High above street level on a mound of prime downtown real estate lay the final resting ground for many members of the tribe that would lend its name to the county of Wyandotte. In 1843, Wyandots migrated from Ohio to what is now Kansas. When they arrived, the land they were promised was no longer available, and instead, they purchased 36 acres from the Delaware, who were already living in the area.
During those earliest months, epidemics of disease swept through the Wyandot, and they buried their dead on the hill overlooking the river. As the area was opened up to White settlement, the cemetery land was supposed to be protected ground, but as much of the surrounding land changed hands, several attempts were made to sell the cemetery and remove the graves–especially as the business district grew around it.
When such an attempt was made in 1906, three sisters with some Wyandot blood in their veins–Helana, Eliza, and Ida Conley–padlocked the cemetery gates, built a shanty over their parents’ graves, and pointed shotguns at anyone who tried to remove tombstones or bodies. Eliza “Lyda” Conley studied law and was thought to be the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court. The three sisters kept up this occupational protest for several years as court after court ruled in favor of the sale, but the public sided with the Conleys and in 1913, Congress denied the sale and instead appropriated funds to improve the grounds.
Today, the cemetery includes winding paths and is a scenic, green overlook for an otherwise paved downtown. The cemetery is thought to be the final resting ground for several hundred early area residents, though only a few dozen graves are specifically marked. Many are graves of Wyandot chiefs, a few of which are still marked today.
Because many White settlers had assimilated and married into the Wyandot nation, graves sometimes carry traditionally European names, English translations of native names, as well as Native American names. In many places, a marker indicates only that there are many unmarked graves.
The cemetery is on the National Register of Historic Places and is easily accessible (it’s right next to the Kansas City Kansas Public Library). Detailed plaques at the entrance outline the history of the Wyandot and the burial ground. It’s worth a visit, both to remember those who came before us and to understand just how valuable two acres of land can be to different people.