by Tim Gilmore, 12/7/2018
Graves lasting so much longer than people, what’s left of the plantation’s the graveyard, marooned inside a larger cemetery, though the best known resident of Gravely (pronounced “Gravel-lee,” not “Grave-lee”) Hill never lived here. Nor did he, as he claimed, live longer than anyone else in modern recorded history.
Perhaps James Edward Monroe was more like those mythological undying wanderers, the Ancient Mariner or the Wandering Jew, than the 133 year old son of President James Monroe, whose administration lasted from 1817 to 1825.
When he died in 1949, the Associated Press reported, “A full story of Monroe’s life will probably never be written. His memory got a little fuzzy in his later years. There didn’t seem to be any documentary proof of his claim that he was born in Ashland, Va. on Independence Day of 1815.”
If James Edward Monroe were 133 years old when he died, then he was 22 when, in 1837, Steven Eubanks stated in his will that he wished to be buried beside “the grave of my departed mother in the burial ground on my plantation called Gravely Hill.” It’s the first recorded mention of the graveyard, but where in Gravely Hill Eubanks and his mother are buried no one knows.
Amongst his wife Ann Marie and his six children, Steven Eubanks willed the 43 slaves who lived here—including Little Tom, Little Sam, Plenty, Baccus and two slaves named Big Tom—his 400 head of cattle, and “the six horses taken from me by the Seminole Indians should they or any part thereof be recovered.”
Today the graveyard floats exiled inside Riverside Memorial Park (not to be confused with Memorial Park in Riverside), a cemetery that’s grown to more than 25,000 graves since it opened in 1931.
Amateur archaeologist William Jones believed John Bellamy, the farmer who built the plantation in 1817, named Gravely Hill after large pieces of chert, a flinty quartz-rich sedimentary rock Seminoles used to make arrowheads, found in the washout at Cedar and Wills Branch Creeks. In a brief 1992 manuscript in the possession of the University of North Florida, Jones writes of how he found, in the early 1950s, “six chert arrow points” and “a number of chert chips” scattered around the plantation site.
Wandering Gravely Hill in cool December, I find no arrowheads and wonder where, out in the landscape, ran Eubanks’s stolen horses. Rusted chain link fences encase family burial plots, several of them side by side with narrow weed-choked alleys between fences. In some small squares fenced off, no graves are visible, just cat brier and blaspheme vines coating chain link in green thorns, the occasional liquor bottle discarded in the creepers and shoots.
In chain link labyrinths, where families crowd each other in final real estate, crumble old Easter baskets. Flowers fade and flags. Time has smoothed several headstones illegible, as it does everything eventually. Small crooked hand-carved or plaster-fronted stones say only “Unknown” and “Baby” and “Mother.” Elizabeth Peterson lived only April through June, 1910. Isabelle Dyess was 24 when she died in 1905. A tall slender heart-shaped headstone, propped up by supports on either side, names “A.J. Turner Asleep in Jesus Age 32,” no birth or death dates.
Though Hester and Cyrus, Eliza and Francisco, Marlborough, Lemuel and other slaves worked this land, they’ve never rested here. Wherever in the earth they lie, surely not far, their graves are unmarked. Not so those who fought for the South’s right to keep Jim Domingo, Clarissa and Ned in chains. I walk lines of Confederate graves, some of them marked incongruously with American flags. I’m surprised to find no flags for the Confederacy.
Though the ground bears no names of the slaves who lived here, it does hold that of James Edward Monroe, who didn’t. Both his grave and his official death records give his years as 1815 to 1949.
Whether or not Monroe was born on Independence Day, he celebrated the nation’s birthday with his own and marched alongside Fourth of July parades in downtown Jacksonville for years. Nevertheless, as the AP reported, “his claim to a share in President Monroe’s estate” was never “legally established.”
Despite his apparent patriotism, Monroe claimed to have lost the fingers of his left hand fighting for the other side under General Robert E. Lee. In August 1946, he appeared in nationally syndicated photos, long-eared and gray-bearded, showing a Civil War medal to a smiling Jacksonville woman holding a Confederate flag.
