Researchers are looking for lost graves near the Shawnee Indian Mission

Photo courtesy of The Shawnee Mission State Historical Site

As told to Evan Musil by John Forbes, a volunteer librarian of the Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site. Forbes conducted the ground survey along with Kristen Zane, a trustee of Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area:

“I first volunteered at the Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site in the late eighties, when they started having their fall festivals. I’ve always had an interest in history. Matter of fact, it’s what I taught for thirty-four years at Shawnee Mission South High School. After I retired in 2000, I wanted to do something on a regular basis, and I lived within walking distance of the Mission at the time. I started organizing their material in the library, and I’m still trying to get it organized.

“I had the idea to survey the cemetery on and off for four years and saw an opportunity to apply for a grant a year ago. I thought that if we could figure out how to do a ground-penetrating study, we might learn something from it. We send a radar signal that bounces back off of anomalies in the ground. Particularly, I wanted to know if we can definitively define additional graves in the cemetery. With groups of graves, I can try to look for families associated with the Mission. I think it will give us an understanding as to the life and death of that time period. The school was established at the request of the Shawnee, and the students that attended this school attended with the permission of their parents. The objective was to bridge from their existing culture to the direction of the culture that their children were going to live in. It was the idea of skills that would enable a person to live in the world they’re going into, whether this is what they really wanted or not. It started as a day school but expanded to a boarding school in 1839 to serve more students. The records indicate that we had students from twenty-two different tribes. The Shawnee and the Delaware were the two major ones, as well as Wyandot, Ottawa and Kansas.

“The boarding school focused on basic reading, writing, arithmetic and vocational training. The boys were also taught blacksmithing and making rough carpentry. The girls would learn general homemaking skills: spinning, weaving, sewing and food preparation and preservation.

“It closed in August of 1862 due to the Civil War. The staff questioned recruiting students and staff to a school that is in an area of conflict. Logic says ‘shut her down.’ The director Thomas Johnson is the namesake of Johnson County. He was a slave owner, a Southern sympathizer, but a pro-Union man. He was murdered in his home in 1865 for unknown reasons. While I can’t prove it, I’m prone to think his Union pledge contributed to him being killed.”

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