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Manchester's Old Burying Ground
by Ray Berg and Alan Dyer (December, 2008)
In recent articles, we've learned about the earliest days of Manchester's history, including its location, founding and development by John Gilbert and the Fargo brothers, Stephen and James, among others. This process began in 1832, and the growth of Manchester proceeded quite rapidly as settler families moved in from central New York. The 1830s were a period of boom followed by bust as covered in the last article on the Bank of Manchester. Over the next several articles, we'll focus more on the 1830s and what Manchester looked like then, and who some of its other early and often unusual residents were.
For now, we look at one other activity that James Harvey Fargo undertook as the nominal "leader" of Manchester's civic activities in the 1830s—the establishment of its first cemetery. Few Manchester residents may realize that our original cemetery lies pretty much overlooked and forgotten at the north end of the village. Let's take a look at this site and what stories it may tell of our earliest residents…
The Platting of the Village Cemetery – 1836
Stephen Fargo acquired the bulk of the land and mill properties that John Gilbert built up on November 9, 1835, and then sold a half-interest to his brother James Harvey on June 19, 1836. As part of his plans for the ultimate development of the village, James Harvey Fargo laid out streets and common areas with a clear definition of their size and intent. He also set aside a parcel of land 165 feet by 165 feet (0.63 acre) in Section 2 of Manchester Township, on a bluff overlooking the north bend of the River Raisin, to serve as a "burying ground," as cemeteries were commonly called back then.
It is apparent that he never actually deeded this land to the township or anyone else, and the cemetery simply became land not owned by anyone, a legal complication which would cause problems later on. This site is within the Village limits, at the north end of Washington Street, opposite the current Millpond Condominium units (the cemetery covers the northeast corner at the intersection of the two condominium private drives).
Figure 1 shows a portion of the Second Plat of Manchester dated September 27, 1837, identifying the burying ground location defined by James Fargo. It is believed that the plat was actually prepared in the last half of 1836 after the land sale from Stephen Fargo to James.
The need for a cemetery for the new village began right away in 1833, when Henry Annibal, one of the earliest settlers and an operator at the Manchester Saw Mill, died and was buried on Ann Arbor Hill near the present site of the Benjamin Root house. His body was subsequently removed to the cemetery. Other deaths in these earliest years have been recorded in Manchester, according to the published Manchester necrology of Albert D. English and the records of the Sarah Caswell Angell Chapter of the DAR, maintained at the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan. However, the first actual burial that can be verified as occurring directly into the cemetery is that of Dr. Eleazer Root, who died January 31, 1837. It is assumed that the cemetery probably began operation in 1836, and that burials prior to that occurred on private property, and may or may not have been relocated to the cemetery.
James Harvey Fargo was buried here in November 1840 upon his relatively young death. His remains were removed to Oak Grove Cemetery in November 1885 into the Kief family plot.
Publications concerning this cemetery often reference it as "the old Manchester Cemetery," the "Old Yard," and the "Old Burying Ground." A bier was used to carry the coffin from the gate to the grave. Several attempts to locate the original ledger book and plat map for the cemetery have proved fruitless. But we can reconstruct its history and some of its occupants through several sources. It became quickly evident that the small size of the burying ground would prove insufficient for the growing village, leading to the formation of the much larger Oak Grove Cemetery in 1856. When Oak Grove opened, burials quickly ceased in the Old Burying Ground, and many families moved their loved ones over to family plots in Oak Grove. The Old Burying Ground continued to show in the various atlases of Manchester published between 1856 and 1915.
The Years of Neglect
When Oak Grove Cemetery opened in 1856, the Old Burying Ground was quietly abandoned. There is evidence a few more burials occurred up to 1860, but after that, neglect set in. The township did fence in the cemetery in 1861, but that was the extent of the work. Since there was no legal owner of the property and, thus, no responsibility, vegetation and decay took over. This was not without complaint, though, as Mat Blosser, editor of the Manchester Enterprise, noted in an 1871 editorial, shown in Figure 2.
Apparently little or nothing was done, for, on May 1, 1884, the Enterprise again complained:
"Our attention has been called to the fact that the old burying ground in Washington street is in a wretched condition. The fence is down and cattle wander through the sacred ground at will, and the graves of some of our early pioneers are being obliterated. Would it be well to appropriate money enough from the village or township treasury to clean up the yard and repair the fence?"
Our next record is from Annetta English, who in 1930 recorded that "lilac bushes protect the graves, and bushes of snowberries are scattered over the ground. A maple, or two, set along the central division of the cemetery, are flourishing." She counted 35 markers remaining at that time. The lack of any legal ownership or oversight group continued to add to the general decline of the property.
