Case of stolen grave marker is Bloomington mystery

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 12, 2011 - 12:04 AM

Questions remain buried in a 150-year-old cemetery in Bloomington.

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Headstones from the mid-1800s provide some details of the lives — and deaths — of people buried in Bloomington Cemetery.

Photo: Stan Danielson,

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Sorrow lingers in a place like the Bloomington Cemetery, where people have buried their loved ones for more than 150 years.

There's a stubby white sandstone marker topped by carved lambs for "Our Babes," two infants born in 1866 and 1867 who both died a day after their birth. Plastic flowers and a praying cherub flank the angry, fading headstone for 10-year-old Susan, "a Christianized Dakota girl MURDERED by the Ojibwa Indians, June 12, 1856."

The marker for John Willis Bunker -- better known as Willie -- says he was 10 years old when he died in 1872. What it doesn't say is that after the boy's family came home with a new team of horses, Willie accepted a friend's dare, jumped off a sack of wheat and slapped one of the horses on the flank. He was kicked in the forehead and died three days later.

Stan Danielson knows many of the stories linked to the Bloomington Cemetery, which is at 10300 Lyndale Av. S. But he says there are "a lot of mysteries to clear up," including one linked to a night in August 2010 when vandals damaged two headstones and walked off with a third.

The stolen marker was the oldest in the cemetery and had been vandalized before, possibly in the 1960s. The top had been broken off, so the name of the dead was missing. The three pieces that remained had been glued back together on a cracked base, offering a tantalizing clue to the deceased's identity: "Jan. 12, 1853, Aged 63 years." It was followed by a verse:

"Hear what the voice of heaven declares,

To those in Christ who die:

Released from all their earthly cares,

They reign with him on high."

Danielson, who was one of the founders of the Bloomington Historical Society in the 1960s, thinks the headstone is sitting in someone's garage or in teenager's closet.

"We'd like the marker back," he said. "We really want information on this one. This cemetery is so rich in histories, with more popping up all the time."

Bloomington Cemetery dates to the days of Gideon Pond, who came to Minnesota in 1834 to minister to the Indians and moved to what is now Bloomington in 1842-43. The earliest cemetery records are in Pond's spidery handwriting, recording tragically young and painful deaths that must have shaken the little settlement to its core.

Pond's 1856 records for what was then called the Oak Grove Grave-Yard include "Wife of J. Brown," "an Indian child -- son of Hepi" and "an Indian named Hake who had been killed by a Frenchman." Mrs. Caroline Newel, he wrote, "died after a lingering illness of several months and great physical suffering on the evening of 6th Oct. 1856 -- she had 'hope in her death.'"

There are gravestones for families whose names persist in Bloomington's parks and streets -- Bush, Hyland, Stanley, Kell and Bailiff among them -- even though some of those pioneers barely paused in Minnesota on their way further west. Baby after baby died. There are memorials to men who fought in the Civil War, even though some are buried where they died in the south and east. Danielson points to the grave of a Fort Snelling interpreter who was killed in the Dakota Uprising, a marker for a man who owned a steamboat stop on the river, and a plot where Pond, his wives and many children are buried.

He tries to come to the cemetery at least once a week, giving tours to school children and adults and trying to match sometimes incomplete old cemetery records that say "someone" is buried there with other records. He always carries a camera so that when the light and shadows are just right, he can capture inscriptions that are washing away from the soft white sandstone that was used for gravestones in the 1800s.

Sometimes he carries a probe, searching for flat markers that sink over time. He's found several sunken cement-and-metal "G.A.R." markers -- for Grand Army of the Republic -- that have been raised to be displayed next to the marker of the soldier they honored.

Danielson thinks he knows who is buried in the spot where the stolen headstone stood. Though the grave is located in what should have been a walkway between cemetery markers, he believes it is the burial spot of E. Knott -- Edward -- an Irish immigrant who census records indicate was born in 1790. Knott was buried there before the cemetery was established, and two years before Pond built the first Oak Grove Presbyterian Church near the cemetery and began keeping records of burials.

Knott's son, also named Edward, fought in the Civil War and moved west. Danielson thinks the elder Knott's wife, Anna, may be buried near her husband, though the grave is not marked.

"We'd really like to have more information on them," Danielson said. "It would help to get the marker back."

Anyone with information about the missing headstone can e-mail Danielson at standaniel@comcast.net.

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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