally walked the streets to collect funds to build a fence for the cemetery, Eli was personally involved in the care of the burial grounds. He wrote in the 1930s that while he was not the cemetery sexton, nor was he salaried by the city, nevertheless he had worked to beautify and preserve the sacred grounds for nearly half a century. He employed a sexton and supervised him without compensation. And after both the 1916 and 1919 hurricanes, he had the fence enclosing the grounds (the one originally built through the efforts of Mrs. Fullerton), he had that fence repaired free of expense to the city. However, not only did he work to restore and preserve the grounds, along with other writers like Mary Sutherland and Kate Dougherty Bluntzer, he wrote of those buried in the cemetery to build awareness of their stories and who they were for this community. Because of his involvement in the community as a newspaperman, he had personally seen many an obituary and interviewed the relatives of departed pioneers. He also tried to see that their stories would not be lost as he began collecting any extant old newspapers for future posterity. Because of his work we today have many of the documents that provided the information gathered in our recent research for this website. But the job was not finished with Eli. It remains a task for every generation-the preservation of those sacred grounds and those stories that are a part of our history. After Eli's death in January of 1941, the cemetery again began to deteriorate and the stories of those buried there were soon forgotten. By 1953 an article in the Corpus Christi Caller recounts the impressions of another visitor to the cemetery who found a family with many dogs living on one corner of the cemetery. They also had caged rabbits in hutches that were backed up to some of the fine old markers and garbage (cans and all) had been burned among the graves. The continued deterioration of the grounds led to the recent efforts to put up a strong fence for the cemetery's protection and to work towards a unified plan for its restoration and preservation. These efforts have also led to the website we dedicate today to the work and memory of Eli T. Merriman who represents those pioneers who are buried in Old Bayview Cemetery. Because of who these people were as pioneers, their stories are a part of our story as a city preparing to celebrate 150 years of incorporation. Because of who these pioneers were as persons, their stories are a part of our stories as human beings. They too had their struggles and successes, joys and disappointments. They represent us and offer us lessons for life. They are rich in diversity as we are. They spoke at least five different languages and served in the development of the agricultural, commercial, educational, social, and religious life of the community. They came from at least 14 different countries and 26 different states of America. Many were well educated members of society who had come to settle in a land that offered the opportunity that they could not find in the more rigid societies of Europe and the New England. Some served as our mayors, postmasters, and aldermen. Six served as sheriffs, and some of these died in the line of duty. There are over 80 veterans of at least five wars. There are victims of yellow fever and other epidemics, tropical storms, and bandit raids. Some are murder victims, others died at their own hands because of the stress of those days. Some were young children taken by diphtheria and small pox; others are elders who yielded to the burden of years. There are over 40 citizens of African-American ancestry, some of whom were former slaves now buried within a short distance from their former slave owners. The earliest known burials are from 1845, and the latest burial is believed to be from 1989. Within the list of those buried in Old Bayview you will find: Josiah Armstrong from a wealthy founding family of Tennessee, whose father was a close personal friend of Andrew Jackson...Benjamin Neal, our first mayor, a Texas pioneer, judge, and newspaper publisher, a Texan volunteer with Ewen Cameron and a Civil War Veteran... Alejo Hernandez, the first native Mexican preacher of the Methodist Church...John Sunderland Greer, a veteran of the Mexican American War who came here with Taylor's army and later fought in the Civil War, builder of the Greer-Westergren house, probably the second oldest house still standing in Corpus Christi...John Marks Moore, a Texas legislator and city mayor buried only a short distance from his former slave, Sammy Moore, the husband of Malvina Moore, probably one of the first slaves brought into the area. Malvina left her memoirs which are the basis of our earliest history of the city. That too can be found on the website. Within the cemetery is also found the gravesite of George Knight Mew along with his wife and four children whom he lost within about five years of each other...there is also the gravesite of the Staples family with the five Staples children who died young...Buried in Old Bayview is Alexander Hamilton, partner of Dr. Arthur Spohn. Alexander was a descendent of a founding father of the English settlement that would become Toronto, and he was married to Dr. Spohn's sister, Katherine Spohn...there is also Mat Nolan and his brother Tom who served as young bugle boys in Taylor army before they were even teenagers. Later they would also serve in law enforcement in the city and both were killed in the line of duty. There are accidental shooting victims like Willie Avery and Earnest Petzel, and those purposely shot like Theodore Dix. Still others died with the gun in their own hands such as Joe Garcia, John Woessner, and Dr. E. J. Allen. There are four important historical photographers: George Noessel, William DeRyee, Louis DePlanque, and Benjamin Neal. Two books soon to be published feature articles on Noessel and DePlanque. There are survivors like Tito Rivera who was captured by the Comanches when only 9 years old and saved his life by serving their purposes as an interpreter because he could read and write in Spanish. He was released at 12 years old, served in the Civil War, and ultimately became a leading merchant of Corpus Christi. There is also William L. Rogers, a teamster on General Taylor's march to the Rio Grande. When the supply train was attacked, all the teamsters died except for William who was left for dead with his throat cut. He survived to become the sheriff of Nueces County and later a county commissioner. The list goes on.
Eli T. Merriman saw it as a sacred duty to promote the preservation of Old Bayview Cemetery and the stories of those buried there. That is the legacy that falls to us in this new millennium, especially as our city approaches this milestone of 150 years. We can find inspiration in words written back in the early 1940s. "Old Bayview is not just a cemetery". The writer explains that "the people buried here in Old Bayview helped whittle out our Corpus Christi from a barren and hostile land. They endured disease, Indians, storms, and hardships...they fought in our wars and a lot of them died a long way from the homes they loved, but to most of them this was home." And so he goes on to further define the value of Old Bayview Cemetery as he notes a fact that many of us are well aware of in this new age, "many of the historic spots and buildings where the old tie (to the past) was knotted have been covered up with progress or have been torn down to make way for progress. Old Bayview stands practically alone." He ends with a lesson that resonates for us today as he concludes that Old Bayview is that "needed reminder that there was a Corpus Christi here a long, long time ago, before any of us had anything to do with it, and that there will be a Corpus Christi a long, long time after we are gone. Pestilence, plague, disaster and war helped fill the old burial ground, but Corpus Christi lived on. In that knowledge is a certain reassurance, also peace and quiet and humility and hope." (Bob McCracken, Corpus Chrisit Caller, 1941).