The centuries-old fight to save a piece of the Wyandot tribe’s history in Kansas
By Diane Euston
Sandwiched in between buildings and in the shadows of the Wyandotte County Courthouse and the 7thStreet Casino is one of the most historic cemeteries in the entire state of Kansas. Buried under the soil well above the current graded streets of Minnesota Ave. and N. 7th St. are hundreds of unmarked graves mixed within impressive monuments of those who settled here before us. It was to be the final resting place of displaced Wyandot Indians who came to Kansas Territory in 1843.
The story of what is now called Huron Indian Cemetery is complicated. Its existence was almost erased in the name of progress. The fight to save this slice of our area’s past began in 1890 when Wyandot descendants were split in two. One courageous woman named Lyda Conley refused to be silenced and made national headlines when she took the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Wyandots to Kansas
On March 17, 1842, the Wyandot tribe ceded lands in Ohio and Michigan for 148,000 acres west of the Mississippi River. In the agreement, the government promised to pay the tribe $17,000 annually.
In July 1843, 664 members of the Wyandot tribe moved from Ohio to the convergence of the Missouri and Kaw Rivers. The original plan was to settle on Shawnee land near Westport, but this fell through. The tribe camped on lowlands in a swampy area, and by the end of the year, around 60 had died from disease. At the crest of a hill about a half mile from the river, the Wyandots carried their dead and buried them on what was then Delaware land.
This was the beginning of Huron Place Cemetery.
The name “Huron” was the name the French had given the tribe, the word meaning “wild boar.” The French thought the mohawk haircuts worn by the Wyandot tribal warriors looked like the bristles of a wild boar’s neck.
In December 1843, an agreement between the Delaware and Wyandot included three sections of land, 540 acres each, at the convergence of the Missouri and Kaw Rivers. Here, the Wyandots along with adopted members of their tribe settled. It is said that another epidemic in 1844 resulted in the burial of another 100 Wyandots in the cemetery.
Lucy B. Armstrong, a Wyandot, wrote in 1890, “To the best of my recollection and belief, I think that between the years 1844 and 1855 there were at least 400 interments and most of these graves are not perceptible and cannot be identified or even found.”
Many of the Wyandot resettled in Kansas were of mixed race; they had adopted the customs of whites but continued the traditions, such as electing chiefs, as they made their new home.
The Choice of Citizenship
Less than 12 years after their move to Kansas, a treaty in 1854 with the U.S. government was organized by Wyandot leaders Silas Armstrong, Joel Walker, George Clark, John Hicks, Tan-ro-mee and Matthew Mudeater.
All these men were buried in Huron Cemetery.
The treaty read, “The Wyandot Indians having become sufficiently advanced in civilization, and being desirous of becoming citizens, it is hereby agreed and stipulated, that their organization, and their relations with the United States, as an Indian-tribe, shall be dissolved and terminated.”
The treaty ceded the land to the government and allowed members of the tribe to become citizens of the United States. Those who chose to become citizens were given land allotments to members of the tribe.
The reason that President Franklin Pierce felt comfortable “allowing” the Wyandots to become full citizens was because of how “civilized” they had become. Many of the tribal members were of mixed white and Native American ancestry. They had been converted generations before to Christianity, dressed largely like whites and were well skilled in farming.
Section Two of the treaty, in part, read, “The portion now enclosed and used as a public burial ground, shall be permanently reserved and appropriated for that purpose.” Thus, the acreage used since 1843 as a cemetery was supposed to be safe.
Through the 1850s, the Wyandot Tribal Council continued to take care of the cemetery and even erected headstones on their deceased chief’s graves. In 1867, those members of the Wyandot tribe who didn’t become citizens in 1855 were removed to the northeast corner of Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
Those who stayed in what now was called Wyandotte County began to develop towns near their land. In 1859, the Wyandot City Town Council Company platted the town of Wyandot- two streets cut through the two-acre cemetery and the land became part of public grounds known as “Huron Place.” As the town of Wyandot grew into Kansas City, Ks., the little cemetery’s real estate price tag became of interest to those moving into the area.
The First Fight For the Land
Burials in Huron Cemetery had slowed over the years even though it was made a public burial ground in 1866. Many residents of Wyandotte Co. had family interred there and kept watch over the small cemetery. In 1890, Kansas Senator Preston Plank proposed a resolution to sell the burial ground. The notion that this was even possible shocked the relatives of those buried there who still lived in the area. 72-year-old Lucy B. Armstrong noted all of the history of the Wyandot tribe buried there and proclaimed, “To remove the burying ground now would be to scatter the dust of the dead to the winds.”
Lucy’s own nephew, Silas Armstrong, jr., disagreed with her. His father – buried in Huron Cemetery- had been head chief of the Wyandot Nation. Silas was head of the movement to remove the bodies at Huron Cemetery to Oklahoma and bury them there with a large monument. In Indian Territory, 50 families (a total of 250 people) were part of the Wyandot Nation.
The Wyandots in Indian Territory worked to restore their tribal status while purposely leaving out what they called the “citizen-Wyandots” who stayed in Kansas.