In 1926, when he was only 111 years old, the AP reported that “Major Monroe” had gone to New York to find out where the $1,000 the James Monroe Memorial Association had raised for him had gone. He listed his mailing address as “Major Edward Monroe, youngest son of Pres. James Monroe, Jacksonville, Florida.” The fund’s administrators had returned money to donors after determining “reasonable doubt” Monroe was the “youngest son” of the fifth president, whose only two children were daughters.
“Major Monroe asserted all the papers to prove his claim were lost or stolen from him in Jacksonville in 1914,” the AP noted. “All he has left is the small locket which contains a copy of a painting of Mrs. Monroe by Benjamin West which is reproduced in several biographies on the president.”
Like the mythological Wandering Jew, or Melmoth the Wanderer, Monroe claimed to have wandered the earth, outlasting death. He had, his Florida Times-Union obituary repeated, moved “about the world, from war to war, and had outlived everyone who had known him in his early life.” He was, he said, a veteran of the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848, the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and ’78, and the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, during which he’d climbed up from working in the diamond mines of Kimberley, South Africa, a little more than 80 years old, to fight the Brits with the Boers.
Wherever he came from, whatever his real name, he’s recorded as a Confederate veteran, as “having arrived penniless” in Jacksonville, perhaps with the large Confederate Veterans’ Reunion that brought 48,000 former Confederates to Jacksonville in 1914, the year he claimed his papers were stolen. The story that Monroe lived on a houseboat off the end of Goodwin Street in Riverside for close to 60 years, from just after the Civil War to the early 1920s must be, if not fictional, greatly exaggerated. The police frequently removed him from squatting on wealthy riverfront properties in Riverside and he died in a “rest home” in rural Dinsmore in northern Duval County.
It’s possible the plantation house was still here when Monroe finally came, by way of charity, to be buried at Gravely Hill. The tall house stood along Lenox Avenue, about 300 feet east of its intersection with Memorial Park Road, though Lenox was yet called Alligator Road, the Old Gainesville Road or the “Dirt Road to the South.” In the early 1950s, William Jones “surface collected the area near the house site” and found pieces of “Plantation Period” ceramics, including “fragments of blue and green shell-edged pearlware.”
It was Miles Price who gained Gravely Hill from his second wife’s father, Steven Eubanks, then purchased Dell’s Bluff Plantation from his first wife’s father, James Winter. After the Civil War, Price sold the part of Dell’s Bluff that became Riverside and, oddly, this Confederate soldier platted the rest of that plantation for former slaves and United States Colored Troops. Still more confusingly, he named the new area “Brooklyn,” but named two of its northernmost streets Stonewall and Jackson after the Confederate general. Price is buried at Gravely Hill.
When a man named John Braun established a dairy at Gravely Hill in 1911, he mentioned “ruins of several houses” on the “crest of the hill” above Alligator Road. William Jones refers to records from the 1930s mentioning “two dwellings […] said to be have been constructed over 100 years before” on the same site.
James McInarnay told Jones, sometime before he died at 85 years old in 1980, that “when he was a young man,” the two story plantation house still stood, but “eventually” burned down.
What did McInarnay remember? How old was he when the old house burnt? Did it burn when he was 15 years old in 1910? When he was 30 in 1925? Did he play in the old house as a child? Did he and a friend tell ghost stories about it, only half realizing they’d made them up? Did they dare each other to touch the front door before running away? Did they play hide-and-seek in its turpentin’d corridors? Did lightning ignite the blaze? Did a vagrant, some ageless wanderer who’d lost count of his wars, trying to keep warm, tip sparks from a fire on a January evening?
The loss of the answers to every such question haunts me here, where a strip mall rear-ends Lenox now, “Dirt Road to the South,” the backs of T-Mobile, Dollar Tree, and Save-A-Lot stores turned to the long-vanished face of Gravely Hill House. Where are the swamps of yesteryear? Behind every dull blank strip mall wall yet ferment and stir other lives, further stories, deeper time.