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Discovering the history of Omaha's oldest cemeteries

Discovering the history of Omaha's oldest cemeteries

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Some of Omaha’s early burials were at the Douglas County Poor Farm in a ravine where the Omaha Belt Line railroad, shown here with the Douglas County Hospital in the background, ran through. The ravine is now part of the Field Club Trail.

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The Native American woman might have been an Otoe, an Omaha, a Pawnee.

She might have been old. She might have been left behind in her tepee on purpose or while her tribe was on a hunt along the Elkhorn River, or abandoned to die by the roadside.

But by all accounts, she was sick. She died. And she was the first person to be buried in Omaha after the town’s founding in 1854.

Her grave might be in the Old Market. Or in Little Bohemia on South 13th Street. Her story has so many versions, even by the man who dug the grave and was Omaha’s first permanent resident, William Snowden.

What Snowden read at the funeral service, from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier, was apropos for the young community:

Behind the scared squaw’s birch canoe

The steamer smokes and raves;

And city lots are staked for sale

Above old Indian graves.

From “On Receiving an Eagle’s Quill from Lake Superior, 1849.”

Pardon the pun, but another of my deep digs has turned up forgotten burial grounds across Douglas County — downtown, near downtown, on the Nebraska Medical Center campus, near the Field Club and several in the western part of the county near Valley.

Stu Pospisil

Stu Pospisil

Snowden recalled in 1900 how parts of downtown were built on burial grounds of Native Americans. A chief of the Pawnee, a tribe that previously occupied the area, told him there had been at least 50 battles with other tribes on the townsite, and casualties were buried there. A cluster of perhaps 20 graves were found near 11th and Dodge Streets in 1854. Some of the bodies were below the surface, Snowden said, “while others were upon platforms a few feet in the air that they might be handy when the Great Spirit passed that way in his rounds.”

“Every now and then,” he continued, “when some man is digging a foundation in that part of the city Indian bones are turned up.”

The first White man buried in Omaha, in 1854 with Snowden involved as undertaker and minister once again, was John Todd. He came from the east and operated a small grocery — and liquor store — near 12th and Jackson Streets. Omaha historian Alfred Sorenson said Todd was his own best customer and included this pithy epitaph in his history of the city:

Poor old Todd — he loved too well his toddy;

Twas the intoxicating cup that made him turn his toes up;

‘Tis sad to think he died of drink

And was buried ‘neath the sod; Gone to meet his God

Snowden made the coffin and at the funeral read a Bible passage, sang a hymn and gave the benediction. His brickyard workers dug a grave on the south side of South Omaha Creek at 13th and Mason Streets. That, he said, was the first burying grounds to be used by Whites and several more interments followed. Those eventually were exhumed and reburied elsewhere. But Todd’s coffin remained. Union Pacific grading crews found the remains in the 1860s and thought they were of a murdered man.

Also in 1854 was the burial of M.C. Gaylord. At 22nd and Burt Streets, the carpenter had built and lived in the second house in the city — Snowden’s was the first. Dying from tuberculosis, he was buried on the ridge a short distance from the house. His remains were uncovered during excavation for Creighton College in 1877 and reburied.

The first death of a woman settler was the wife of the Rev. Isaac Collins, during childbirth in 1855. The next was a Mrs. Driscoll in February 1856. She was the first person interred in the old burying ground southwest of the city in Shull’s addition. Snowden recalled the graveyard was used for a few years. Territorial Gov. Thomas Cuming was buried in the first metallic coffin brought to the city. The coffin later was exhumed and taken to Holy Sepulchre at 50th and Leavenworth Streets. When streets in Shull’s area were lowered, numerous graves were found. It was said tobogganers sometimes would hit a coffin, knock it loose and send it down the snowy slope.

Grace Lutheran Church, 1326 S. 26th St., was built on the site in 1888. When the lots were graded, another metallic casket was discovered. It contained the body of an Army officer’s wife, a Mrs. Clark, who had come from St. Louis by boat.

Shull’s graveyard was beneath those who believed they were in Omaha’s high society. Theirs was at 23rd Street and St. Mary’s Avenue in an oak grove that had been a picnic ground. Snowden believed about 50 were interred there between 1861 and 1865, then were moved to the city’s Prospect Hill Cemetery.

Douglas County’s first Potter’s Field was at its poor farm southwest of 36th and Pacific Streets, now the Field Club golf course. “Down in a ravine an eighth of a mile, through which the Belt railway has built, lies the potter’s field, the last resting place of the unwept and unclaimed pauper and the disputed territory — according to report — between the medical college and the county authorities,” The World-Herald wrote in 1885. “It is so seldom that ‘good subjects’ go from there to the county dead house that there is ground to believe that the body snatcher does not look very often in that direction.”

In the 1890s and 1900s, there were several large burial sites found near Valley. One contained 19 skeletons, five of them were women. An earlier one, 24. And the last, in 1906 only 50 yards from the first site, graders on the U.P. main line uncovered six. It was not believed, a dispatch to The World-Herald said, that the bones were of Native Americans. “It leads to the belief of some frontier engagement and that the skeletons were those of the victims of an Indian massacre,” the article read. “The place where the bones were found is but three miles from the old military road to the west.”

Old graves continued to be found. In the mid-1960s in midtown, the graves of two infants were discovered near 41st and Dodge Streets — each with a grave marker bearing a date of 1889. In January 1967, a pioneer cemetery was found southwest of UNMC during excavation of a basement for a hospital addition. Some bodies were wrapped in leather and others were in wooden coffins.

Most recently, one historic site — the burial ground that preceded the Mormon Pioneer Cemetery — has been located and marked. In 2019, a granite monument was placed on the Omaha Home for Boys’ Cooper Farm. It’s on a hill where 69 graves were found from the Mormons’ brief Cutler’s Park settlement in 1846 prior to Winter Quarters in the present-day Florence neighborhood. It took ground-penetrating radar for the Historical Pioneer Research Group to solve a 170-year mystery.

A visit to the fenced monument on private land requires permission from the Mormon Trail Center at Historic Winter Quarters, 402-453-9372. There is a new informational marker listing the 69 deaths at the northeast corner of Mormon Bridge Road and Young Street.

Next week: A look at the oldest Omaha cemeteries with tombstones.


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Reporter - High school sports

Stu is The World-Herald's lead writer for high school sports and for golf. Follow him on Twitter @stuOWH. Email

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