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  • Writer's pictureNotes From The Frontier

Pioneer Cemeteries

Updated: May 8, 2023

Disappearing Graveyards from Centuries Past

This holiday weekend, Americans celebrate our dead, especially our veterans. Memorial Day began right after the Civil War in 1866 as Decoration Day. May was chosen when flowers were in bloom and families could decorate their loved ones' resting places. In the 1800s and early 1900s, Americans picnicked among the graves on Decoration Day. During WWI, Decoration Day morphed into Memorial Day, a day for honoring veterans.

Today, all of us know of pioneer graveyards. They are lonely plots overgrown on random roadsides, with crumbling gravestones, covered in moss, some falling over or leaning against each other. Always, there are babies' graves.

If you live near the original Oregon Trail, you know that pioneer graves are shockingly common. About 30,000 pioneers, roughly 10%, died on the 2,000-mile trail--an average of 15 souls per running mile! Many of those graves have been lost.

I grew up in north central Iowa, riding my horse on country gravel roads, visiting several small pioneer graveyards (and Indian mounds), mostly on roadsides and farmers’ fields. The farmers, bless them, carefully plowed around the plots and occasionally mowed the forgotten graves.

One of my favorite pioneer graveyards, only several miles from where I grew up in Iowa rests on a cliff overlooking the Boone River. It was originally burying mounds for Native American and later, co-opted by white pioneers. It's one of the only documented pioneer graveyards in the country that shares a resting place with indigenous peoples. (More on this and Indian mounds in a later post.)

Where I live now in Wisconsin on Lake Michigan, there are three still-standing 1850s log cabins less than a ¼ mile away. And there is a pioneer cemetery only a mile away, the first grave dug near the main pioneer road along Lake Michigan, originally an Indian path.

I visited it today to lay flowers on veterans graves, several from the Civil War. Many graves had early 1800 dates, but one had a birthdate of 1789! (See my pencil rubbing of the date below.)

The National Park Service maintains some pioneer cemeteries and Indian mounds of note. And there is a National Register of Historic Places that includes indigenous and pioneer burying grounds. ( But many thousands of smaller pioneer plots and Indian mounds across the country have no protective government or civilian organizations. (If anyone knows of organizations in their state, please share with us.) Some local groups, such as Rotary Clubs, tend isolated graveyards. But, for the most part, preservation and protection of pioneer cemeteries rely on the kindness of strangers.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if Memorial Day weekend became a time for our nation to tend the graves of our ORIGINAL Americans and EARLIEST immigrants and veterans, too? Even picnic among them and thank them for going before us. And maybe they will hear…

PHOTOS: (Top left) Pioneer cemetery near the west bank of Lake Michigan, just off a main pioneer road, originally an Indian trail. The earliest grave (still standing) has a 1789 birth date. (See my gravestone rubbing, lower right.) Five ancient maple trees guard the graveyard, probably planted by pioneers more than 160 years ago. (Top right) A brick column with bronze plaque, "OLD SETTLERS REST," stands at the entrance of a long dirt lane to the graveyard. (Bottom, left) Some of the oldest markers are broken. One bears the earliest birth date: 1789! (Bottom, center) A Civil War veteran bronze marker. I was happy to see someone had already laid fresh flowers on this grave.


"Pioneer Cemeteries" was originally posted May 27, 2019 on Facebook and 64,293 views / 604 likes


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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook


Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  


Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on, Facebook, and Instagram.

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