by Tim Gilmore, 9/26/2015
The first grave of the founder of the city lay two and half miles south of its present location.
A thin brick pyramid rose 35 feet into the air just east of Laura Street, between State and Orange Streets, where in 1966 the Heart of Jacksonville Hotel was built in the depths of downtown’s (to the south) and Springfield’s (the Victorian neighborhood to the north) morass of boarding-house social rot and desperation.
Unknowingly, developers built the Heart of Jacksonville on the site of the long-ago desecrated grave of the Hart of Jacksonville.
According to T. Frederick Davis’s 1925 History of Jacksonville, Florida and Vicinity, 1513-1924, Isaiah Hart shows up in the swamp that later becomes downtown in 1821. There are few settlers and one general store. Other settlers quickly follow and Hart leads the survey of a new town in 1822, incorporated a decade later.
Davis writes, “At one time or another he owned nearly all the land now known as the old city, and the most of Springfield.”
Hart owned slaves, a plantation called Paradise at Cracker Swamp in Marietta, Florida, and log cabins in what’s now downtown Jacksonville at Bay and Market Streets, then Laura and Forsyth.
[Several of the city’s bridges were named for slaveholders (the Hart Bridge), ardent white supremacists (the Mathews Bridge), members of the Ku Klux Klan (the Main Street Bridge, officially the John T. Alsop).]
Hart built his Laura Street tomb as cairn. Though cairn’s a Scottish word, the rough stone towers above graves are found in ancient indigenous cultures across the planet.
Hart built his tomb in 1852, nine years before he and his wife Nancy died, and inscribed it: “When I am dead and in my grave, / And these bones are all rotten; / When this you see, remember me, / That I may not be forgotten.”
In 1896, 35 years after the Harts’ deaths, grave robbers broke into the towering tomb and stole several unnamed valuables, as well as the cairn’s silver nameplates.
The desecration prompted a newspaper investigation that reported the apparently previously unknown information that the Hart Monument, as it had come to be known, contained nine graves.
The monument held the bodies of Isaiah and Nancy Hart, a granddaughter, and the Harts’ children, several of whom gave their names to the streets of the center of the city.
Besides the children Lodusky and Daniel and Nancy, “an invalid [who] met the sad fate of being burned to death,” Laura’s and Julia’s names became those of central streets downtown, and mid-1800s’ debates concerned whether downtown’s Ocean Street took its name from Isaiah’s and Nancy’s son Ossian.
The Great Fire of 1901 torched the Hart Monument, but left it standing. The following year, the blasted cairn was dismantled, and the Hart graves—except for that of Isaiah’s son Oscar, whom he wrote out of his will—were moved northward to Evergreen Cemetery.
Through grave desecration and municipal fire, the burial cairn and central monument to the slaveholding founder of the city of Jacksonville disappeared 50 years after Isaiah Hart built it, 41 years after his death, one year after the Great Fire of 1901, 113 years before I write this sketch.
Walk the streets downtown named for his children. Buy art and gourmet popsicles and beer in Hemming Park, the central land he left the city in 1857; it became “City Park” in 1866, five years after his death.
Stand where his grave and his wife’s and his children’s once towered, and imagine just how far the city radiates out from you, not just in miles, but in years, numbers of lives, and exponential rings of minor triumphs, petty crimes, mythical tragedies and ordinary stories.