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Wisconsin's Lost Cemeteries

(500 years ago to present)

As time passed, scaffolds and wooden Spirit Houses disintegrated or burned in forest fires. Isolated graves and family plots were left behind as Native communities were forced to relocate, or fled encroaching settlement. Even though some Native cemeteries were used within the living memory of Wisconsin 's citizens, they remain unmarked, untended, and largely unrecognized by the people who now own them.

Other lost cemeteries were left behind by early settlers. Family plots sit near abandoned farmsteads. The graves of loggers lie forgotten deep in Wisconsin 's North Woods. Thousands of Wisconsin 's citizens lie in unmarked graves near defunct Poor Farms and Sanitariums. Unknown travelers are buried near intersections and railroad lines. The bones of other travelers and sailors lie within shipwrecks in rivers and lakes.

Even cemeteries that grew large enough to appear on county, village and city maps have vanished. In some cases, cemeteries simply fell into disrepair and were overgrown by grass and brush. In others, wooden markers burned or decayed, and people forgot the cemeteries were there at all. Sometimes farmers moved tombstones, and plowed cemeteries over to gain more land for crops.

As towns and cities across Wisconsin grew, many found that their earliest burial places were in the way, or were scattered too widely. Workers were hired to gather bodies, and move them to large cemeteries away from expanding business districts and residential neighborhoods. Sometimes the workers did their jobs poorly, moving only a few graves. Sometimes they only moved the tombstones, and left the bodies behind. Even when the workers were careful, they missed graves. Wooden markers burned or disintegrated, leaving unmarked graves behind to be overlooked.
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