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On a submerged island off Florida, quarantine hospital remnants have been discovered

Photo by Michael on Unsplash

Archeologists have found the remains of a 19th-century quarantine hospital and cemetery on a submerged island in the Dry Tortugas national park, off Florida in the Gulf of Mexico.

While only one grave has been identified, historical records indicate dozens of people – mostly US soldiers stationed at Fort Jefferson – may have been buried at the site now in waters west of Key West, Florida, park officials said.

A group that included park cultural resources staff, the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center, the Southeast Archeological Center and a University of Miami graduate student, made the discovery during a survey of Fort Jefferson Post cemetery that began last August.

They discovered the grave of John Greer, a laborer who died on 5 November 1861. Officials said they did not know much about Greer, but his grave was prominently marked with a large slab of greywacke, the same material used to construct the first floor of Fort Jefferson.

“This intriguing find highlights the potential for untold stories in Dry Tortugas national park, both above and below the water,” said Josh Marano, a maritime archeologist for south Florida national parks, and the survey project director.

He said efforts were continuing to learn more about others buried on the submerged island.

Fort Jefferson was a military prison during and after the American civil war, hosting among other famous prisoners Samuel Mudd, a doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth, the assassin who broke his leg jumping to the stage of Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC after killing Abraham Lincoln.

The surrounding islands became a naval outpost, lighthouse station, naval hospital, quarantine facility and a site for military training.

The risk of communicable diseases, including outbreaks of the mosquito-borne yellow fever, increased as the fort’s population grew with military personnel, prisoners, enslaved people, support staff and their families.

The fort was abandoned in 1873 but the US marine hospital service occupied it between 1890 and 1900. An isolation hospital was set up on a nearby island.

“Although much of the history of Fort Jefferson focuses on the fortification itself and some of its infamous prisoners, we are actively working to tell the stories of the enslaved people, women, children and civilian laborers,” Marano said.

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