In 1964, local resident Don Limpert purchased the adjacent land, and discovered the lack of title on the Old Burying Ground. He filed a quiet title claim and was granted the cemetery land. He found one standing headstone and pieces of others. He commenced cleanup of the property and some restoration. Figure 3 shows the appearance of the restored land in 1972. The adjoining buildable land was developed into the Millpond Condominium units.
The developed property, including the cemetery, was sold in 1982 to an Ann Arbor developer, who retains possession today. The adjacent vacant land is generally not buildable, being in a low flood plain area, and the cemetery is titled as such in current Washtenaw County land and tax records. Restrictions on development rights for the cemetery property are in question at this time.
Today, small thickets of lilac bushes remain, but the snowberries are gone. Two mammoth maple trees still bisect the center of the cemetery. The site is generally overgrown and untended once again.
The current appearance of the Old Burying Ground is shown in Figure 4.
The Occupants of the Old Burying Ground
We know that an unknown number of burials occurred from about 1836 to around 1860, followed by 88 removals to Oak Grove Cemetery throughout the 1858–1887 period. We are able to reconstruct some of the persons remaining in the Old Burying Ground by cross-referencing a series of records, some precise and some anecdotal, including:
- Cemetery tombstone inscriptions recorded in the 1930 time period by Annetta English in her History of Manchester Township.
- Albert English's "Necrology of Manchester" notebook, which lists deaths in Manchester from 1833–1928. The period 1833–1855 lists 198 deaths in Manchester.
- Records of the Sarah Caswell Angell DAR chapter in the Bentley Library.
- People known from various written and anecdotal sources to have been buried in the cemetery, with no evidence of their disinterment.
- Records of the Oak Grove Cemetery Association, including removal and reburial records.
- Miscellaneous sources, such as Richard Spafford's "The Old Cemetery."
From these records, we have confirmed at least 41 people known to remain buried in the Old Burying Ground, and there are probably many more. This research work continues. It appears that the persons remaining in the cemetery may have had no family members left in Manchester in the later part of the 19th century, or were children of whom memory had been lost, or were itinerant travelers in the area at the time of their death. Some were not removed to Oak Grove when other family members were, and this seems surprising to us now.
Some of the remaining occupants of the cemetery include Artemus Kief (1780–1857), the patriarch of the Kief family which was very prominent in early Manchester history. Artemus was 53 years old when he emigrated from New York in 1833 as head of a large family, and we'll learn more about him in a future article. Alonzo Fargo's first wife, Emily Caldwell, died in 1848 and also lies here.
Among the interesting stories of occupants in this cemetery is that of Dr. B. A. Parnell, a famous touring lecturer on phrenology. Phrenology is the belief that the shape of the skull influences a person's mental abilities and personality. Dr. Parnell came to Manchester in April, 1847, and presented a series of fifteen lectures to attentive crowds at the First Presbyterian Church. He died suddenly on April 22, 1847 at the Manchester Hotel. He was buried in the Old Burying Ground, at his request, with his feet towards the South, as he was also a strong anti-slavery advocate. He also asked that his head and brain be sent to noted phrenologists Fowler and Wells of New York City, which was completed by Drs. William Bessac, and Bennett and William Root. His grave location was lost, as no stone was raised and the wooden picket fence around his grave soon rotted away.
Where We Are
The authors have prepared a list of 41 confirmed people whose final resting place is the Old Burying Ground. Work continues to identify more through cross-checking of the different resources. Figure 5 is a list of those confirmed to be buried there. It appears that a much larger number of people may remain in this cemetery. For people researching their ancestry and family roots in Manchester, this effort will be useful in consolidating the records of our earliest settlers.
Karen Jenter has also contributed much to this effort, and we appreciate her work.
A local grass roots effort is also underway to find ways to preserve this cemetery and identify it with a permanent marker.
Coming Up Next...
We've looked at some of the prominent early Manchester residents in the 1830s. In upcoming articles throughout 2009, we'll look at some of the other interesting people who first populated our town. For example, Artemus Kief, mentioned above, will be profiled, along with his extensive family, including the hotel and medicinal springs "cure" bathhouse built near the old cemetery. And we'll look at Dr. Eleazer Root, also mentioned above. And who was Velorious Hoey—mentioned in the Fargo and Fargo General Store Ledger? And then there's Dr. T.T. Gallalia, who bought a large amount of molasses, ginger, brandy, and various "powders" from the store in the mid 1830s—for his "medicines"?
We'll also look at a map of how downtown Manchester developed commercially through the 1830s, until the economic bust of the late 1830s brought things to a momentary stop.
[Previously published in M, Manchester's Magazine. Presented here by permission.]