On April 22, 1995, a group of people came together at the Huron Indian Cemtery. With them came rakes, shovels and garbage bags, and the cleaning commenced. While they worked, they spoke of the past, and the present. They spoke of many things, from Lucy Bigelow's distaste for Silas (her brother-in-law), to Helena Conley's curse. A suggestion to build a shack on some graves and guard it with a shotgun was met with laughter and a new surge of conversation. From the light-hearted speech of these people, it is difficult to believe that the plot of land they worked so hard to clean had been the center of a controversy lasting over one hundred years.
Since 1890, various groups of people have been trying to sell, or buy, this cemetery for a vaiety of reasons. The Wyandotte tribe of Oklahoma, (members of) the United States Senate, and commercial business owners have been these people. Why any of these groups believes that they have a claim on the ground is somwhat nebulous, when the first left Kansas City in the 1860's, the second has no direct connection to it, and the third has no right to it.
The 1890's attack on the Wyandot burial ground began with a proposal by one Senator Preston B. Plumb, in spite of the 1855 treaty, which, in Article 2, states, "The portion now enclosed and used as a public burying ground, shall be permanently reserved and appropriated for that purpose..." The claimes that "the cemetery was a nuisance" and that the Wyandots wished to have their ancestors moved to a more secluded lcation. Lucy Bigelow Armstrong responded shortly thereafter with a letter to the editor of the Kansas City Gazette. She made the comment, "To remove the 'burying ground' now would be to scatter the dust of the dead to the winds' and that her "hear protests against such a desecration of that scared ground."
While this particular threat came to nothing more than a panicked move of two graves to another cemetery, another onslaught was made a mere nine years later. In 1899, real estate speculators maneuvered the Oklahoma Wyandottes into attempting to sell the cemetery. The Wyandotte tribal council reportedly authorized William E. Connelley to move the graves and sell the cemetery; this was just four years after Mr. Connelley had begun a survey of that selfsame location.
Despite the uproar from the protesters, and the browbeating of the Oklahoma Wyandottes and compatriots, nothing was actually accomplished. Until 1906, that is. On June 21, it was reported that a provision to sell the graveyard had been buried in a sisty-five page Congressional bill. The many remains, a number of which were unmarked or in mass graves, were to be transferred to Quindaro Cemetery.
A conflagration of protest spread like blood in water; the most radical of the protesters were the three Conley sisters; Eliza (Lyda), Helena (Lena) and Ida. They built a small ramshackle hovel in which they slept when not on sentry duty, over their parents' graves. After padlocking the cemetery gare, they hung a sign that warned, "Trespass at Your Peril."
Horace B. Durant, chairperson for the commission to sell the cemetery, continued to request bids for the land, in spite of the three who had taken up residence there. He was apparently uncowed by Lyda's declaration of "...woe be to the man that first attempts to steal a body...(we) are part owners of the ground and have the right...to keep off trespassers, the right a man has to shoot a burglar who enters his home."
It was another two years before Lyda, a lawyer since being admitted to the Missouri Bar in 1902, was allowed to present her case in court. During the October term, 1909, Lyda Burton Conley became the first Native American woman attorney allowed to present a case before the United States Supreme Court. She stated that the precedent had been set by the Supreme Court which "held that 'whenever a tract of land has been legally severed from the mass of public lands, and no subsequent law, or proclamation, or sale will be construed to embrace it, or to operate upon it..."
Even though there was a great deal of sympathy for Lyda's plight, her appeal was dismissed, although without costs. The previous movement to sell had expired, but after the decision, the dying embers were fanned once more. Upon a report that the Huron Cemetery held one hundred eight-two feet of frontage on Minnesota Avenue, the speculators flared anew. A letter of Protest by McIntyre Armstrong was published February 8, 1910. He complained that "The government has broken every treaty it has made with the Indians, and they have been driven from place to place, until even the dead are not allowed to rest in peace.
