Murfreesboro Old City Cemetery
The historic Old City Cemetery was the first public cemetery established in Murfreesboro. It dates back to the 1820s when the First Presbyterian Church and its private cemetery were built on the property. The original First Presbyterian Church building, destroyed during the Civil War, was significant for hosting the 1822 Tennessee legislative assembly that endorsed Andrew Jackson for the presidency. The City of Murfreesboro purchased land adjoining the church and opened a city cemetery in the 1830s. It remained in official operation until 1873 when Evergreen Cemetery was established, but burials continued until 1931. The cemetery has suffered from years of neglect, but in 2017 the Rutherford County Archaeological Society began ongoing efforts to conserve and restore surviving tombstones. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Backstory and Context
The Old City Cemetery dates back to 1820 when the original First Presbyterian Church was constructed on Vine Street. Organized around 1812, First Presbyterian was one of the earliest churches in Murfreesboro. Adjacent to the church was a graveyard for congregants. In 1822 the church building housed a session of the Tennessee state legislature; Murfreesboro was the capital at the time, and the legislative building had burned down that year. Members of the legislature that year included future president James K. Polk and folk hero Davy Crockett. The 1822 session notably endorsed Andrew Jackson for the presidency.
In 1832 the City of Murfreesboro purchased land from Mary Moore Murfree Hilliard, on the south and east boundaries of the First Presbyterian Church property, to establish the city’s first public cemetery. By 1837 it had combined with the church graveyard. Many of Murfreesboro’s founding residents were buried here, both rich and poor. Early families included the Andersons, Jettons, Huggins, Subletts, Killoughs, Dicksons, Burtons, Ruckers, Bairds, and Rankins. African Americans were buried in the southern section of the cemetery. During the Civil War a number of soldiers were temporarily buried in the cemetery before being reinterred elsewhere. The First Presbyterian Church was also used as a hospitable by both Union and Confederate forces around the time of the Battle of Stones River. The building was destroyed around 1864 by occupying Union soldiers, who also allegedly desecrated the cemetery. After the war the First Presbyterian Church relocated to North Spring Street.
The cemetery continued to operate as the city’s official cemetery until Evergreen Cemetery was established in 1873. At the time the City of Murfreesboro mandated that no additional burials be permitted, and that all graves in the old cemetery be relocated in the new one. This was done out of concern that the original cemetery would be left abandoned and fall into disrepair. The ordinance was largely ignored; few graves were moved, and burials continued at the old cemetery until 1931. Around 1905 East State Street was expanded and went through the southern portion of the old cemetery. Workers reportedly found a number of human remains during the construction. The portion of the cemetery to the south of the new street was sold to investors for development in 1912.
Today about 3.5 acres of the Old City Cemetery survives, with around 300 standing gravestones. Over the decades many grave markers have become heavily deteriorated due to neglect or botched restoration attempts. In 2008 the Tennessee Preservation Trust named the cemetery as one of the most endangered historical sites in the state. The cemetery has begun receiving more attention in recent years. Students from Middle Tennessee State University excavated the site of the original First Presbyterian Church in 2003. Their efforts eventually helped the cemetery get added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. In 2017 the Rutherford County Archaeological Society began a project to conserve, restore, and maintain the old cemetery and its grave markers.
Bartel, Laura. “Bringing Back a Special Place: The Rutherford County Archaeological Society’s Old City Cemetery Project.” Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology. September 27, 2017. Accessed August 3, 2018. https://tennesseearchaeologycouncil.wordpress.com/2017/09/27/bringing-back-a-special-place-the-rutherford-county-archaeological-societys-old-city-cemetery-project/
“Old City Cemetery listed as most endangered site.” Murfreesboro Post. June 1, 2008. Accessed August 3, 2018. https://www.murfreesboropost.com/community/old-city-cemetery-listed-as-most-endangered-site/article_d290a32c-c05c-51eb-b980-d2f4397a336b.html
Tucker, Greg. “Remembering Rutherford: Remains of the dead still underfoot.” Murfreesboro Post. October 20, 2015. Accessed August 3, 2018. https://www.murfreesboropost.com/opinion/remembering-rutherford-remains-of-the-dead-still-underfoot/article_7826d04e-f0a0-5712-b06f-30ca35cdaf04.html
Willard, Michelle. “Non-profit ‘adopts’ Old City Cemetery in Murfreesboro.” Daily News Journal. March 17, 2017. Accessed August 3, 2018. https://www.dnj.com/story/news/local/2017/03/17/rutherford-county-archaeological-society-cemetery-murfreesboro/99121642/
Willard, Michelle. “What happened to the old First Presbyterian Church?” Daily News Journal. August 31, 2015. Accessed July 30, 2018. https://www.dnj.com/story/news/2015/08/30/happened-old-first-presbyterian-church/71435822/
Wilgus, Mary H. “Murfreesboro’s Old City Cemetery: a record of the past.” Rutherford County Historical Society. 1981. Accessed August 3, 2018. http://cdm15838.contentdm.oclc.org/utils/getdownloaditem/collection/rchs/id/171/filename/163.pdf/mapsto/pdf
West, Mike. “Union army destroyed historic church.” Murfreesboro Post. June 1, 2008. Accessed July 30, 2018. https://www.murfreesboropost.com/community/union-army-destroyed-historic-church/article_226e5fa2-c19c-5476-a24b-404c482e231b.html
Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_City_Cemetery_Murfreesboro_TN.jpg
Images 2-3: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/16580/old-city-cemetery/photo