Shortly after the southern Homestead Act began encouraging Americans to rebuild the south, a pioneer settlement called The Little Marco Settlement appeared between Naples and Marco Island. Located along the banks of Henderson Creek and Hall Bay, from Shell Island to Little Marco Island, dozens of homesteads formed this waterfront community in the 1880's, pre-dating the City of Naples. People primarily made a living off the richness of the estuary: catching fish, harvesting shellfish, and also growing small plots of winter vegetables.
As in many rural communities, these islanders laid their loved ones to rest on high ground on the mainland near what is now known as Shell Island Road. This historic cemetery is one of the unique cultural resources of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. The cemetery rests many of the Kirkland family pioneering ancestors, and several descendants
still reside in the area today. The Kirklands were among the first families to establish a homestead along Henderson Creek, and purchased their 100-acre site for about $25 in 1899.
Modest shell tabby slabs with no identification marks designate some of the older graves that possibly date to the early 1880s. The earliest marked graves reflect dates in the early 1900s. Other graves here may not be marked at all. The boundaries of this cemetery have never been officially documented, and another site at a nearby homestead is suspected of housing more unmarked remains, based on an oral account received from a family matriarch who grew up on Henderson Creek.
According to the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN), historic cemeteries have long been among Florida's most neglected historic resources. Until recently, there was no way of knowing what was buried under ground without digging, which, in some cases, can unintentionally destroy precious resources. Now, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is one of the best tools available to investigate and document these resources.
GPR is a "groundbreaking" new technology that provides a three-dimensional picture of sedimentary layers. When combined with other archaeological and historical research techniques, GPR images can provide researchers with a better understanding of what may be concealed beneath the ground. Similar to weather-tracking radar, buried items are revealed by color patterns on a computer monitor. The elapsed time between when the signal is transmitted, reflected from buried materials or sediment and soil changes in the ground, and then received back at the surface is measured to help identify what lies beneath.
In 2011, Rookery Bay resource managers, working with the Kirkland family, asked FPAN for help with the cemetery project. Using GPR, the process of delineating these historic cemetery boundaries and identifying any additional grave sites that were not previously recorded and marked will get underway. Volunteers are invited to assist Reserve and FPAN staff with the process on June 24 at 2:00PM. Findings will be supplemented with additional research of death certificates, newspaper obituaries and historical records, with the ultimate goal of the project to ensure the integrity and preservation of this historic cemetery. If you have questions please contact FPAN at 239-590-1476 or Rookery Bay at 239-530-5940.
FPAN is currently working to establish a statewide Historic Cemetery GPR program that will allow stakeholders to help scan historic cemeteries and complete Florida Master Site File forms to record their locations and histories for long-term preservation.
Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is managed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas, in cooperation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It serves as an outdoor classroom and laboratory for students and scientists from around the world.