A Trip Back in Time: Burying Stillwater’s Dead

Stillwater is known as the “Birthplace of Minnesota” and even though Stillwater has given birth to many industries, business, and of course people, there have been many deaths as well.

When a person dies in Stillwater there are several cemeteries that our loved ones are buried in. But what happened to those settlers in the early days when there were no cemeteries?

Of course, a burying ground is not necessary unless someone dies.

The first deaths in this area were told about in a interview with Stillwater’s first female resident, Lydia Carli.

She said that the “first death in what is now Stillwater occurred July 14. 1843. The man was named Cole, and his death occurred in what was known as the Tamarack house. The following night a stranger, an elderly man, whom no one knew, applied for lodgings, and in the morning, which was the 16th, he was found to be exceedingly no more. Nobody knew anything about him, not even his name, and he and the former deceased were buried up in the wilds, half a mile or so farther north. There was no monument erected or other evidence to indicate their burial place.”

As others died in this new lumber town, many were buried in a field owned by John McKusick at the top of the bluff. Eventually this site would overlook the old Minnesota State Prison and is today north of Laurel between Third and Fourth Streets.

Another small cemetery was at the top of Myrtle Street where six to eight “old-timers” were buried. This smaller cemetery had to be moved to the “city burial ground,” which must have meant to McKusick’s land north of Laurel.

The move was made necessary because of the expansion of the city. When these bodies were moved, the March 16, 1858 Stillwater Messenger said that the “coffins were in a state of good preservation, and were decently re-interred. No sorrowing friends, or stricken relative, or imposing funeral cortege attended upon these second rites.”

As for the people themselves, the article says that “we have made some inquiry of those few who were then citizens of this place with reference to the person there interred, and find that most of them were person then employed up on the river, and that but little is known of their early history.”

Five years later, the Messenger make a call to its readers about the poor condition of the cemetery on the North Hill.

The June 2, 1863 article says that “the gates are down so that cattle range at large over the grounds breaking down the shrubbery and tomb stones. A large part of the grounds is growing up to bushes, which, in a few years, if not attended to, will become an impenetrable thicket.”

It appears the repairs never materialized, the Messenger made a call for the creation of a Cemetery Association to solve this issue.

This first meeting was held, appropriately, on the evening of October 31 for the purpose of organizing such an Association. A committee was appointed to “select some suitable grounds for a cemetery” and to see at what price this land would be purchased for. The Committee consisted of Isaac Staples, R. Lehmicke and A.B. Stickney.

Land was selected for this cemetery on South Fourth Street in Stillwater. The name given to the Cemetery Association was “Fairview.”

By the early 1870s, those buried in the cemetery at the north end of town were being removed and re-buried in the new cemetery.

Did those people dig up all the bodies?

Not really.

When the new Lincoln School was built on the site, several bodies were found. Twenty years ago, another homeowner was digging for a pool when body turned up. A few years later, a couple making a garden in their back yard turned up a head stone with the date of death being 1863.

Be careful where you step in the “Birthplace of Minnesota” – we’ve had a lot of deaths here too.

— By Brent Peterson, Executive Director of the Washington County Historical Society