St. Peter Street Cemetery – the first graveyard
French explorers and trappers came to what is now New Orleans in 1699. By the 1720s, the settlement had grown to the point where Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville, commissioned a plan for what is now the French Quarter. Part of the street plan that Adrien du Pauger laid out for Bienville was a graveyard. That first cemetery was located at what is now the corner of N. Rampart and St. Peter Streets, at the outskirts of the French Quarter. We refer now to this graveyard as “The St. Peter Street Cemetery”; in the mid-1700s, it was likely just called “the cemetery”, then the “old cemetery”, after other cemeteries were constructed. The land for the cemetery was owned by the city government, but the cemetery itself was administered by the Catholic Church, through the chapter of St. Louis Church (which was not a cathedral until 1794).
One of the interesting aspects of the St. Peter Street Cemetery was the lack of racial/ethnic segregation with respect to burials. The key was not skin color, but religion. The French and Spanish colonials were Catholic, and if you were baptized, it was permitted for you to be buried in consecrated ground. An article from the University of New Orleans’ Archaeology blog relates the story of a 13-year old slave girl, who died and was buried oustside the confines of the cemetery. Her family petitioned the city’s Superior Council to permit them to re-inter her in the cemetery, since she was a baptized Catholic.
By the time ownership of New Orleans was ceded from France to Spain in 1766, the city outgrew the St. Peter Street Cemetery. In addition, specific incidents, such as the Natchez revolt of 1729, forced the city to temporarily close the cemetery because of the number of burials. By the 1780s, it was impractical to continue to regularly use the cemetery. The Church acquired land on what is now Basin Street to construct a new cemetery. That cemetery is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Since this cemetery’s design was of a permanent nature, it still exists.
All burials in the St. Peter Street Cemetery were in-ground. As a result, the city built a wooden framework around the block bounded by St. Peter, Burgundy, Toulouse, and Rampart Streets, so burials would be above the water table. Prominent/wealthy citizens of the city were buried in vaults below St. Louis Church (later St. Louis Cathedral). This practice continues to this day, for retired Archbishops of New Orleans.
When Vincent Marcello, the owner of a house built on top of St. Peter Cemetery, planned a swimming pool for his backyard, he brought in a team from the University of New Orleans Archaeology Department. Since it was extremely likely digging for the pool would disturb the burial site. Consequently, the team discovered fifteen coffins, which were removed and re-interred, with proper ritual and respect.
Paperback – December 31, 1996
by Leonard Huber
In New Orleans, cemeteries are known as “cities of the dead.” Because the city is located below sea level, buried coffins will not stay underground. As a result, residents bury their dead in above-ground tombs and vaults, forming the “buildings” of these “cities” within the city. New Orleans families, organizations, and benevolent societies build lasting monuments, from the simple to the ornate, to their loved ones. Many of the more lavish monuments are known throughout the city as landmarks. Like all New Orleans architecture, the cemeteries capture the unique character of the Crescent City.
More than twenty-five years have passed since the publication of the first volume of the New Orleans Architecture series. Pelican and the Friends of the Cabildo remain committed to recording and preserving the unique architecture of New Orleans, having published a total of eight volumes on the subject.
The New Orleans Architecture Series consists of Volume I: The Lower Garden District ; Volume II: The American Sector; Volume III: The Cemeteries; Volume IV: The Creole Faubourgs; Volume V: The Esplanade Ridge; Volume VI: Faubourg Treme and the Bayou Road; Volume VII: Jefferson City; and Volume VIII: The University Section, all available from Pelican.