Lyda Burton Conley


Friday June 7, 1946 Kansas City Times

Recent Death of Miss Lyda Conley Recalls Long Series of Outbreaks and Defiance of Law by Women Who Built Shack on Indian Burial Ground in Heart of Kansas City, Kansas and Lived beside Graves of Ancestors.

By Henry Van Brunt

The death on May 28 of the most aggressive of the three Huron park Conleysisters--Lyda Burton Conley--at the age of 72 sent the writer on anadventurous trek through the files of the Star, picking up the back trail of what you might call the 1-woman Indian mutiny of Kansas City Kanss.

The file of clippings arranged chronologically, measures more than half aninch in thickness and covering a period of forty years, come October,represents the reportorial activity of perhaps scored of reporters, many of whom, obviously had no realization of the venerable tenure of the subjectthey were handling. For instance, it was hardly fair to refer to Missconley in 1928 as having "recently cause trouble in Huron cemetery" whenthat stubborn champion of Indian burial rights had then been at it fornearly a score of years. Trouble was her perogative; she thrived ontrouble...And, as far as the writer is concerned, they can take all theclippings and file them in the Zane family lot as an enduring monument topertinacity and publicity.


As background for the Conley epic, it is necessary to bring up theWyandotte migration and the big rain of 1844. The Wyandottes came to theconfluence of the Missouri and Kaw rivers (July 28 and 31 in 1843)....andsettled in the Westport area until the Delaware sold them thirty sixsections and gave them three sections in memory of friendshipin what is now Wyandotte County. Records are lacking, but it is reliably reported to have rained forty days and forty nights in 1844. Floods filled the whole area of what is now the Central Industrial district, an epidemic of smallposfollowed and between 200 and 300 (according to the Star account) Indiansdied. They were buried in the Huron Park (Also known as WyandottNational-je) Cemetery

That is the basis for the Conley sisters; defense of the Indian burialground. Their mother was buried there (their sister Sarah-je) and, theysay, ancestors further back (actually many cousins, Uncles, and Aunts; and their Grandmother, Hannah Zane.

The revolt of the three sisters, started in the summer of 1907 as a resultof plans broached the previous year for purchase by the city of the Huroncemetery, Congress, having authorized its sale by the secretary of theInterior in 1905 (actually, I believe 1906-je)

BUILT SHACK IN CEMETERYAs soon as the Conley sisters realized that the sale was pending theyannounced that they would protect the graves of their ancestors, ifnecessary, with shotguns. Forthwith, they marched to the cemetery and threw up a 6 by 8 1 room frame shack hard by the ancestral resting place and moved in. H.B. Durant, Indian commissioner commented that it was a uniquesituation and washed his hands of it, suggesting that it was up to theDepartment pf Justice and Federal troops.

Troops never were called to eject the sisters, who defended their cemeteryfort through 1907.1908. 1909. and through the summer of 1910. Throughoutthis period, Lyda prepared herself for legal action by an assiduous study of law books, the better to contest the government order. When the battlebegan the new Carnegie library sttod in the center of the square, the newBrund hotel stood at one corner, and on another preparations were being made for the reconstruction of the Masonic Temple, destroyed by fire.

It was William Rodekepf, pavind contractor, who won the distinction of thefirst actual encounter with the sisters by tearing down a fence which theConleys (probably with help from their tribal brothers and sisters-je)erected between the cemetery and the temple site. The sisters rebuilt the fence, and the contractor's men tore it down again. Again Lyda rebuilt it in defiance of an injunction obtained by the Masonic bodies, and it was again laid low. The writter took a pencil and tried to figure the number of times the fence was destroyed and rebuilt during a fortnight in the winter of1907, but gave it up. On one occasion the sisters defended their fence with sticks and stones. (note: during this time, although the sisters ran off trespassers, Wyandots and especially their children were always welcome. My cousin tells of being invited into the shed, given candy an told stories.In 1922, my mother's twin brother {infant son of Clifford B. Zane} diedshortly after birth and was buried by an uncle (a non-Wyandot) in thecemetery. The sisters offered their support and permission for the grave to be dug and my baby uncle (one of three baby brothers) to be buried without interference--je)

Through this eary period, the rightful ownership of the cemetery remined indoubt--unless it could be said that the Conleys owned it by right ofpossession. There was a federal order to remove the bodies to Quindarocemetery, but it was qualified in such a way as to leave grounds for suits in the federal courts, and Lyda conley took full advantage of thisopportunity, supported by women's clubs and others with whom sentimentoutweighed commercialism and twentieth century progress.

HELENA HOLD THE FORTAnd while Lyda fought her battle in the courts, her sister Helena, whoprefers the name Helene, guarded the fort, keeping things trim in the burial ground, felling dead trees with an ax while awed bystanders admired the play of her muscles, resenting intrusion by roaming holiday makers. Because of the intrusions, the sisters finally wired the cemetery gates together andput up a sign: "You Trespass at Youw Own Peril." None disregarded it.

Lyda Conley was admitted to the Kansas bar in 1910 and in the course of her fightagainst removal of the Indian graves, made several trips to Washington. She is said to have been the first woman lawyer (actually Indian Woman Lawyer) to plead before the United States Supreme Court.

On July 29, while Lyda and her sisters were in Wyandotte County DistrictCourt Hearing arguments in the last legal step they took to hold thecemetery, the United States marshal and his deputies entered the cemeteryand destroyed the "fort" and an injunction was issued forbildding thesisters to rebuild it.

Finally, in August, 1912, the HOuse Indian affairs committee in Washingtonfavorably reported a bill prohibiting the removal of the cemetery--the first ray of hope the sisters had in their fight. However, they did notdefinitely settle the affair, and the sisters still held their ground among the graves. There is a little item in May of 1918 recording the fact that Lyda pulled up some stakes driven near the the cemetery by city surveyors, bruised and scratched three detectives (!!??) who dragged her to policeheadquarters. She was fined $100 for destroying city property.

In the intervening years, Lyda--her case won insofar as sale of theproperty was concerned--the government having agreed to keep the ccemetery "improved" (by entering into a 1918 contract with the City of KCK to FOREVER maintain, protect and provide lighting and police protection to thecemetery--je) confinedher activities to a watchful guardianship, whichincluded care of the birds and squirrels in the cemetery. On the coldestwinter days she would leave her home at 1816 North Third street and carrywater and nuts to the squirrels.

Then in June, 1937, wielding a broomstick, she chased some people from the cemetery. A young judge, perhaps not cognizant of the fact that Lyda had never been in jail in all the twenty-six years of her defiance of theauthorities, gave her choice of a $10 fine for disturbing the peace or a 10 day jail sentence.

Proudly she served the sentence. The item of June 16, 1937 headed "MissLyda Conley Leaves Jail,: (KC Star?) was the last printed appearance of Lyda until the notice of her death and of her burial on May 31.