More ‘buried concerns’: Losing graves has happened fairly frequently in Fort Wayne’s history

On July 4, 1912, the remains of Chief Little Turtle were found during the development of homes on Lawton Place off of Spy Run Avenue. Several other skeletons, presumed to be Miami, were also found.

In 2020, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie Savage, raised in Fort Wayne, penned an article for the Journal Gazette, criticizing the city’s treatment of the old Miami cemetery and also mentioned that there were likely several other Miami burial places throughout Fort Wayne.

How could Fort Wayne lose the body of such a prominent figure in local history so soon after his death? It turns out, losing graves has happened fairly frequently in Fort Wayne’s history and in U.S. history. In 2013, the Washington Post covered the story of a “Bone Finder” who uncovered an estimated 2,750 unmarked burials on the grounds of Washington’s Historic Congressional Cemetery at 1801 E St. SE.

“Over time, headstones go missing and records disappear,” the article says.

In the Summit City, there is still debate about where the legendary Johnny Appleseed is truly buried. His grave marker sits atop a hill in what was once the Archer Cemetery, which today is part of Appleseed’s namesake park. A few other markers remain in the cemetery, but records from the 1930s recorded 22 graves.

Others remain buried in the old Archer Cemetery at Johnny Appleseed Park, but many headstones disappeared without any records of reburial.

No one knows what happened to the 19 other headstones that were present in the cemetery 89 years ago, according to Allen County Genealogical Society of Indiana (ACGSI) and a 1930s record from the Mary Penrose Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. While it is possible that the bodies were exhumed to a different cemetery, there are no records to indicate that they were reburied in Allen County.

These might not have been the only headstones at the site. A “historic place” nomination form held by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration reports that the Archer Cemetery was as large as two acres.

Several other claims to Chapman’s gravesite have been made. Some believe he was buried on the coast of the St. Joseph River, while others believe he was buried in Canterbury Green.

Canterbury Green lays claim to the burial site of John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed. Others are likely buried where the golf course now operates.

Canterbury Green lays claim to the burial site of John Chapman, known as Johnny Appleseed. Others are likely buried where the golf course now operates.
In 2021, crews installing traffic signals on Broadway for the Electric Works project discovered an unmarked skeleton. The skeleton was presumed to have been buried at McCulloch Park, which had previously been a cemetery.

Indiana Governor Samuel Bigger is still buried at McCulloch Park, having had no family to authorize reburial in the new Lindenwood Cemetery. The governor’s grave was largely forgotten as the park was developed.

Gov. Samuel Bigger’s grave remains at McCulloch Park, which was a cemetery before Lindenwood Cemetery opened. Its location was forgotten for a time.
A 1908 Council Resolution discussed the rediscovery of Bigger’s grave, “Some years ago the exact spot where lie the remains of Governor Bigger was discovered by the finding of an unmarked slab, which was known at that time to be the spot where Governor Bigger had been interred. The slab, which had been, previous to that time. neglected by the lack of any decoration or distinguishing mark to show, on the part of the City, its appreciation of the honor of having this City the residence and burial place of such a distinguished governor, was removed.”

A rededication of Gov. Bigger’s grave occurred in 1924 with much fanfare. Credit: B. J. Griswold via the ACPL Collection

Next to the governor’s grave is a marker laid in 2016—for someone who died in 1843. William Polke, one of the delegates to the 1816 Indiana constitutional convention, was discovered by researchers to have been buried next to Gov. Bigger in the old cemetery, but remained unmarked since his death.

The grave of Indiana constitutional delegate William Polke was forgotten, presumably soon after his death, but researchers rediscovered it in time for the Indiana bicentennial in 2016.
According to a press release posted by WANE-15, “Historians have long suspected some graves may remain (at McCulloch Park), possibly because some deceased had no family members present to give permission for the move.”

Another Miami leader, Chief Richardville, was buried at the first Catholic cemetery near the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Fort Wayne. However, there is debate about whether his body was later moved to the newer Catholic cemetery on Lake Avenue. He could still be buried on the Cathedral lot downtown, but any certainty as to the true location of where his body lies remains disputed.

A historical marker laid by the Daughters of the American Revolution marks the spot near where Chief Richardville was originally buried at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception downtown.

A memorial remembering Chief Richardville stands in the Catholic cemetery on Lake Avenue. However, there is debate about whether his body was moved when the cemetery was built.

A memorial remembering Chief Richardville stands in the Catholic cemetery on Lake Avenue. However, there is debate about whether his body was moved when the cemetery was built.
Instances of developers building on top of cemeteries is not unprecedented either and is not confined to Native American cemeteries, or even just Fort Wayne. Still, as Savage points out, this does raise some ethical questions in the continuation of development of areas where bodies are discovered.

Canterbury Green was built on the Worth family cemetery. There are likely unmarked graves in Johnny Appleseed Park. Historians suspect that there are still people buried with Gov. Bigger under McCulloch Park.

There have been attempts made by the state, city, and private citizens through the last several decades to rectify these issues.

At the state level, Indiana has passed laws protecting recovered burial sites and other remains from development. The state preservation division says that a “person who disturbs the ground for the purpose of discovering, uncovering, or moving archaeological sites or features with artifacts dating before Dec. 31, 1870 or human remains buried before January 1, 1940, must do so in accordance with an approved plan from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.”

Within the city, a few decades after the grave of Chief Little Turtle was recovered, the Parks and Recreation Department pursued a more prominent memorialization of the late Miami chief.

The grave of Little Turtle is marked at the front of a larger memorial park to the late Miami Chief.
Mary Catherine Smeltzly purchased Chief Little Turtle’s gravesite on Lawton Place and donated it to the parks department in 1960. The department developed it into a memorial park for the late Miami Chief.

Savage mentioned in his article that the Miami tribe set up an agency in Fort Wayne to handle the reburial of their ancestors. His 2020 interview with Councilman Geoff Paddock also indicated public interest in doing more to memorialize the Spy Run Miami cemetery.

While old cemeteries have not always been respected or well-marked, Fort Wayne has made progress through the last century to make amends, and there are good indications that this progress will continue in the decades to come.
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