At the time of Muir’s visit, Bonaventure was one of the most popular tourist sites in the nation. Thousands of middle- and upper-class visitors filed through the cemetery’s gates in the mid nineteenth century, and Bonaventure was featured in countless travelogues, poems, short stories, and novels circulated in literary magazines, tourist guidebooks, and newspapers. By the late nineteenth century, the oak-shaded grounds had even attracted notable visitors like Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant, and William McKinley. Just five years after Muir camped there, Harriet Beecher Stowe—herself one of the cemetery’s many visitors—wrote that “the thing that every stranger in Savannah goes to see, as a matter of course, is Bonaventure.”2
Few tourist sites in the South ever achieved this much fame, especially in the nineteenth century. Yet Bonaventure captivated tourists because it featured a landscape that could not be found in any other rural cemetery in the United States. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, unpaved walkways meandered through overgrown avenues of live oaks draped with Spanish moss, surrounded on each side by dense foliage. Because cemetery officials were often stymied in their efforts to “improve” the grounds, nineteenth-century visitors watched as vegetation swallowed up ruins, tombs, plots, and avenues. This set it apart from the manicured pastoral scenery of popular rural cemeteries like Mount Auburn in Boston and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, and it softened the edges between nature and human artifice in a way that few other tourist sites could. While it may seem counterintuitive to view a cemetery as “wild” terrain, nineteenth-century visitors concluded that despite human designs, nature reigned supreme at Bonaventure.3
Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, unpaved walkways meandered through overgrown avenues of live oaks draped with Spanish moss, surrounded on each side by dense foliage.