Cemetery of the Week #174: Union Cemetery
Address: 227 East 28th Terrace, Kansas City, Missouri 64108
Phone: (816) 472-4990
Size: 27 acres
Number interred: 55,000
Open: 7 am to 5 pm daily.
Atop a hill overlooking the city lie the founders of Kansas City, Missouri. Union Cemetery is Kansas city’s oldest public cemetery, the final resting place of politicians, artists, war heroes, business leaders, and everyday people. Today it is advertised as Kansas City’s “most serene and historic public park.”
John Calvin McCoy came to this area as a surveyor working for the US government in 1830. In February 1835, he filed the plat for the town of Kansas. He owned a store which outfitted settlers moving west on the Santa Fe Trail.
The cholera epidemic of 1849 filled the existing family plots and the first city cemetery in Kansas City. City leaders spent years searching for a suitable replacement until James W. Hunter deeded 49 acres of his hilltop farmland to the Union Cemetery Association. The land lay halfway between the town of Kansas on the Missouri River and the town of Westport, which was a supply stop for wagon trains as they moved west. The cemetery, which opened in 1857, was envisioned as a “union” between the two towns.
A fire in August 1889 damaged the sexton’s cottage and destroyed the burial records. The loss was total, as many of the graves had only been marked by wooden or limestone markers, which have eroded over time. The cottage was burned again in 1985, but by then, the cemetery records were kept off-site. The Women in Construction in Kansas City rebult the cottage for the third time. It was rededicated in October 1990. Now it serves as a visitor center and gift shop. It’s only open Thursday and Friday from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm.
Missouri’s most famous 19th century artist, George Caleb Bingham, was a landscape painter concerned with the effects of light. His best-remembered work was the 1845 “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri,” now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Bingham chose to be buried facing south in the cemetery, although the tradition was to bury everyone facing east, toward Jerusalem and the resurrection. Bingham apparently claimed that the Lord would find him, no matter which way he faced.
Alexander Majors was a partner in a freighting firm that led settlers across the prairie. His company founded the Pony Express during the Civil War. Although it only lasted 18 months, it cost Majors his fortune. He died penniless in 1900.
A small monument in the Kearney family plot remembers Hattie Drisdom Kearney. On Christmas Day 1855, she was sold as a slave. She was 11 years old. She begged a “kindly looking” man to buy her. After Charles Esmonde Kearney placed the winning bid, he freed her. When she told him she had nowhere to go, he hired her as a housekeeper and nurse. She worked for the Kearney family for 80 years, raising several generations. Now she lies amongst them.
By 1910, the cemetery was sadly deteriorated. The Cemetery Association sold 18 acres to fund upkeep. In 1937, the remaining 27 acres were deeded to Kansas City. The Native Sons of Greater Kansas City began a major restoration as its first community service project. The present gated entry was funded by the Native Sons in the 1950s. The iron fence enclosing the cemetery was added by the city in the 1990s.
The Union Cemetery is now maintained by the Kansas City Board of Parks and Recreation. It’s a beautiful place, full of history and beautiful monuments, well worth a visit.
The Union Cemetery Historical Society: https://www.uchskc.org/
Walking tour map: https://kcparks.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Walking-Tour-Map-of-Union-Cemetery.pdf
African American Heritage Trail of Kansas City: https://aahtkc.org/union-cemetery
Findagrave listing: https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/32037/union-cemetery