Historic Union Cemetery showcases the lives of early pioneers
By Diane Euston
Nestled in the heart of our city is 27 acres of park land that holds the remains of some of Kansas City’s most important historical figures. Union Cemetery is one of the most beautiful and significant pieces of our city’s history.
Because Old Westport Cemetery, established in 1835, and Kansas City’s City Cemetery, established in 1845, were losing space to city encroachment and massive burials due to outbreaks of cholera, there was a desperate need for a new cemetery.
In 1857, James W. Hunter deeded 49 acres of land to the Union Cemetery Association. Although some people now believe that the name “Union Cemetery” comes from the Civil War, this is not the origin of the name– the cemetery was founded five years before the war. The name “Union” was given to the new burial site because it was intended to be a union between the cities of Westport and Kansas City. Union Cemetery today can be found in the Union Hill neighborhood at 228 W. 28th Ter.
As the two original public cemeteries in Westport and Kansas City were abandoned, the bodies and headstones of some of the area’s pioneers were moved to Union Cemetery. Four of Kansas City’s original founders are interred there, including William Chick, John C. McCoy, Jacob Regan and William Gilliss.
One of the oldest people buried at the cemetery is Elizabeth Porter, wife of Samuel Porter. Elizabeth died in 1845 at the age of 95. She was born in 1750, a whopping 70 years before Missouri would even become a state! A native of Ireland, she went to Virginia before the American Revolution, was captured by Native Americans during the war and was forced to walk all the way to Niagara Falls where she was held an entire winter. When her son Rev. James Porter came to the Kansas City area in 1832, she came with him. They were the first Protestants in the region and held the first service on logs within a forest near current day 2nd and Walnut.
Milton J. Payne (1829-1900) was elected mayor of Kansas City at the age of 26 in 1855. Payne was elected five times between 1855 and 1859, but his service didn’t end there. He was re-elected mayor for a sixth term during the Civil War in 1862. One of the founders of the Kansas City Enterprise newspaper, it was said that Payne always carried a gun while walking the wild streets of Kansas City. Payne chose Union as his final resting place. His first wife, Mary Prudhomme Payne, was the youngest daughter of Gabriel Prudhomme, the owner of the land that would be purchased to develop the future site of Kansas City.
Alexander Majors (1814-1900), one of three operators of the firm Russell, Majors & Waddell who founded the Pony Express is buried at Union Cemetery. His antebellum home at 8201 State Line Rd. is a historic landmark and is one of the area’s only surviving pre-Civil War structures.
Another famous Kansas Citian that chose Union Cemetery was none other than George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), known as “the Missouri artist.” Bingham painted scenes of social and political life of the Missouri frontier and was elected to the Missouri legislature. When he died in Kansas City in 1879, he was buried per his wife’s request in Union Cemetery – in the same burial plot as her first husband.
Mattie Livingston Lykins, Bingham’s third wife, was the widow of Dr. Johnston Lykins (1800-1876). Dr. Lykins came to Kansas City in 1831 as a medical missionary. His first wife was Delilah McCoy, sister to John C. McCoy, one of the original founders of Kansas City and the founder of Westport. After her death, Lykins married Mattie Livingston, cousin of Gen. Stonewall Jackson. Lykins was the second mayor of Kansas City, serving from 1854 to 1855.
A fire in the sexton’s cottage in August 1889 unfortunately destroyed all burial records kept there, so those with no headstones or with stones weathered away over time were erased from history.
In 1910, Union Cemetery was showing signs of disrepair. The Cemetery Association sold 18 acres of the original cemetery plat at 27thand Main, leaving 27 acres in their possession.
By 1937, the cemetery was falling even further from its former glory, so the Union Cemetery Association deeded the remaining 27 acres to the City of Kansas City so it would be maintained by Kansas City Parks and Recreation. The Native Sons adopted the historic cemetery as a service project and restored major parts of the cemetery.
The first mayor of Kansas City, William S. Gregory, also has ties to historic Union Cemetery. Eliza Wade Gregory, his first wife who died in 1851 and two infant sons, Willie and Robert, are buried at Union Cemetery. They were originally interred in the Wade family burial ground near current-day 121stand State Line on a farm owned by Samuel Wade, Gregory’s father-in-law who died in 1861. In 1872, the surviving family chose to use money from Samuel’s estate to remove “six corpses” to Union Cemetery.
Because of the fire in the sexton’s cottage, the records of these burials was lost in the flames. Through my own research, I was able to find records in Samuel Wade’s probate file that confirmed that this family, including William S. Gregory’s first wife, were buried in forgotten graves inside Union Cemetery. Because of unreadable weathered stones, they had remained a mystery for 130 years until confirmed by my research. Visiting the location and giving names to their partially unmarked graves was something that I am still proud of today.
Added to the National Register in 2016, Union Cemetery is a treasure of early Kansas City history and holds over 55,000 graves. Today, it is carefully maintained by Kansas City Parks and the Union Cemetery Historical Society.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com