Years passed with only minor skirmishes between the Conleys and the government. Helena Conley was renowned for cursing anyone and anything that dared intrude upon the cemetery premises; that included the mayor and a motocycle police officer, among others. The officer, after his cursing, arrested her for disturbing the peace. "All I did was damn his soul to eternity. You can't disturb the peace of a police officer" was Helena's retort.
There was a minor uproar in 1956 when Ralph Fulton, a K.C.K. Board of Education member, proposed to destroy the forty-three year old library in Huron Park, a euphemistic term for the Cemetery land, in favor of an auditoriam, war museum, and a new library. A March 24 article in the Kansas City Star discussed the benefits of such a project, minimized objections, and suggested cutting off half of the available space, which would leave only one acre to the dead.
Harry M. Trowbridge, then president of the Wyandotte County Historical Society, wrote to Congressman Errett Scrivner, objecting to yet another "...attempt to remove Huron cemetery and commercialize Huron Park...." Trowbridge also wrote to the Kansas City Kansan,declaring that the only people interested in the sale were those "...who own property or have businesses adjacent, and expect to profit personally." He admitted that "It is true the ground would be valuable for commercial purposes," but also, he stated that "...so would Central Park and certain churchyards in New York City, Boston common, Grant Parkin Chicago..."and many others.
In July of 1947, Mayor Clark Tucker of Kansas City Kansas formally protested the proposed sale of the cemetery to Washington. He included a photograph that illustrated the encroachment upon the city by the streets and businesses surrounding it. Days later he was joined in protest by Senatory Arthur Capper; and in August, Senator Scrivner went on record as opposing the plan. In February of 1948, Alton H. Skinner, Kansas City, Kansas City Attorney, quoted from article 6 of the United States Constitution, which states that laws and treaties made by the federal government preside over state and local laws. Mr. Skinner referred to the 1855 treaty that provided for the reservation of the cemetery for burial purposes only.
Similar squabbles continued for months, and an oft repeated suggestion was voiced to transfer the cemetery to the National Park Service. Senator Scrivner, in March of 1949, wrote to Harry Trowbridge and stated that the National Park Service had suggested a name change to Wyandott National Memorial, and that the Department of the Interior recommended that any excavations be done in an approved archeological fashion.
A rather heated status quo persisted for several years, until 1959. Rep. Newell George proposed, on Junuary 1, that an investigation be made to determine the Huron Cemtery's eligibility for national shrine status. On January 15, he made the verbal statements of wanting the cemetery to be in a National Indian Hall of Fame, and that he believed commercial use of the cemetery was inevitable, therefore it was necessary to rmove the remains to some other tract of land in Wyandotte County; neither statement was included on his bill. By February 12, the Interior Department was preparing to take bids for the land. A newspaper editorial recalled the 1908 attempt to sell the cemetery, and the the Conley sisters' fight to save it with a reminder that "history repeats itself."
A June proposal to trade land was rejected by Mayor Paul Mitchum, on the basis of the fact that such an exchange would increase the property value, as he did not want anyone to have any more reason to try to buy the land.
Another June occurrance in involved descendants of the Wyandots of Kansas and many others throughout Kansas City who wished to retain the cemetery as a burial ground. Chief Lawrence Zane of the Oklahoma Wyandottes claimed a lack of concern over the purchase of the land, so long as his tribe was compensated for it.
The bidding began in July, although well below the estimated price, which caused a newspaper to comment that 'it demonstrates once again that life means change and nothing is sacred."
The attempted sale fail because of the efforts of those who care about the cemetery and the history it represents. In September, 1971, the Huron Indian Cemetery was finally placed on the National Register of Historic Sites. The cemetery has, until recently been considered safe. However, in 1994, Chief Leaford Bearskin of the Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma announed the intentions of the Oklahoma tribe to build a high stakes bingo parlor and casino in place of the remains of hundreds of dead. In a rapid response to the proclamation, about 50 members of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas gathered together and unanimously voted to oppose any plans to disinter the bodies in the Huron Indian Cemetery.