Forgotten graveyards may be key to better understanding the history of North Dakota

Local News

There are a couple of abandoned cemeteries in the Bismarck/Mandan area locals may not have seen or even hear about, even though, these forgotten plots of land hold some of North Dakota’s missing history pieces.

Cemeteries are meant to be a beautiful resting place for loved ones that have passed on, but these sites have become a faint memory. Greenwood Cemetery in South Mandan and Fairview Cemetery in the townsite of Timmer were abandoned in the late 1800s.

“Regardless of where you are in North Dakota, somebody is probably buried under your feet. There are a lot of historical remains wherever,” says Wendy Bent, Morton County Human Resources Director. “With Greenwood, it’s proven that this was a cemetery intended to be an incredible place for people to be buried and rest easier for the remainder of their bones.”

The historic value of these two cemeteries, have been well underestimated.

“These are the people that came and settled. These people paid a heavy sacrifice to start a life here, they helped build that county and the state of North Dakota,” says Andy Zachmeier, Morton County Commissioner.

Greenwood is 40-acres and was established in 1882. It is significant because it was the first legal cemetery in the Dakota Territory, west of Jamestown. Now, a field where horses grazed was once a peaceful resting place for Custer soldiers, county founders, and many other prominent citizens.

“What we found is there is possibly soldiers buried in Greenwood we may have forgotten about. I think it’s important to recognize these people,” says Bent.

In 2008, during the City of Mandan Water Tower Project, the city dug up over 40 unmarked graves. Those individuals now rest in one of many mass graves in Greenwood. County staff have recently discovered many unmarked graves. Of 36 known graves in Greenwood, only 11 were marked.

“There has been too many possibilities of unmarked graves that it would probably be dangerous to start allowing human burials in that area and not hit something that nobody wants to hit,” says Zachmeier.

After more research, many began to realize Greenwood was not just a cemetery. It may be a missing puzzle piece to North Dakota history. The county realized the Historic Wagon trail potentially went straight through Greenwood Cemetery.

“Individuals traveling to or from Fort Lincoln, used Greenwood Cemetery to cross into Mandan, North Dakota,” says Bent.

Bent fears, that if nobody pays attention to these cemeteries, they’ll be forgotten.

“Honestly, since the late 1800s, those individuals have been forgotten over and over and over again,” says Bent.

The goal is to restore these cemeteries to peaceful rest places and prepare them for future burials.

“Is it even feasible to open Greenwood again to human burial? Parts of it may be but it’s going to be difficult,” says Zachmeier.

The City of Mandan and Morton County are disputing over who should have ownership of these cemeteries. Protecting the history of North Dakota is the driving factor in Morton County’s push to gain ownership to these cemeteries.

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