As it were
City’s first graveyard a gift from Kerr
Cities are growing, living, thriving places and are places in constant motion and change.
Because of that, we sometimes forget what once came before us in this place we now call home.
If one travels today to the North Market immediately north of the Downtown, one sees a commercial area dating from the late 19th Century. In the middle of it is a real public market with all sorts of interesting people selling all sorts of unusual things. It seems to be and is simply a nice place to shop. It also is the site of one of the more interesting cemeteries in central Ohio.
How all of that came to be is an interesting story in its own right.
When one travels to nearby Worthington or Granville, a sight one soon sees is the local cemetery on the grounds of the church of one’s choice. Such is not and never has been the case in Columbus, the state capital. Here none of the city’s town lots acts as a “place of sepulture.” While the reason for the separation of places for the dead and the living remains obscure, it is not hard to see some valid reasons for the public policy.
In the first place the ground where the capital sits is supposedly “high, dry and salubrious in climate.” While sitting on high ground, the site of Columbus was and remains a somewhat swampy place.
Secondly, one might notice that the capital city was something of a commercial venture. Four men called Proprietors had put together a package of land and improvements and had convinced the Ohio General Assembly to relocate to central Ohio. It was in the interest of the Proprietors to sell land and a lot of it – especially to arriving newcomers.
But people did have a nasty tendency to keep dying whether one had a place to bury them or not. In early 1813, Proprietors John Kerr and James Johnston donated a tract of 1.25 acres for the purpose of a cemetery. At the time the land was just outside the city limits at what is now Nationwide Boulevard.
There seems to have been what one later account called “some negligence in its conveyance” since it was not until 1820 that the Council of the Borough of Columbus “enquired” as to what rights the borough had by “donation” of “a certain lot of ground.” The result was the recording on July 10, 1821, by the County Recorder of the conveyance of 1.25 acres by John Kerr and wife for a graveyard.
The Kerr Tract, as it was called, was given to be used as a cemetery. In 1824, a sexton was appointed and by 1834, Robert McCoy was appointed “Superintendent of the Graveyard.”
It was not a moment too soon. In 1834, the small village of Columbus had grown to be the City of Columbus with the arrival of the Ohio Canal and the National Road. A later account noted that a “second tract consists of eight and one half acres immediately south and east of the Kerr burying ground, and was deeded to the city by Colonel William Doherty in fee simple to the City of Columbus on the twenty-sixth of February, 1830, reserving a common sized burial lot for his family.”
A third tract “consists of seventeen grave lots on the north side of the graveyard, conveyed by warranty deeds to the lot owners by John Brickell, five of which were reserved by Mr. Brickell for himself.”
By April 3, 1845, the Superintendent reported that all of the lots in the cemetery had been sold, that the ground had been paid for from the proceeds, that a good fence with cedar posts had been erected at the front and a rail fence at the rear, that a good road had been made from the city to the middle gate,” and that $104.88 remained on hand.
Having said all of that, interments continued to be made. By 1848, it was clear that a new cemetery was needed and Green Lawn Cemetery was opened to meet that need. On Aug. 18, 1856, further interments were prohibited by city ordinance. That ordinance was met with a large public outcry and was repealed. Burials in the Old North Graveyard were not finally prohibited until 1864.
But in the years after 1848, the North Grave Yard began to decline. A later account recorded, “After the opening of Green Lawn Cemetery, the North Grave Yard fell into a sad state of neglect. Weeds and briars grew in every part of it. Its fences were prostrated and domestic animals of all kinds roamed at will through its sacred precincts. In 1869 about half the bodies had been transferred to Green Lawn and the emptied graves were left yawning.”
The process of clearing the graveyard continued until well after the Civil War. Part of the cemetery was acquired for railroad expansion and the balance was claimed by the city – after a great deal of litigation – for other uses. Among those uses was a market house for the City of Columbus. Today the site of the Old North Graveyard is the home of the North Market, the last public market in the city.
By 1881, it was generally conceded that most of the graves in the North Grave Yard had been located and moved.
Most but not all.
Many people of moderate means had never noted the grave site of loved ones with a marker. Other families had moved away and the grave stones in their family plots had not been maintained. A lot of people buried in the North Graveyard were never removed. Among them is John Kerr – the second Mayor of Columbus and the man who gave Columbus its first cemetery.
Some say his ghost still walks the grounds of the Old North Grave Yard. But that is the stuff of legend and not of history. I will leave it to another day to tell that story.
Local historian Ed Lentz writes the As it were column for ThisWeek.