ST. PAUL, Kans. – On a brisk January afternoon, an Osage Nation delegation observed two small grave markers in the Saint Francis Cemetery. The site is one of a mass grave, where countless Osages are buried in a concrete tomb.
Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, Osage Nation Museum Curator Marla Redcorn-Miller, Chief of Staff Jason Zaun, advisor Johnny Williams, Gaming Enterprise Board member Mark Simms and Osage elder Margaret Bird surveyed the markers and gravesite on Jan. 24. This has long been a passion of Bird’s and she helped to bring the initiative forward to Standing Bear.
“I just think we ought to take care of our elders who’ve passed and not forget them. And there’s only one thing that we can’t find, and that’s who’s in the graves,” she said. “But at least we can acknowledge Osages are in there and remember them.”
Simply marked “Indian Graves,” the Osages entombed there lived on the Osage Reservation more than 150 years ago.
In 1825, the Osage signed a treaty that ceded what was left of their lands in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas and they moved to a reservation in southern Kansas.
Researchers with the Osage Mission Neosho County Museum think that the Osages living in the area of what is now St. Paul in the mid-to-late-1800s were part of George White Hair’s band. There were five major Osage villages on the Kansas Reservation at that time, said Felix Diskin, a volunteer for the county museum.
In 2019, Congressman John Maker sponsored a bill that appropriated $20,000 to purchase and install a headstone to commemorate the mass Osage burial site.
Due to delays caused by the pandemic, Standing Bear and his team were prevented from working on the project until now.
It is unknown how many Osages are entombed at the site. There were epidemics of measles, smallpox and scurvy during the period the Osages lived in Kansas. Quaker missionary and U.S. Indian agent for the Osage, Isaac T. Gibson, documented the Osage’s peril with disease. He wrote that in one village 3,000 Osages died, and in another village 2,000 were lost, said Standing Bear. He said he read Gibson’s letters while visiting the Jesuit Archives & Research Center in St. Louis.
Ed Born, president of the museum’s board of directors, said there were reports that the bodies of the Osages entombed at the Saint Francis Cemetery have been moved twice. According to his research, “Indian Agents” removed the graves of Osages from the plains and put them in a mass grave. During that time, Osages took care of their dead by sitting the bodies upright, facing the east and covering them with stones.
The second move was in the early 1970s when the city of St. Paul decided to put a football field where the cemetery was located. The cemetery was moved across the street to its present location. A concrete vault was made, and the bodies were moved to the new location and entombed there.
Born and fellow researchers have been unsuccessful in finding any records as to who or how many bodies may be in the vault.
Standing Bear said Redcorn-Miller, Zaun and Bird will lead the project for the Nation.