The Wyandot National Burying Ground, formally known as Huron Indian Cemetery, is an open, tree-covered tract on a hill in the center of the Kansas City, Kansas, business district. It is a narrow, two—acre property fronting on Minnesota avenue. The cemetery grounds are 12 to 18 feet higher than adjacent lots. The cemetery is the only part of the hill remaining since the rest was cut away for streets and commercial development. Stone retaining walls have been constructed around part of the perimeter because of the higher elevation of the cemetery and a stone entrance at the northeast corner on the south side of Minnesota avenue. Adjoining the Wyandot National Burying Ground property on the south is the 7th Street Casino (formally the Scottish Rite Temple), and on the east are the public library and a park, and on the west are business buildings.
Sidewalks wind through the cemetery. There are about forty tombstones on which the inscriptions are still legible. Some are rather recent. Remnants of older deteriorated stones are visible in various parts of the grounds.
The inception of the Wyandot National Burying Ground began in July of 1843, when 664 members of the Wyandot Nation, closely associated with the Huron tribe, were moved from Ohio to Kansas (more Wyandots, were later removed from Ohio to Oklahoma in 1867). While camped along the Missouri River, illness went through the camp and 50 to 100 of the Wyandots died. Their bodies were carried across the river to the Kansas Territory, to a ridge which overlooked the Kansas and Missouri Rivers and Kansas City’s Huron Indian Cemetery was established.
Later that year, the Wyandot’s were granted the land that included the ridge and it continued to by used as a cemetery. When the local members of the Wyandot Nation were dissolved as a tribe and its members became American Citizens in 1855, the cemetery continued to be used. Four years later, the Town of Wyandot was incorporated and the Huron Cemetery was within its boundaries. This community would become part of Kansas City in Wyandotte County.
By the 1890s, the Huron Indian Cemetery was prime land and developers, wanting to purchase the cemetery land, negotiated with the Wyandotte Nation of Oklahoma. In 1906, the Secretary of the Interior was instructed to sell the land with the remains to be moved to the Quindaro Cemetery.
Eliza (Lyda) Conley and her two sisters of Kansas City (the daughters of Andrew Syrenus Conley who is buried in the cemetery) launched a public relations and legal defense to prevent the sale. Lyda and her sisters moved onto their family’s burial ground, erected a small shelter that was nicknamed “Fort Conley,” padlocked the gate, and posted a sign, “Trespass at Your Peril.” They maintained a vigil for over 2 years. They were joined by other local Wyandot descendants, as well as by women’s clubs and similar associations. In the course of this, in 1909 Lyda Conley became the first Native American woman attorney to argue a case before The United States Supreme Court. While sympathetic, the Supreme Court judges did not support her entreaties to prevent the sale of land.
In 1913 Congress repealed the bill authorizing the sale of the Huron Indian Cemetery, and by 1916 legislation was passed to protect the Huron Indian Cemetery as a park and an appropriation of $10,000 was allocated for cemetery improvements. A few years later, the federal government entered into an agreement with Kansas City for its maintenance.
Nevertheless, the dispute between those wanting to preserve the cemetery, and those wanting to develop the land continued year after year. One year Lyda Conley was arrested for shooting a policeman in the Huron Indian Cemetery. Until their deaths in the 1940s and 1950s, the Conley sisters continued as self-appointed watchdogs of the burial ground, battling any attempt to take over the land.
At the heart of the dispute is the fact that the cemetery is located in the heart of the Kansas City business district. Many descendants of the tribe, as represented by the Wyandot Nation of Oklahoma, could benefit substantially from the sale. At the same time, other descendants and various historical groups remain adamantly opposed.
Even the placing of the Huron Indian Cemetery on the National Register of Historic Places years later in 1971 didn’t stop those wanting to exploit the land. Later, in 1990, came the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This provided additional protections, as lineal descendants of those interred must be consulted and have a say in the fate of ancestral cemeteries and graveyards. Still, controversy continued until 1997 as the Wyandot Nation of Oklahoma tried to turn the cemetery into a gambling place. There finally seems to be some calm within the cemetery storm, as the Oklahoma Wyandots have their 7th Street Casino in the adjacent former Scottish Rite Temple.
Finally, in 1998, the Wyandot Nation of Oklahoma and Wyandot Nation of Kansas signed an agreement to use the Wyandot National Burying Ground only for religious, cultural or other activities compatible with the sacred purpose of the site as a burial ground.
The long fight to preserve the cemetery by the Conley sisters and other preservation advocates, often against considerable odds, will long be remembered as a victory for the champions of historic preservation over the forces of unbridled commercialism.
It is believed that there are over 400 bodies (and possibly as many as 800) buried in the Wynadot National Burial Ground, though only a small number of the graves are marked. Notable members of the Wynadot tribe buried here include Warpole, Big Trees, Silas Armstrong, Joel Walker, Matthew Walker, George Clark, Francis Hicks and Charles Garrett, a War of 1812 Veteran.