By DM Testa
How far would you go to stop the graves of your family, including your mother, from being disturbed?
When Kansas City officials decided the weathered tombstones of a Native American burial ground had to go, Eliza (Lyda), Ida, and Helena (Lena) Conley vowed to protect the two-acre plot where their forebearers were interred. Lyda characterized it as “a sacred trust” which she and her sisters would defend with their lives.
Their story starts around 1843 when the Wyandot tribe who once occupied the Northern portion of Ohio were forced to sell their land and move westward to the confluence of the Kaw (Kansas) and Missouri Rivers. An epidemic of measles then followed by a flood decimated the tribe with an estimated two to three hundred perishing.
The Wyandots who at one time had been known as the Huron, purchased land to bury their people, calling it the Huron Park Cemetery. On January 31, 1855, Congress ratified a treaty guaranteeing the tribe possession of this small plot. Part of that treaty read:
“So long as grass grows, and water runs, this spot shall be used as a burying ground for the Wyandotte Indians.”
Over a decade later, Kansas City was incorporated and soon the little graveyard of the Wyandots sat in the center of ever-expanding metropolis. Developers became eager to get their hands on the Huron Park Cemetery, estimating the land’s value to be over well over $100,000 in 1907 dollars. To” facilitate the process,” a provision for selling the cemetery was hidden among a sixty-five-page Congressional bill. The bodies, many of them buried in mass graves, would be dug up and transferred elsewhere.
Aghast, the Conley sisters protested:
“In this cemetery are buried one hundred of our ancestors. Our grandfather owned the whole state of Ohio. Why should we not be proud of our ancestors and protect their graves? We shall do it, and woe be to the man that first attempts to steal a body.”
When their arguments were ignored, the women started a revolt, building a wooden fort in the middle of the cemetery. They took turns guarding it and armed with shot guns, drove off all who attempted to take possession of the property. Lydia, already a school teacher, prepared for the upcoming legal battle by becoming the first woman admitted to the Kansas Bar at the age of twenty-eight.
In 1909, she sued the secretary of the interior and future president, James Garfield, challenging the sale and proposed development of the graveyard. Her case made its way through the system, finally ending at the United States Supreme Court. Lyda would become the first attorney of Native American descent to appear before the court. Although the judges upheld a lower court’s ruling, the court of public opinion had by this time, reached a different conclusion.
When the struggle first began, the idea that three Native American women without money or influence would challenge the United States government seemed ludicrous to many. But gradually people saw the government being at fault for breaking their word and then trying to hide it. Support for the sisters grew with one newspaper echoing the general sentiment:
“One cannot help admiring the spirit of the Conley sisters in their stand for the principle involved in their defense of the burial ground of their forefathers, the Wyandotte’s.”
“Here’s to the Conley sisters! May they ultimately win out.”
The graves of an indigenous people who almost vanished from the earth became one of the most valuable landmarks in Kansas City, worth far more for its rich history than as a site for commerce. No purchaser dared come forward. Congress finally yielded to the public’s wishes and repealed the act.
In the intervening years, the Conley sisters kept a vigilant watch, tending to the grass and raking leaves off the graves. On the coldest of winter days, Lyda could be seen carrying food from her home to the birds and squirrels inhabiting the cemetery.
As each of the Conley sisters passed away, Lyda in 1946, Ida in 1948, and finally Helena in 1958, they would be buried next to each other in the cemetery beside their ancestors, a memorial which remains in the possession of their Wyandot descendants who can never sell it “so long as grass grows and water runs.”
For more on this historic cemetery and the Conley sisters, go to:
About the Author
DM (Denise) Testa and Winston the Great Pyrenees specialize in digging up history; especially stories of obscure yet fascinating women from the past. While Denise concentrates on the writing, Winston enjoys their frequent trips on the road for research. When not traveling, Denise uses her investigative skills as part of the Missing Princes Project team sponsored by the Richard III Society and pre-Covid was a docent at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House in Rochester, NY. Her latest book is Defending the Dillinger Gang: Jessie Levy and Bess Robbins in the Courtroom.