The African cemetery appears on an 1861 map drawn by the US Army Corps of Engineers. It was located in an uninhabited tract of land, along the beach. On the map, it is labeled "African Cemetery," and nine small X's are drawn to represent the location of the graves. This same location was later chosen for the site of one of two Martello towers constructed to fortify the island during the US Civil war.
The 295 graves were under the West Martello structure, and extended out onto the beach towards the East. An archaeological survey was designed to test the theory of their location. Though it was important to find any graves, it was imperative that the search would not cause any disturbance, or affect their integrity. Ground-penetrating Radar (GPR) offered the best solution.
In 1860 the site of the African Cemetery was a remote and rarely visited part of Key West. But the outbreak of the Civil War prompted Army engineers to better fortify the island. Construction began on Fort Taylor Towers No. 1 (“West Martello”), and No. 2 (“East Martello”) in January of 1862. As the ground was being cleared for the first site, some of the graves were uncovered and the sight of the bodies, together with the stench repulsed the workers. The skeletons were removed, and reburied elsewhere. Construction continued only to be halted in 1866, and the uncompleted fortification was abandoned.
Tower No. 1 fell into disrepair, but there is debate as to how it was dismantled – some say it was used as target practice by gunners at Fort Taylor, and others believe it was used by local residents for bricks. The site was purchased by cigar manufacturer Eduardo H. Gato in the early 1890’s. Under his ownership, the fort was used as a stockade and stable, and was occupied as a living quarters for several families. In 1898, during the war with Spain, the Army reoccupied the site, and reinforced it with two guns placed on the seaward side of the fort. During World War II an anti-aircraft battery was mounted there, with troops stationed in barracks nearby. After the war, the Army left Key West, and the tower was deeded to Monroe County. Today, it is home to the Key West Garden Club.
In the summer of 2002, trenches were excavated on the beach immediately to the west of the tower, beginning construction for new restrooms. Staff from Monroe County, the City of Key West, and the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society joined together to recover some of the many artifacts that lay buried below. Items dating from the Civil War period through the 1940’s directly reflect the history and use of the “West Martello” Tower.