Buried History

Minneapolis's past lies forgotten at the Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery

 Cemeteries are forever, or so we'd like to believe. They represent our history, our home, the place we will be remembered long after everything we knew has changed, been torn down, and built anew. They tell a story about who we are as a city, reflecting the way in which we care for the collective dead, for the past. They are repositories of history--time capsules both personal and communal.

Stretching across 27 acres at the southern tip of the Phillips neighborhood, no local graveyard carries this burden more obviously than the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery. A place out of time, it is surrounded by auto body shops and bustling liquor stores. The headstones, some dating back to the 1800s, are scattered a little haphazardly. Some have sunk below ground; others list to one side or the other, like buoys in a harbor. Still others have collapsed completely, lying in pieces in the overgrown grass. Perhaps you have driven by it a thousand times without seeing it, without realizing that what lies beyond the stone and wrought iron perimeter is a distinctive window into a short but extremely vital period in Minneapolis's history.

Back in the 1850s, Minneapolis stretched only about as far as Franklin Avenue. Beyond that, there was an expansive prairie bordered by a hardwood forest. In 1853, a man named Martin Layman, born in 1811 in Greene County, New York, came to Minneapolis and staked a claim on the land around what today is Lake Street and Cedar Avenue. As part of his homestead, used mainly for farming, he built a house on Cedar and 29th Street. It was this plot, originally earmarked for a school, that would become Layman's Cemetery, later to become Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.

As is so often the case with folk history, a number of different stories have arisen regarding the first body to be buried here. Most likely it took place in September 1853, with the interment of Carlton Keith Cressy, son of the Rev. W. E. Cressy, founder of the first Baptist church in Minneapolis.

Another depiction of the first burial comes from Ethyln Wightman Whittier, who wrote about the cemetery in the January 1943 edition of the quarterly bulletin Hennepin County History. "On the death of one of the neighbors in this new-born community, the husband found himself in a real dilemma," Whittier writes. "He had no money to take his wife's body back home and no proper place to bury it. When Martin Layman heard about it he at once set aside 26 acres of his farm for a cemetery. Here the neighbor's wife was buried."

Some say the interment of the wife may have taken place in 1858, the year the graveyard officially opened to the public. In any case, Layman's property served as an informal burial ground and soon, more officially, became the city's first cemetery west of the Mississippi.

Back then, Pioneers and Soldiers was located a day's buggy ride from central Minneapolis, along a dirt road that connected downtown to outlying areas. Plots sold for anywhere between 50 cents and $5. "Business was brisk," reads a 1998 guide to the graveyard. "The cemetery was perfectly located for access in the early periods of Minneapolis development... Population was growing in both town and rural areas, and Layman's was the primary burying ground for these early settlers."

The location was no accident, explains David Sloane, a University of Southern California professor and author of the 1991 book, The Last Great Necessity. Many city cemeteries started out in churchyards or on family farms; later there was a push to move those burial grounds to more suburban areas, both to reduce health hazards and to allow more communing with nature. "Cemeteries were viewed as dangerous public health nuisances," he says. "They wanted to push them outside the city." So for economic, medical, and cultural reasons, American cemeteries ended up on the outskirts, where they were turned into park-like sanctuaries. Since they coincided with a new appreciation for nature but mostly pre-dated real municipal parks, graveyards became destinations for leisurely outings.

Today, the Phillips neighborhood is one of Minneapolis's poorest areas, inhabited by many of the city's most vulnerable residents. It is also largely transitional; Minneapolis's new immigrants often find their first footing in Phillips, as the myriad Hispanic clothing shops and Somali markets confirm.

The languages and countries of origin are different now, but the rest has been true of this neighborhood for more than a century--even, or perhaps especially, in the city's early decades. A stroll through the cemetery provides a portal into the historic populations of south Minneapolis, and how quickly and dramatically they have changed.

Some of Minneapolis's pioneers are buried here, like Philander Prescott, an early trader with the Native Americans, who married an Indian woman, Mary Kee-e-he-le. He was killed during the Dakota uprising of 1862. His wife died five years later and was buried alongside him. There is also Charles Christmas, Hennepin County's first surveyor and engineer of the roads running from Minneapolis, who died in 1884. And John Hoblitt, who, as a member of the First Minnesota Infantry, was the first Minnesota soldier to die in the Civil War. He died in November 1861 of typhoid fever; his body was sent back to Minnesota and his last words, "Do not bury me on slave soil," were written on his gravestone.

Next Page »