by JULIE B. MAGLIO and ROCCO MAGLIO
The Sumter County Preservation Society did not exist when Della Daughtry started the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery project. Della is an independent citizen and freelance artist who wanted to save the forgotten cemetery in Sumter County and ensure it was being taken care of.
Della and her husband John Daughtry started going out to the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery to take photos, research, and eventually wrote historical nominations for the cemetery that has gone to the state and national registries.
Della estimates that 95 to 98 percent of the headstones at the cemetery have been vandalized. “There’s four tombstones left that are not vandalized. We only originally knew about 16 graves, because there were only markers for 16 graves,” she explained.
“Our main goal was to first try to figure out the size of the cemetery to find out how many people are actually buried there. And then to rediscover the history of how it became a cemetery– why it was where it was located.”
Della explained that Sumter County Government agreed to help them with a GPR survey – ground penetrating radar, so they could determine how many graves were actually located on the 1/16th of an acre portion of the cemetery owned by Sumter County.
“The survey which was done in March of 2020 turned up 44 graves. Including the 16 we knew about, it also showed four outside the boundary, which supports that the cemetery was much larger. Researching back, we found that the cemetery was originally supposed to be an acre in size.”
Della set out to learn more about Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery, but it proved to be a difficult task. She researched the nearby town of Pemberton. She read the available information and came up with an innovative idea. She researched newspaper archives in Georgia because the train line which served Pemberton connected all the way to Savannah. A newspaper in Savannah was reporting about what was going on in Pemberton. Della recounts some of what she learned in her article “History of Pemberton.”
They also used family Bibles to determine who was buried at the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery. Often the family Bible listed who was buried at the nearby cemetery and when family members were buried. They found that the first burial in the cemetery happened in 1849, making it the second oldest burial in Sumter County.
Researching the cemetery also led her to realize how much misinformation there had been about nearby towns, the towns of Pemberton Ferry and Croom- which were located on opposite sides of the Withlacoochee River.
“Two different towns (Pemberton Ferry and Croom) started being known as one town,” she explained.
“People think Pemberton Ferry is Croom. Pemberton Ferry is not Croom. Pemberton Ferry is the original Ferry Landing that became Pemberton. Pemberton is on the Sumter County side of the river, while Croom is on the Hernando County side of the river.
Somehow along the way, because of the Henry Plant train system, it got so confused and muddled that everybody thought these two totally separate towns were one. In that case, Pemberton’s history gets moved to Hernando County and Sumter doesn’t know its own heritage.”
Della used this knowledge of Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery and the surrounding area to advocate for a historical marker for the cemetery. She applied for the marker in partnership with several organizations including: Sumter County Historical Society, Sumter County Preservation Society, Young Performing Artists, Inc., and the Scenic Sumter Heritage Byway.
The marker will highlight a forgotten portion of Sumter County’s history. Sumter County only has a few historical markers, several of which date from the Second Seminole War. Sumter, Citrus, and Hernando were the epicenter of that war.
The Sumter County Preservation Society has also submitted an application for the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery to be placed on the National Historic Register and is awaiting approval. They have received approval for the state of Florida’s Historic Register.
There are only two places in Sumter County on the National Historic Register: Dade Battlefield Historic Memorial and Thomas R. Pierce House. The Dade Battlefield was the site of an ambush and slaughter of over a hundred US Soldiers by the Seminole Indians as they marched from Fort Brooke in Tampa to Fort King in Ocala. The Thomas R. Pierce House built in the 1880s is considered a superb example of vernacular architecture. Vernacular architecture is characterized by the use of local materials and knowledge. The building is also the only historic hotel or boarding house from the 1880s remaining in Bushnell.
There are also 3 Florida Historical Markers in Sumter. They are the Battle of Wahoo Swamp, Royal School Site, and Pilaklikaha/Abraham’s Town. The Battle of Wahoo Swamp was a Second Seminole War battle where Major David Moniac a Creek Indian and first Native American to graduate from West Point was killed. Many of the Seminoles were of Creek descent. The Royal School was the school of the community of Royal which was originally known as Picketsville named for the white picket fences that marked its 40-acre homesteads. The community was founded in 1865 by former slaves from the Old Green Plantation. In 1984, the Royal School main building was torn down. Pilaklikaha/Abraham’s Town was established in 1813 by Black Seminoles and destroyed during the Second Seminole War.
There are several other historical markers in Sumter County, but they are not in the Florida or National Register. These include Sumterville, Adamsville, Ft. Armstrong, Baker House, Sumter County Farmers Market, Oak Grove Cemetery Confederate Veterans Memorial and the origin of the Parson Brown Orange Tree.
Della Daughtry wanted to create a group to save the historic places of Sumter County. The Sumter County Preservation Society is now up to 10 members plus five on the Board of Directors. They are currently raising money to purchase the historic marker at the Wild Cow Prairie Cemetery. You can reach Della Daughtry Project leader for the Wild Cow Cemetery Historical Marker Project at 352-603-5679.
Since beginning the preservation society, the floodgates of historic preservation projects have opened. Della reports that she receives a call everyday about a cemetery or a historic home.
“Somewhere, somebody will say ‘I found a tombstone, here’s a picture.’ And it’ll be five or six feet from a road.” So her work begins. She contacts the state to see if they have a file on it. Usually, they don’t.
“So now we have to document it, because if a site filing isn’t done, the state doesn’t know it exists– which means it’s not protected from a road.”
“It’s funny how one little project can just really nudge something open like that,” said Daughtry.
To read Della Daughtry’s History of Pemberton go to: