Oaklawn Cemetery was created in 1850, when Tampa was a struggling town of around 500 persons. In the minutes of the Alachua County Commissioners meeting, Oaklawn was designated as a public burying ground for “white and slave, rich and poor.” Originally, most of the grave markers were wood (usually carved cypress), since stone for memorials necessitated an expensive combination of sail, steamship, and wagon transportation. Tampa had no rail service until 1884. Wood markers were destroyed by fire, rot, and storms, leaving many graves without durable markers. Additionally, the original plat of the cemetery was misplaced after the Civil War, and the locations and identities of many early interments were lost.

At Oaklawn are buried many of Tampa’s pioneer families, thirteen mayors of the City, one Florida Governor, two Florida Supreme Court Justices, and the framers of five State Constitutions. A portion of the cemetery was set aside for slaves and “marginal” persons (such as pirates), and public monies were designated to bury indigents.