From taquerias to Target, there is so much life on central Lake Street that it is easy to overlook the dead. But some of Minneapolis’ earliest residents are resting for eternity between an Aldi and a Boost Mobile near Cedar Avenue — and their burial ground is a quiet respite from the din of the city.
Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, historically known as “Layman’s,” is one of the most uniquely urban cemeteries in the state. And it is one of the oldest, with burials predating Minnesota’s statehood in 1858. Beneath its diverse array of stone markers are people who platted the city’s streets, broke racial barriers in public service, helped run the Underground Railroad, fought in the Civil War and even committed a murder that captivated the area. Many of the dead are immigrants. Thousands are children.
More people are familiar with its grander cousin, Lakewood Cemetery, which is the final resting place of many of the city’s early industrialists. But the inhabitants of Pioneers paint a more honest picture of the city’s early history.
“It’s more typical of the immigrant experience, of the working-class experience — frankly the majority of people in Minneapolis, say in the 1870s and the ’80s,” says Sue Hunter Weir, who leads the Friends of the Cemetery preservation group.
The cemetery is also a rare stretch of green space along Lake Street, one of the city’s most active commercial areas, making it a great place for an afternoon stroll. It is maintained by the city of Minneapolis and welcomes daytime visitors during the warmer months. It even hosts the occasional evening outdoor movie screening.
“Bring a sketchbook. Bring a chair. Bring a camera, whatever. Just come in and hang out. It’s parklike,” Hunter Weir says.
Layman’s Cemetery was named after the farmer who allowed burials on his land in what was then a remote part of town. It grew to become one of the city’s primary cemeteries in the mid-1800s. But before its neighbors included an all-you-can-eat buffet, some bristled at the cemetery’s isolated location. One newspaper account likened it to an “open, bleak prairie field.”
“We know not the causes which led to the selection of our burying ground,” the Minneapolis Tribune wrote in 1868. “The situation remains a monument of someone’s ignorance and barbarism.”
Calls for a showcase spot to bury the city’s dead resulted in the construction of Lakewood at the Chain of Lakes in 1871. But regular burials continued at Pioneers — sometimes several a day — until it closed to future burials in 1919. Some hoped at the time to remake Pioneers into a playground and a park. But after a call to action in the Minneapolis Journal to “let them sleep undisturbed,” the cemetery was preserved. The city took partial ownership in 1928 and has maintained it ever since.
In addition to seeing the graves, take a peek inside the 1871 caretaker’s cottage, with its filing cabinets jammed with interment records. And a bookshelf contains original leatherbound City Council proceedings dating back to 1881.
Let’s meet some of those who call this place home.
William Goodridge was a former slave who became a prominent businessman and abolitionist in Pennsylvania. Goodridge’s home in York, Pa., is now a historic site and museum. Starting with a barber shop in the 1820s, Goodridge built up a business empire that included retailing, freight delivery, real estate and even a hair-growth tonic. He was later a conductor on the Underground Railroad as he helped hide and transport fugitive slaves to freedom. Goodridge moved to Minneapolis in 1865 to join his daughter and her family. He died in 1873.
Philander Prescott arrived at Fort Snelling in 1819, long before Minnesota was a territory. His many jobs included operating a store at Fort Snelling and a trading post in the Wisconsin town that now bears his name.
“There was no man more favorably known in the early days of Minnesota than Philander Prescott,” John Stevens, a founder of Minneapolis, wrote in the Minneapolis Tribune in 1886. Prescott, who was married to a Dakota woman, helped settlers communicate with local Indian tribes as an interpreter for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was killed during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.
Charles Christmas was Hennepin County’s first surveyor, elected in 1852, and Minneapolis wouldn’t look like it does today were it not for him. Christmas is responsible for platting the area that became downtown Minneapolis, at the behest of the land’s owner at the time — John Stevens.
Christmas’ tall marker includes an inscription that notes he made the first survey west of the Mississippi River and that his lines were later affirmed correct by the U.S. government.
John Cheatham was born into slavery in Missouri and became Minneapolis’ first black firefighter, according to research by the Friends of the Cemetery. He joined the fire department in 1888. His promotion in 1907 to run a fire station in south Minneapolis with other black firefighters was met with racist objections, though others in the public supported him. He continued working there until retirement.
Harry Hayward became a media spectacle after he was charged in the 1894 murder-for-hire of Catherine Ging, his neighbor at a (still standing) apartment building on Hennepin Avenue. The debonair man with a gambling problem persuaded the building’s caretaker to carry out the killing for insurance money. Hayward was later hanged at Minneapolis City Hall. His grave is still among the cemetery’s most visited.