Graveyards and their gravestones offer some great history lessons and serve as prompts to explore more. At Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldier Memorial Cemetery, recently, I had three lessons worth mentioning.
The oldest existing cemetery in Minneapolis, Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery welcomed its first resident in 1853. Now closed to public burials, only those holding title deeds to their grave plots will join the rank and file of those already buried there. Big pioneer names like Charles Christmas (first to survey land west of the Mississippi River), Edwin Hedderly (an active supporter of the city’s fledgling art scene), and Philander Prescott (he married, Mary, the daughter of a Dakota chief and lived among the Dakota for more than 40 years) rest alongside some 200 military veterans who fought the War of 1812 up to World War I. The names testify to the wealth of immigration over the centuries with many from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. And there are way too many children – over half of the 20 000 or so that are buried here were too young to die. There’s a lovely story on the website about Toussaint L’Ouverture Grey, the first African-American child born in the city of St. Anthony.
I’m not up on my wars. The big ones I have some knowledge of, but other, more regional ones, are lost on me. I’d never before heard of the War of 1812 so when I saw James Glover’s headstone, I made a mental note to do some digging. Turns out I had heard about it, but not by that name.
The United States suffered many costly defeats at the hands of British, Canadian and Native American troops over the course of the War of 1812, including the capture and burning of the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., in August 1814. Nonetheless, American troops were able to repulse British invasions in New York, Baltimore and New Orleans, boosting national confidence and fostering a new spirit of patriotism. The ratification of the Treaty of Ghent on February 17, 1815, ended the war but left many of the most contentious questions unresolved. Nonetheless, many in the United States celebrated the War of 1812 as a “second war of independence,” beginning an era of partisan agreement and national pride.
History lessons in a graveyard are a given, but what of language lessons? The appearance of född and dödd where I’d normally expect to see born and died, had me thinking that it must be a translation. But it took me a while to see the dots above the o. Google led me on a merry dance translating fodd and dodd into however and pleasure from the Welsh! All a tad confusing. But there is a Welsh presence in the cemetery and Minneapolis had its own Welsh community.
By 1900 there were 244 Welsh-born immigrants and 590 of their American-born children living in Hennepin County. The majority of those Welsh families lived within a few blocks east or west of Bloomington Avenue, between Franklin and Lake Street. The Welsh were generally viewed as a serious-minded and deeply religious people whose first order of business in any community where they settled was to build a church. The church was the heart of their community—the place where they could keep Welsh culture alive. It was through their churches that the Welsh immigrants’ passion for their language, poetry, and music found its truest expression.
The third lesson I learned in the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldier Memorial Cemetery was about advertising. Cemeteries are probably the only place left free of advertising. Other than the epitaphs that mention where a person might have worked or a war they may have fought in, mentions of anything other than them, their families, and their lives are few and far between. I’d noticed a couple of headstones that I’d not seen before – built in the shape of tree trunks and others imprinted with a coat of arms of sorts:
It turns out that far from marking the lives of those who were foresters or carpenters, these gravemarkers were actually advertising an insurance company, The Woodmen of the World.
[…] founded by Joseph Cullen Root in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1893. In its earliest days, it was a fraternal organization that raised money for the families of members who had died. Within a few years, the organization evolved into an insurance company that sold policies which included death benefits to its members. One of those benefits was a grave marker bearing the Woodmen seal.
The company’s original intent was for all of the markers to be identical. That practice didn’t last long since many stone carvers saw this as an opportunity to show off their skill and began adding their own artistic touches to the markers. In doing so, they created some of the most distinctive markers made during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The most interesting of these are the tree-shaped markers, many of them four or more feet tall. The limbs of the trees are broken off, a symbol of life cut short. There are several of Woodmen markers tree-style markers in Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery.
They are quite beautiful and notably different from the usual cemetery fare of angels and grieving women.
Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldier Memorial Cemetery is a lovely spot. I couldn’t help but wonder how long it will last in its current form. It’s a prime piece of real estate and apparently, back in the 1920s, local developers had similar thoughts but didn’t get very far before meeting community resistance. It’s well worth a visit but be sure to read up on those interred before you go... it will make the experience more enjoyable. Hats off to those who keep adding to the library of stories. It’s wonderful to see such interest in preserving the past.