Citizen Potawatomi Nation received a $60,000 Tribal Heritage Grant to pursue research and restoration at the historic and sacred site of Uniontown Cemetery near Rossville, Kansas.
The National Park Service Historic Preservation Fund awards Tribal Heritage Grants to federally recognized tribes for cultural and historic preservation projects. Uniontown Cemetery is a historic site on the National Register of Historic Places.
The funds will be used to repair crumbling stone walls and gravestones at the cemetery and to conduct ground penetrating radar (GPR) surveys of the area to confirm the location of a mass burial site where several Potawatomi ancestors are believed to have been buried following a cholera outbreak at Uniontown in 1849.
Uniontown was built as a pay station and trading post following the removal of the Potawatomi onto a reservation on the Kansas River, west of present-day Topeka, Kansas.
Once a town of approximately 50 buildings, including 14 stores and numerous taverns, Uniontown existed as a direct result of federal policies of removal and annuity payments and became a ghost town once it no longer served as a thriving business hub for the Tribe. It was also a popular stop for settlers streaming west along the Oregon-California Trail.
However, these travelers brought with them deadly diseases, including cholera and smallpox. A cholera outbreak struck the community at Uniontown in 1849, and the residents burned the town to the ground to stop the spread. Oral history points to a mass burial at the base of a large cottonwood tree in Uniontown Cemetery, formerly known as Green Cemetery.
“Today we understand that one spreads cholera by not properly washing their hands after exposure to contaminated body fluids, but our ancestors would have likely linked the cause of the outbreaks to the proximity of the bodies,” Tribal member and historian Dr. Kelli Mosteller said in a recent Hownikan interview. “In this time period, because of the technology that was available, that often meant you couldn’t dig individual graves fast enough. So it was fairly standard practice when you had outbreaks like this, that when you were able to get a grave dug, you put as many people in there as you could, giving them as much respect as you can but also knowing that public health needs this to happen quickly.”
There are also several individual graves in the cemetery that belong to members of Joseph Napoleon Bourassa’s family, including his mother-in-law Mary L. Nadeau, his wife Mary E. Nadeau and four children.
CPN District 4 Legislator Jon Boursaw and his brother, Lyman, began researching the history of Uniontown several years before Jon took office as a Tribal legislator, and it has been an object of significant interest and study ever since.
Keen to learn more about the site to confirm these records, and to bring together a fuller picture of Potawatomi history at Uniontown, Mosteller and Boursaw remain adamant that any research be undertaken with the utmost respect.
“We’re certainly not going to undertake a more traditional archeological excavation,” Dr. Mosteller said. “But technology has advanced to where you have ground penetrating radar.”
In 2018, when the Prairie Band Potawatomi hosted the Potawatomi Gathering, Boursaw conducted a tour of historical sites in the area with Tribal Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett, Vice-Chairman Linda Capps, several legislators, and then-Director of the CPN Cultural Heritage Center Dr. Kelli Mosteller. The tour included Uniontown.
“We had talked about how the only thing we can do is get a ground penetrating radar survey done. The Chairman turned to me and said, ‘Get it done,’” Boursaw said.
“It would be nice, particularly for the Boursaw family, if we can find out where Joseph is really buried,” he continued. “We can find him, or we can eliminate that spot as a possibility. But we do have a lot of history there, as does the Nadeau family.”
Dr. Mosteller emphasized that “regardless of whether or not we find out more about the mass graves, this is a resting site for many of our Tribal members and other non-Native people, and it’s a site that we care about.”
Jeremy Arnette, assistant director of the CPN Office of Self-Governance, worked with Dr. Mosteller in seeking the appropriate grant to fund the proposed research. They elected to apply for the Tribal Heritage Grant due to its flexibility to accommodate the multifaceted academic, historic and cultural needs of the project.
“We had to make sure that it was the right grant,” Dr. Mosteller said. “When you’re dealing with historic properties that are culturally sensitive but also have a scientific (interest), it’s hard to find a granting agency that fits.”
The National Park Service awarded the Tribe the $60,000 grant on Aug. 23, 2022, and its term runs through August 2024.
Dr. Blair Schneider, associate researcher and science outreach manager at the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas, began working with Dr. Mosteller and Boursaw in 2020. She will conduct the GPR surveys and analysis. The grant also funds the temporary removal of the stone walls surrounding the site allowing Dr. Schneider to survey ground currently out of reach as well as their full repair and restoration.
“What we need to do is move the wall out further, let Dr. Schneider do her survey, then bring the walls back, reset the walls and add rock as necessary,” Boursaw said.
He also intends to restore headstones, replace the flagpole and create signage for the site explaining its historical and cultural significance to visitors.
Blake Norton, senior curator at the Cultural Heritage Center, will serve as project director.
He said that coordinating the Tribe’s partnerships with experts from the University of Kansas and the Kansas Historical Society as well as other historical preservation and stone-working experts will comprise a large portion of his job. He will also be responsible for the financial logistics and reporting required by the granting agency as well as managing the project’s timelines and many moving pieces.
“The biggest thing is understanding that it’s a historical site, but with interred ancestors, it becomes a lot greater than that,” he said. “As a delegate for the Tribe, (I’m responsible for) overseeing the project in the correct ethical and culturally appropriate way.”
Norton believes that the work at Uniontown Cemetery is vital to the Tribe’s commitment to maintaining an ethical and correct historical record as well as caring for ancestors in a collective space and facilitating a way to always oversee the well-being of these ancestors.
“It’s not just the future moving forward, but it’s also the past and being able to take care of those things and preserve them,” he said.
“Jon (Boursaw) has been quite an advocate for the project. To repair the site itself not just in a physical way, but there are metaphysical things that need to happen — cultural things and spiritual things that need to happen at that site. The repair goes beyond what you can see.”
Dr. Mosteller encourages Tribal members to visit the site if they ever get the opportunity.
“Standing (on that hill) you can scan the countryside, and everything you see used to be the Potawatomi reservation,” she said. “This was the landscape that shaped our community’s history after we were first removed and trying to make it through those turbulent years where we became the Citizen Potawatomi. … This is where we lived through not only the cholera outbreaks but becoming U.S. citizens, our first go-around with land allotments, where a lot of the chaos of the Civil War was playing out around us, trying to build a railroad that connected Chicago and the West Coast. All of that was going on right there.”
Read more about the history of Uniontown at cpn.news/ru. Find online historical resources including allotment maps, family manuscripts, and a historical and cultural encyclopedia at potawatomiheritage.com/resources.