Money may have been the motivation, because the Wyandot Indians in Oklahoma were the ones who would vote on the matter. Those living in the Kansas City area had surrendered their tribal status for citizenship in 1855. The Kansas City Gazette reported, “[There is] no room for the live Indian, and now, no room for the dead Indian.”
In 1899, there were additional rumblings to destroy the cemetery, ironically, to build a government building. Behind this fight was William E. Connelley, a well-known historian and writer. He gained the trust of the Wyandots in Indian Territory and was made power of attorney to sell the cemetery – and where he would make a hefty profit. Although these plans initially failed, the battle over the land was far from over.
Lyda Conley and Her Fort
Eliza Burton “Lyda” Conley (1869-1906) was born in Kansas to parents Andrew and Eliza Burton Zane. Her mother had come from Ohio with her grandmother, Hannah Zane, to Kansas. Her parents and grandmother were buried in Huron Cemetery, so the fight to save it was incredibly personal as she was part Wyandot.
Her great-grandfather of European descent, Isaac Zane, had been captured by the Wyandot at nine years old and was held captive for years. In 1795, he married Myeerah, Chief Tarhe’s daughter. Tarhe was the man who had held him captive.
Her great-grandparents were made famous when a 1903 book partially based on their story called Betty Zane was published.
With interest in preserving the rich history of the cemetery, Lyda enrolled in Kansas City School of Law, graduating in 1902. She was the first woman ever admitted to the Kansas bar.
In 1906, a bill passed through Congress to sell the cemetery and move the bodies to nearby Quindaro Cemetery. In turn, Lyda filed in U.S. District Court an injunction against the Secretary of the Interior and Indian Commissioners to prevent the sale.
While the case slowly made it through the courts, Lyda and her sister Helena took matters into their own hands and started her “one-woman Indian mutiny of Kansas City.”
When it was said the sale was pending on Huron Cemetery in 1906, Lyda along with her two sisters, Ida and Helena, padlocked the gates and built a small 6×8 foot hut over the top of their mother’s grave that became known as “Fort Conley.” She told the Wyandotte Chief newspaper, “The spirits of my father and mother and the spirits of my ancestors told me to build this watch tower and protect the noble Indians who lie buried here.”
The sisters armed themselves with shotguns and openly threatened anyone who tried to enter Huron Cemetery. Signs surrounding the cemetery read “Trespass at Your Peril.”
Many called her a “trouble maker,” but Lyda Conley was simply unwilling to concede. She started her arduous fight in June 1907, and in 1909, her efforts paid off when the U.S. Supreme Court heard her case. She was the first Native American woman (and second female) to argue a case in the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court dismissed Conley’s case. Even though they had lost their legal battle, the Conley sisters continued to closely monitor the cemetery. Her older sister, Helena was known to tell fortunes for money, and it was said that she would place curses on people who would dare trespass on the land.
Lyda was even arrested when she pulled up stakes of government surveyors in the area and was oftentimes in court paying fines for “disturbing the peace.”
Resolution After a Long Battle
Kansas Senator Charles Curtis, a descendant of the Kaw Indians, saw the case of Huron Cemetery to be something worth saving. He took a bill to Congress in 1912 and suggested the cemetery should be a national monument. In turn, the House Indian Affairs committee enacted a bill prohibiting the removal of the cemetery.
Shortly thereafter, it is said the U.S. marshal entered the cemetery and destroyed “Fort Conley”- and said they couldn’t rebuild it.
Lyda spent the majority of her adult life protecting a sacred burial ground of the Wyandots. After her death and burial in Huron Cemetery in 1946, the federal government tried one more time to sell the land. Continuing in the spirit of Lyda, descendants fought and won.
In 1971, the cemetery was put on the National Register of Historic Places. In the 1990s, the old feud on the burial ground between the Wyandots of Oklahoma and the Wyandots in Kansas reared its ugly head. In 1998, the two tribes reached an agreement that the Huron Cemetery would never be used for anything but a burial ground. In 2016, it was recognized as a National Historic Landmark under the preferred name “Wyandot National Burying Ground.”
When the site was marked, the engraved words “Huron Indian Cemetery” were chosen in lieu of what the Wyandots prefer.
The Wyandot National Burial Ground
William E. Connelley who once pioneered the idea of moving the cemetery also spent an extensive amount of time researching those buried inside of it. Connelley’s survey in 1896 located 86 stones. By 1918, Connelley couldn’t believe what was left. “Only two or three monuments were standing entire, and scarcely a headstone could be found.”
The last of the Conley sisters to pass away was 94-year-old Helena in 1958. Always the one to have allegedly put curses on those who wished harm to the cemetery, Helena’s headstone read, “Cursed be the villain who molest their grave.”
Today, the national landmark in the midst of downtown development still maintains its quiet, spiritual presence as it stands atop a hill that has been graded on all sides. Its height above the buildings is a metaphor of its survival past all the odds. A paved pathway winds through its grounds, and stones that are broken and no longer legible have been marked by newer stones to further preserve this important past.
The Wyandots hold an important piece of our area’s history, and this burial ground is now forever protected after a century. Without the perseverance of Lena Conley, this ground would have been lost forever. Now, the hundreds of unmarked remains will stay safely buried under the well-manicured landscape of a national landmark.
Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to www.newsantafetrailer.blogspot.com