With funding from the Cane River National Heritage Area (CRNHA), the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology (NCPTT) has initiated a project to create an inventory of the vegetation within the American Cemetery in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Cemeteries are a physical reminder of our society’s past; they are places to learn about who we are and where we came from. The historic American Cemetery is no exception. Though the American Cemetery is located in the heart of Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District, the cemetery possesses a serene quality. Large trees gracefully shade most of the cemetery; a variety of ornamental plants decorate the cemetery with color; and old cart paths meander peacefully throughout the 1,383 graves and markers. While the markers are an integral part of the cemetery’s overall character, the vegetation is equally important.
This is not the first project NCPTT has undertaken in the American Cemetery. For years, the Center has used the cemetery as a lab for cemetery monument conservation, and many of the markers have been preserved and well-documented. This is the first time the vegetation will be comprehensively inventoried and mapped. NCPTT intern Laura Bradford is undertaking the project. Laura is originally from Rockledge, Florida, has a bachelor of landscape architecture from the University of Florida, and in May 2014 received her master of landscape architecture from the University of Georgia. There, she focused her studies on historic landscape preservation. Her task on this project is to accurately map and identify all of the trees, shrubs, and vines in the cemetery, and note if they are native, ornamental, and/or heirloom species. She will also identify species that hold symbolic memorial meanings that are typically planted in cemeteries by loved ones to honor the deceased. This project will help uncover the story that the cemetery vegetation is dying to tell.
Established in the 1730s with active burials still taking place, the American Cemetery offers Natchitoches, Louisiana, an irreplaceable look into the city’s unique and varied past. Located on what is believed to be the former site of the second Fort St. Jean Baptiste, the cemetery was a final resting place for the fort residents, regardless of race or class. The cemetery has acted as the parish cemetery for almost three centuries and several of Natchitoches’ most notable citizens are buried there. While the cemetery fell into disrepair during the late 19th century, it was restored by a group of local women who raised awareness and organized financial support for the cemetery’s restoration beginning in 1904. The women’s group was called the American Cemetery Association, and the organization is the primary group responsible for caring for the cemetery today. In 1989, the cemetery was used for the funeral scene in the Southern classic film Steel Magnolias. The American Cemetery is also a part of the Cane River National Heritage Area (CRHA). CRHA is an area known for its association to Creole culture and architecture.