Courtesy of Valerie Holifield
By Ashley Szatala
Honor might have been lost upon medical doctor Walter Fenwick’s name after his death by a duel. But centuries later, Fenwick holds the honorable top spot as having the oldest gravestone in Missouri.
Ste. Genevieve was founded by the French in 1735 and then conquered by the Spanish thirty years later. Flooding from the Mississippi River in 1785 and 1786 washed away the graves of the town’s earliest settlers. The townspeople moved to higher ground and built the first permanent church, the Church of Ste. Genevieve.
Next to it, Memorial Cemetery was established in 1787 after the Spanish King Charles III donated a land grant for the grounds. The cemetery is the oldest one in the state. Buried there were European emigrants, as well as African Americans and Native Americans. The eighteenth century burials were made with wooden crosses, which disintegrated as the years went on.
The earliest recorded burial in the state was Joseph Saint Aubin, fifty, on November 8, 1789. The official grand opening of the cemetery occurred two years later on May 3. On that day, a priest blessed the cemetery, and immediately afterward, Pierre Roy, forty-nine, was buried there. Prior to this, the first legal proceeding in the town was the marriage of Roy to his wife, Jeanette.
The oldest dated stone marker in the cemetery is for Fenwick, forty, who was killed in a duel, on October 3, 1811. Some stones earlier than this might have been destroyed, picked up by visitors, or sunk in the ground. It is possible to see this stone and others dated after it during tours of the cemetery.
Each fall, the Missouri Humanities Council holds a Déjà Vu Spirit Reunion. The event takes visitors on a lantern-lit tour through the cemetery, where the groups stop at twenty gravesites to listen to reenactors tell the history of those buried there. The proceeds from this event benefit the cemetery’s restoration. This year’s reunion will be held on October 24.