Sunday Favorites: The Lee Family Cemetery

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For the last two weeks, we've delved into the history of the Lee Family, one of the first families in the Manatee section. Most of the family was buried in a small cemetery plot on the original property. However, over time that plot of land was sold off and the burial ground essentially lost. Here's what happened.

The last two editions of Sunday Favorites have focused on the life and times of Rev. Edmund Lee. If you’d like to read them, you can find them by following the links below:

The Lee Family Part 1

The Lee Family Part 2

However, it’s Edmund’s posthumous remains that have gotten the most recent attention. Edmund, and many of his family members, were buried in a 25 x 45 ft. family plot on the original Lee homestead in East Bradenton. According to historical records, the cemetery was established in the 1870s with a total of six family members buried there.

Other historical “residents” of the cemetery included: Electa Arcott Lee, the first teacher in Manatee County and first wife of Rev. Edmund Lee; Sarah Lee Vanderipe, biological daughter of Edmund and Electa; Mary Guerrero, the adopted daughter of Electa and Edmund; Addie Frierson Lee, Edmund’s second wife who died at age 36 leaving three children in Edmund’s care; and Elizabeth O’Dell Lee, Edmund’s third wife.

In an interesting twist, Sarah’s husband, J.C. Vanderipe, was buried in a grave outside the cemetery due to “bad debts and arguments with his father-in-law” according to Peggy Donoho, an area historian and descendent of the family.

Once Lee, the patriarch of the family passed away, the property was passed down to Sarah’s children Harry and Edmund Vanderipe and his third wife Elizabeth, with the stipulation that the cemetery would be separate from the homestead deed. However, after Elizabeth died in 1893, much of the property was sold at auction.

The property changed hands again and again. Over time, the small cemetery went overlooked, essentially becoming a dumping ground for the neighborhood, instead of being preserved forever as Edmund Lee had intended. It remained covered in garbage and debris for more than 100 years. During that time, any burial markers were lost, according to Donoho’s research.

During the 1990s, the Lee family became a topic of discussion once again when Lee Middle School in Bradenton was named for Electa Lee – the first teacher in Manatee County. Realizing that one of the most historical families was now buried under rubble, descendants began inquiring about getting the site restored.

In early 2000, former city commissioner Bemis Smith purchased a property located on present-day 17th Street East, which the historical home of another pioneer resident, William Whitaker, at an auction for $18,000. After hearing rumors that the site might include the Lee historic cemetery, he partnered with local officials to submit an application to the State of Florida for its renovation, according to the February 18, 2000 Herald Tribune article, “Historic Burial Site Wins State Protection,” by Jennifer Merritt.

But, contrary to the optimistic headline, the project never came to fruition and the burial site remained lost.

It wasn’t until 16 years later that the granddaughter of Edmund Miguel Lee, Rev. Lee’s adopted son, resurrected the project.

Under state statute, she claimed guardianship of the small plot and began the restoration process herself. It took more than two years to complete. The Florida Public Archaeology Network conducted a scan with grave penetrating radar to confirm the plot, owned by Smith, was in fact the cemetery. The scan revealed the remains of a sixth-month-old baby – confirming the whereabouts of Mary Guerrero, who had been adopted by Edmund and Electa shortly after her parents died of disease. The baby died soon after she was adopted.

Donoho raised money to create a historical marker in order to honor those buried in the cemetery for so long. The cemetery is located at 301 E. 17th St. It can only be accessed through the backyard adjacent homes, but will now remain under guardianship of the ancestors of those laid to rest within its boundaries.