Walking on top of thousands of unmarked graves in Lincoln Park

It’s one of my favorite Chicago trivia facts to tell people: Lincoln Park (the actual park itself, that the neighborhood is named after) is actually built on top of thousands of unmarked graves. Yes, you read that correctly. While strolling through the park, visiting the zoo or a farmer’s market, nobody knows whose grave your stepping on.

The land that is now Lincoln Park used to be the Chicago Cemetery, the very first official cemetery in the city. Before that, early Chicago settlers would bury their dead along the Chicago River. In Mach of 1837, the Federal Government gave the area of land that encompasses modern day Lincoln park to the State of Illinois, and part of this land was appointed for use as a graveyard. In May of the same year, Chicago was officially incorporated into a city! Burials didn’t start in this cemetery until 1843, and it became illegal to bury the dead in the old spots. In the next few years, some bodies from the old spots were actually dug up and re-buried in the Chicago Cemetery.

Lincoln Park
photo credit: Hidden Truths

In 1849, Chicago had its first major cholera outbreak, and so the cemetery grew. In a period of just six days in 1854, 200 cholera victims were buried.

In 1852, Chicago held a huge funeral, paid for by the state, for David Kennison. He was assumed to be the last remaining member of the Boston Tea Party. His plaque states that he died at 115 years old! Apparently, he had married 4 times and also had 22 children… A boulder was placed here about 50 years after his death.

Apart from a boulder with an inscription, one of the last remaining symbols of a grave is the Couch tomb. Ira Couch was an early Chicago millionaire, and his body was put into the Couch vault in 1858 after he died in Cuba. According to this blog, the author has pretty good reason to think that there are actually no bodies in the Couch tomb.

There are also untold numbers of Confederate soldiers who were buried in the park. Camp Douglas, located on 31st and Cottage on the South Side, served as a prisoner of war camp. According to the book To Die In Chicago, the place was actually a hellhole where the mortality rate was extremely high for enemy soldiers. It is estimated that nearly 4,000 Confederate soldiers were buried in the City Cemetery. In 1867, some of them were moved to Oakwoods Cemetery, where there is a statue commemorating them. Today, the Potter’s Field, where they were buried, is under the baseball diamonds of the park.

On June 12, 1865, Lincoln Park was named to honor President Lincoln, who was assassinated a few months earlier that year.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 began in the evening of October 8, 1871 and continued to burn until just after midnight the next day. The Chicago Fire is seriously one of my favorite parts of history, because it represents how Chicago was able to rebuild itself and become the city that it is today. Because so much was burnt down, the city required planning to re-build streets and infrastructure, which is how the amazing grid system for the streets started. Without the Chicago Fire, in my opinion, Chicago would not be the amazing city that it is today.

Read the original Chicago Tribune article about the fire, published October 11, 1871:

For more information about the Chicago Fire, I would recommend reading this fascinating website, The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory.

Back to the original topic… the Chicago Fire also destroyed most of the gravemarkers in the City Cemetery. According to Hidden Truths, “The Lincoln Park Commissioners did not have the monetary resources to arrange for the exhumations of remains from the older, southern section of the cemetery. Although lot owners were implored to remove their loved ones to the newer rural cemeteries outside Chicago’s city limits, it does not appear that many responded to this plea.”

In 1874, the Lincoln Park Commissioners incorporated the ground of the unclaimed cemetery lots into the park grounds. Less than 1,000 disinterments of bodies occurred after this point, leaving thousands of bodies in the park. In 1883, a few headstones were removed, leaving the graves unmarked.

More recently, archaeologists David Keen and Dawn Cobb headed an excavation of Lincoln Park in 1998 that uncovered the remains of 81 bodies.

Walking through the park, I can’t help but get a creepy feeling, especially with the knowledge of not knowing who I’m walking on top of.

Published by gabriellamikiewicz

Gabriella Mikiewicz is a 20-something Polish-American student and writer whose interests are as eclectic as her apartment decorations.

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