PHOTO: The land just to the south of the second courthouse at 5th and Oak is the site of the first City Cemetery. Photo courtesy of John Dawson
Two former cemeteries tell a story of the past
By Diane Euston
Cemeteries tell a story of the past, of countless burials of children laid only in memory of the date they were interred, expressing in stone the realities of early pioneer life. The outbreak of illnesses can be seen from their dates of death. Their peaceful final resting place of men and women is marked simply in carved memorials, but these people saw this land before a city blossomed and lived life on the ground we travel each day.
Two cemeteries in what is now Kansas City once acted as public burial grounds for the area’s first residents, and both have been erased from history. The Westport Cemetery and City Cemetery once held some of Jackson County’s most celebrated pioneers, and only some of their graves were saved from the bulldozers.
Old Westport Cemetery
Also called Indian Cemetery or Yoacham Cemetery, the Old Westport Cemetery was established as a public burial ground in 1835 on land donated by Westport merchant Edgar Price. Leading citizens, Native Americans, victims of the cholera outbreak and those who did not make it to their final destination while traveling on the Santa Fe Trail were all interred inside its one-acre plot of land at current-day Archibald and Pennsylvania streets.
One of only 13 known Revolutionary War patriots in the area was also buried in Westport Cemetery. Lt. Joseph Boggs was born in 1749 in Pennsylvania and served as Lieutenant, 1st Company, 4th Battalion in the Pennsylvania militia during the Revolutionary War. He lost his wife Sarah in 1810 and by 1828 he had settled on a 40-acre farm near Westport, Mo. He died in 1843 at age 93 and was interred in the cemetery.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Old Westport Cemetery was being encroached upon by new roads and homes. The cemetery had gone into disrepair, a common problem for older cemeteries. Residents with friends and family buried at the cemetery could see its demise, thus many families, including the Wornall’s, began to move their families’ remains to other cemeteries. Unfortunately, many bodies and headstones were left behind to erode away.
In 1915, Badger Lumber Company bought the old cemetery land and began construction of their new administrative building. They erased away the remaining graves and graded the bones deep into the earth. According to the Kansas City Times, colorful descriptions graced the headstones of some of those interred at Westport Cemetery, including one headstone for a Jerome H. Glanville whose stone said he was “murdered by Four Yankee Abolitionists at Bull Creek.” These stones quickly disappeared from the land as their three-story building was erected. They have not been located.
One headstone miraculously did survive the destruction of Westport Cemetery. The Kansas City Times reported, “When the ground was being cleared, [Badger Lumber] company officials decided to utilize one of the oldest gravestones in the cemetery as a cornerstone of the building.”
As morbid as this is, Lt. Boggs’ partial headstone, worn away and only bearing his name and “Died Jan. 22, 1843” was imbedded high up in the brick plaster of the building. One year later, a local DAR chapter put an additional marker below Boggs’ headstone to commemorate the Old Westport Cemetery.
In 1965, the Badger Lumber building was razed, but not before the DAR ensured that Lt. Boggs’ headstone wasn’t lost once again amongst the demolition. They removed his partial headstone and erected a new one at Union Cemetery.
What happened to the other bodies and headstones not moved by family members is unknown due to no index of graves at this place, but they were likely erased by the bulldozers hired by Badger Lumber.
City Cemetery in the Town of Kansas
After its founding in 1838, the Town of Kansas slowly grew from the vision of its 14 original founders. John C. McCoy, wrote, “When the townsite of Kansas City was first platted, a square plot of land was dedicated by its owners as a public cemetery.”
Found between Independence Ave. to the north and 6th St. to the south and in between Oak and Locust Streets, the City Cemetery was set aside as the first public burial ground. Starting in 1845, the City Cemetery was the final resting place of some of Kansas City’s founders. One person buried there was William Miles Chick (1794-1847), a native of Virginia and one of the first permanent residents of Kansas City. He was the city’s first merchant and the city’s first postmaster.
At the time, nearly all the graves on the hilly site were on a high ridge along Oak St. Very few families could afford to have monuments or headstones because there weren’t any marble yards. Simple wooden crosses marked most of the graves of loved ones.
A large cholera outbreak in 1849 had the cemeteries filling up quickly and space was a problem. McCoy recalled that people knew even by 1855 that graves would need to be removed. The City Cemetery was then closed to more burials in 1857 but the graves remained untouched for a time. But the city planners had other ideas for the town’s first public burial ground as the hills around it were being graded for easier access.
In 1866, city officials published a public notice in the Kansas City Journal notifying all buried at the City Cemetery would need to be removed at the family’s expense. A large number of people complied to the orders, but others were not as lucky as families may have left the area and others couldn’t locate the graves. By the early 1870s, grading began along the roads that passed by the graveyard. Leveling was completed by prisoners of the city workhouse where they cut 8 to 17 feet out of the ground where most of the graves were.
As one could only predict, there was a problem immediately as the cemetery was chiseled away foot by foot. A large number of body parts and coffins were exposed. One worker testified that he took down 19 graves and eight of these were thrown into a pond on the east side of the location. Only the larger bones were put into boxes. He recalled even seeing dogs carrying away the bones that hadn’t been taken care of.
As rain began to wash away the edges of what was once the cemetery, a macabre scene was unfolding in what is now downtown Kansas City. As soon as this began, the graves of people were exposed and pieces of coffins, human hair and bones fell out of the banks and into the streets. A fence that had been put around the graveyard fell down on two sides.
A local man was then commissioned to build boxes about three feet long and one foot deep to hold the remains that were found. As many as five skulls were put into each “small, cheap, rough box” and buried once again. They numbered the graves with stakes above each placement and were later reinterred at Union Cemetery. Other body parts and fragments of coffins were left behind awaiting the final cuts into the hill. In 1878, the last of what once was the first burial ground was cut on the west and north side and graded down to one foot above street level.
The site of Kansas City’s first public burial ground became the city’s first park. Named “Shelley Park” after mayor George Shelley (1849-1927), the spot became the front lawn of the second courthouse built at 5th and Oak in 1887. Further advancements in Kansas City now has the site of the first public cemetery and the first public park now under a cloverleaf highway access–both erased from view.
Learning From the Past
Advancement is one thing, but destroying cemeteries is far from what should be done. As the city grew and encroached on land once donated by pioneers who wished to give a proper final resting place for citizens of both Westport and Kansas City, the solution was far from ideal and leaves us wondering what advancement leaves behind. Today, one has to wonder what fragments still lie underneath the earth.
The land just to the south of the second courthouse at 5th and Oak is the site of the first City Cemetery. Photo courtesy of John Dawson