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If cemeteries could talk, oh the stories they’d tell

Pioneer Cemetery is located on North Thornton Street next door to Ideal Industries. (Photo courtesy of Linda Emley)

Pioneer Cemetery is located on North Thornton Street next door to Ideal Industries. (Photo courtesy of Linda Emley)

By Linda Emley

In the 1800s, many families gathered at cemeteries for picnics. There were not many public parks, and cemeteries were a nice place to enjoy a sunny afternoon while being near the final resting place of a loved one. It was the family’s duty to maintain the grass and flowers around their family burial plots. Everyone took pride in the tombstones and epitaphs they gave their ancestors. I am sure many interesting conversations were heard on this acre of land when people came to visit.

Since I’m an amateur genealogist, I spend many hours in the cemeteries of Ray County. Richmond Pioneer Cemetery has always been one of my favorite locations because so many of our early citizens are buried here. As I walk around a cemetery, I try to imagine what life was like for the people that I find. Everyone has a story. Some are written down for future generations and some are lost forever with the passing of time.

There are around 90 names listed for this cemetery, but I have heard there could be as many as 250 people buried here. I selected a few random people and would like to share some of their stories with you now.

The first person buried here was Francis, the wife of John Richardson. She was 15 years old when she died March 7, 1845. We would not have this cemetery if it was not for John because he is the one that bought this land originally. He buried his wife at this location because a flood washed away the grave of his mother-in-law in the Missouri River bottoms in 1844.

Samuel Arbuckle was 77 years old when he died April 1,1845, and was buried here. He was followed by 23-year-old Benjamin Oliver, who died April 8, 1845. There was a cholera epidemic in 1845, but I am not sure if these three deaths were related.

Oliver Cowdery was in town visiting his in-laws when he contracted consumption and died March 3, 1850. He is one of the reasons why this cemetery is visited by so many people each year. Cowdery was a scribe who helped Joseph Smith translate the “golden plates” – used to write the “Book of Mormon.” Cowdery and his brother-in-law, David Whitmer, were two of the original “three witnesses” of the Mormon Church. Cowdery died at Whitmer’s house in Richmond. In 1887, David Whitmer delivered “An Address to All Believers in Christ” and stated, “I was present at the death bed of Oliver Cowdery, and his last words were, ‘Brother David, be true to your testimony to the Book of Mormon.’ ” Another version quoted David as saying, “Oliver died the happiest man I ever saw. After shaking hands with the family and kissing his wife and daughter, he said: `Now I lay me down for the last time: I am going to my Savior’ and he died immediately with a smile on his face.” Since I found several versions of his final words, I do not know which is correct. I am sure he was surrounded by family and it was a sad day when this young man died at the age of 43.

Peter Whitmer, Sr., died Aug. 12, 1854. He was the 81-year-old father of David Whitmer and father-in-law of Oliver Cowdery. It was in Peter’s home in New York that the “Book of Mormon” was translated. He and his wife Mary had eight children, some of whom are buried here in the family plot.

David Whitmer died in 1888 and is buried at the City Cemetery on West Main Street. I did find one story that said David was buried in Pioneer Cemetery and later moved to the West Main Street location. I know some people were moved to the West Main cemetery, but more research is needed before we can determine if David was one of those.

Daniel Branstetter died Oct. 29, 1858. He was one of the original trustees of Richmond Methodist Church. He was also a strong Democrat, who held many political positions. He was appointed the first mayor of Richmond, but lost the title in the election that followed. He was a justice of the peace from 1836 until 1858. He also served as a representative in the Missouri General Assembly and was a Ray County judge.

Branstetter’s son, Lafayette, was in Capt. Bradley’s Company A in the Civil War. He was a Federal soldier, and fought against his brother-in-law, Henry Renfro, who fought for the South. Both men survived the war and are buried in the same small McCustion family cemetery in northeast Ray County. Since their wives were sisters, I bet they ironed out their difference after the war. Another of Daniel’s sons, Henry Clay Branstetter, moved to Boise, Idaho, and was an early founder there. He served as sheriff and was a Democrat state senator thanks to Grover Cleveland.

Orville H. Searcy died Dec. 2, 1858. He was one of the first school teachers in Ray County and was also a surveyor of the county until his death at the age of 58.

George Woodward was born in Ireland and died Jan. 23, 1858 at the age of 64. Per the 1881 Ray County History Book, in 1828 the county seat moved from Bluffton to Richmond. George was the county clerk and was ordered to move the books and papers of the county court to his residence near Richmond. He kept them there until a public building could be erected by the county.

Capt. William T. Anderson was buried here in an unmarked grave in 1864. “Bloody Bill” was only active as a Civil War guerrilla for two years. He rode with William Clarke Quantrill  to Lawrence, Kan., where the infamous raid took place in August 1863. Frank James was also with that group of guerrillas. When Anderson and Quantrill parted ways during the winter of 1863, Anderson added 16-year-old Jesse James to his gang. Capt. Anderson was killed during the Battle of Albany (near what is now present-day Orrick) by Federal troops Oct. 27, 1864. I wonder if Jesse James was one of the troops that got away when Capt. Anderson was killed. Jesse had been with Anderson less than a month before the Centralia massacre of Union troops. In 1869, during a bank robbery in Gallatin, Capt. John Sheets was shot during the robbery. It has long been suspected that Jesse James was the man who shot Sheets. However, this has never been proven, nor did the outlaw ever admit to it. Supposedly, James thought that Sheets was Samuel P. Cox, the Federal officer who it was believed had killed Anderson. 

In 1908, Cole Younger came to Richmond with his traveling show and had a proper funeral for his old buddy, Bloody Bill. The funeral precession started at the courthouse and was led to the cemetery by the band from the traveling show. A local preacher conducted the graveside service and many local people attended.

The current tombstone on Bloody Bill’s grave was placed there in 1967 by Donald Hale, an historian from Independence. The U.S. government paid for the marker and it reads, “William T. Anderson, Missouri, Capt. Mo. Guerrilla, Confederate States Army, 1840-1864.”

James Turner died Sept. 26, 1864. He was 50 years old, and at the time of his death was Ray County Clerk. His son, James Jr., was appointed by the governor to finish his term. The last known person buried in this cemetery was James Turner, Sr.’s wife Margaret. She died April 14, 1881, when she was 68.

For every story here, there are hundreds more waiting to be told. I hope some day to be able to tell all their stories as we stroll down the roads of our past.

On Saturday, Feb 14, at 1 p.m., I will be the guest speaker at the monthly meeting of the Ray County Genealogical Association. I’ll be sharing some of my stories about the cemeteries of Ray County. The program will be held in the conference room at the Ray County Museum. Please come join us.

Next week I’ll share some of my favorite stories about the cemeteries of Ray County. There are over 250 cemeteries in our county, so there are enough stories to write a book.

Speaking of books, we are still working on the latest Ray County History Book. The final deadline for submissions is Feb. 21, so stop by and see us if you want to add your family history to our 2015 history book.

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