Getting kids into any kind of history can be tough. Dry dates, concepts of governmental growth and strife, words on a page that quickly blend together because it isn’t covered in Michael Bay explosions. I can see my 9 year old daughter’s eyes glaze over when I start talking about Western Expansion and the idea of Manifest Destiny.
But there is a trick to get by that and it’s right here in Kansas City. For younger kids, long ago dates don’t have much meaning. The trick is making it personal, finding those stories that contain heroism or interest and then making it part of them. You can find those stories right here in KC and its historic cemeteries. Our little neck of the woods was practically the crossroads of this here great nation! The jumping off point for that Western Expansion I alluded to earlier.
Grave rubbings offer a hands-on experience for the kids and yourself. With a little bit of work and a little bit of driving around, you can bring to life the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, women’s suffrage, the creation of the FBI and so much more. All of America’s history, connected right here.
A quick disclaimer as I go through a list of notable gravesites and cemeteries. There are many more that I would never be able to get to, so if I skip your favorite cemetery or person, my apologies. Second, not all cemeteries are appropriate for a completing a grave rubbing. It may be too old, to fragile or the cemetery may not allow it. Please visit the various cemetery websites for a complete list of rules. And as always, treat these areas with the respect and decorum that they deserve.
Let’s start with some of the most famous notables here in the Kansas City Area. Harry Truman, 33rd president of the United States, is buried beside his wife Bess at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum right in Independence. It’s worth a visit to learn about the man who lead us out of WWII and whose decisions still affect us today.
Now, when a lot of people think of Kansas City and this area, the old west will almost always come to mind. As such, Jesse James and the James/Younger gang will always find it’s way into the conversation. Jesse James is buried Mount Olive Cemetery in Kearney MO, a quick trip just north of Kansas City. Interestingly, this isn’t his original grave site. He was originally buried on the James Family Farm, which is now a museum you can visit. I would suggest you see his original grave and his current resting place as they are in close proximity of each other. Frank James, however, is not buried next to his brother. He currently resides Hill Park Cemetery a short drive away in Independence. While famously known as Frank, his headstone is under his given name of Alexander F. James. For the rest of the gang, Cole Younger and his brother Jim and Bob are buried in the Historic Lee’s Summit Cemetery. It’s a beautiful site that offers guided and unguided tours to the many graves to visit there.
Union Cemetery opened in 1857 and is located near the Crown Center area and is one of the ones I enjoy visiting the most with the kids. The beautiful and well-kept grounds are perfect for a walk on a cool day. On the cemetery’s grounds, stop by the Sexton’s Cottage and grab a map and tour guide. There are over 40 notable graves to see here and it contains many of Kansas City’s founders. Elizabeth Sexton Ferguson made bullets for the war of 1812, Alexander Majors was one of the founders of the Pony Express, Josephine Anderson was the brother of “Bloody” Bill Anderson and married Charles Kearney, a Texas Ranger and businessman who helped bring the railroad here. Finally, there is Nathaniel Gwynne who was 15 years old when he won the Medal of Honor for acts of bravery during the Civil War. No write up could do justice to Union Cemetery, go for a visit.
Mount Moriah Cemetery is another beautiful cemetery originally built for Freemasons and their families. Among others, you can find NFL Hall of Famer Junious “Buck” Buchanan. You will also find baseball Hall of Famers Charles “Kid” Nichols, Hilton Smith and James Leslie Wilkinson. Russell Stover is also buried here with his wife, Clara. Fun note - Mr. Stover’s grave marker is written in brown to represent his famous chocolates while Mrs. Stover’s is in red to represent cherry. Medal of Honor winner Corp. Jack Arden Davenport is also interred at Mt. Moriah Cemetery. Finally, Walter Cronkite is buried here. Mr. Cronkite is synonymous with honest reporting for most of the 20th century and brought millions their news every evening.
Right off 435 you will find Mount Washington Cemetery. Here you will find Medal of Honor winners Herbert Burr (WWII) and Thomas Toohey (Civil War). Other notables you will find here are former FBI director Clarence Kelley, frontiersman Jim Bridger, Of Quantrill Raiders fame are Randolph Venable and Henry Clements, and members of the Swope Family: William, Maggie and Logan. Thomas Swope is buried at Swope Park.
Forest Hill and Calvary Cemetery is definitely worth a visit. Gorgeous and spacious grounds contain a walk-through of history. Beautiful architecture and monuments are spread through the grounds that house Medal of Honor winners John Barkley (WWI) and Wilbur Fiske Moore (Civil War), Hallmark founder Joyce Hall, and Civil War General Andrew Jackson Neff. Buck O’Neil (John Jordan) and Satchel Paige are both interred here. Satchel Paige is a legend of the Negro Baseball League and his euphemisms are timeless.
Finally, take a trip to Pitcher Cemetery. This is located at 3306 Blue Ridge Blvd in Independence. (Lat: 06360, Long: -94.47030). It is truly adventuring to discover this past. Although a smaller cemetery, it's truly a unique place to visit. Amazing grounds and there are plaques in many places to let you know about the people interred here. You will find a lot of “prairie markers” or “pioneer fieldstones” - these are the stones used by early pioneers headed west to mark the locations of members that passed on the way. A good reminder that the Kansas City area was the “jumping off” point for much of our nation’s Westward Expansion (see how I worked that in again?). You will also find Pvt. Ledstone Noland, a soldier in the N.C. militia during the Revolutionary War, as well as a ‘common grave’ for the Cholera Epidemic victims in the mid-1800’s as well as a Civil War common grave. You might also find one very large spider, perched menacingly in his web that made me scream, but that is neither here nor there. Pitcher Cemetery is dripping with old west history and deserves to be seen. On a side note, as it is October, Pitcher Cemetery is rumored to be haunted. With spiders or ghosts remains to be determined.
By no means is this a comprehensive list for all the history to see in Kansas City cemeteries, just a good starting point to explore our local history and trying to bring it to a personal level for some of our kiddos.