Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery
Established in 1858, the Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery is the oldest surviving cemetery in Minneapolis. Originally called Layman’s Cemetery after its founder, Martin Layman, the site contains approximately 20,000 graves (most of which are unmarked). Many of these are for German and Scandinavian immigrants who moved to Minneapolis in the late 19th century, and over half of the people buried in the cemetery were children. Some of the cemetery's most prominent residents include the Minneapolis pioneers Philander Prescott and Charles W. Christmas, as well as the notorious Harry T. Hayward, believed to be the country's first serial killer. True to its current name, a number of soldiers were also laid to rest here, including veterans of conflicts ranging from the War of 1812 to World War I. A local preservation effort in the 1920s saved the cemetery, and it was purchased and renovated by the city of Minneapolis. The cemetery remains a valuable resource for the study of Minneapolis history, and is one of the few surviving links to the city’s founding era.
Backstory and Context
Throughout the 1850s, settlement steadily increased in the growing town of Minneapolis. One of these new arrivals was Martin Layman, a New York native who arrived in 1853. He staked a claim south of the town, and built the sixth house on the west side of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. As the population grew, the residents searched for more permanent burial sites, since most Minneapolis churches did not have graveyards. After the death of a local Baptist reverend’s baby in 1853, Layman offered to bury the child on his land. He made similar offers to other friends and family members over the next five years, until he started officially selling burial plots in 1858.
Ten acres of Layman’s land were set aside for a cemetery in 1860; eleven years later, ten more acres were added to the west. The final portion of the cemetery, an irregular-shaped seven acres to the north, were added in 1886. In these first few decades, most of the graves belonged to the early settlers of Minneapolis, including some prominent pioneers. Philander Prescott, who was an integral intermediary between American settlers and local Dakota tribes, was buried here along with his wife (who is the only known full-blooded Native American in the cemetery). Charles W. Christmas, who was Hennepin County’s first surveyor and the man who plotted Minneapolis’s streets, was laid to rest here after he died in 1884. The daughter of Colonel John H. Stevens, the first child born in Minneapolis, was also buried in Layman’s Cemetery.
From the 1880s onward, the burials in the cemetery started to reflect the increasingly diverse population of Minneapolis. Many of the markers from this period bear inscriptions in German, Swedish, Norwegian, and Russian, as immigrants from these countries came to work in the booming Midwestern metropolis. Since the plots at Layman’s were less expensive than those at competing cemeteries, many turn-of-the-century working-class families are buried here. A section of the cemetery was also designated “Potter’s Field” for those suffering from extreme poverty. Sadly, more than half of the people buried in the cemetery were children, as infant mortality rates were high during this period.
As the 20th century progressed, Layman’s Cemetery became more neglected. No new burials were allowed after 1919, and over 6,000 bodies had been disinterred by 1925. Around this time, some city officials were discussing the possibility of removing the remaining graves and converting the cemetery into a city park. A movement to save the cemetery gained momentum in the 1920s, as part of a greater preservation movement in Minneapolis that stretched back to the 1890s. With the support of the Minneapolis Star and groups like the Grand Army of the Republic, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the American Legion, the Minneapolis Cemetery Protective Association was formed in 1925. This group convinced the city of Minneapolis to purchase the cemetery in 1927, and a year later it was renamed Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery.
During the next several years, city engineer N.W. Ellsberg led the cemetery’s renovation project: new fences and gates were installed, new trees were planted, and the grounds were leveled and cleaned up. Monuments for some of the cemetery’s most notable residents, including Prescott and Christmas, were erected, along with a new flagpole and a plaque dedicated to pioneer mothers. A “Soldier’s Section” was also established, honoring the military men who are buried there—veterans of the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. Some of these graves belong to African-American soldiers, as the cemetery was racially integrated beginning in the 1860s (Layman and many of his associates had strong connections to the abolitionist movement).
Part of the renovation effort involved reorganizing the burial records of the cemetery’s 20,000-plus graves, the vast majority of which are unmarked. These records, along with the cemetery itself, have proved to be a valuable resource for scholars studying Minneapolis history. The cemetery is one of the few remaining links to Minneapolis’s earliest days, and the caretaker’s cottage that was built in 1871 is one of the oldest surviving structures in the city. In 2002, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it is the only cemetery in the entire state to be included as an individual landmark. Today, the Friends of the Cemetery group helps with the upkeep of the grounds, and also hosts tours and organizes events for the historic site.
- Pearson, Marjorie. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, National Park Service. April 24th 2002. Accessed March 25th 2020. https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/616c3a0a-f060-41d0-b02a-4ae8e9e25780.
- Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. Accessed March 25th 2020. http://www.friendsofthecemetery.org.
- Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery Design Guidelines and Maintenance Agreement, City of Minneapolis. Accessed March 25th 2020. http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@cped/documents/webcontent/convert_273372.pdf.
- Rainville, Jr., Michael. The Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery, Mill City Times. May 26th 2018. Accessed March 25th 2020. http://millcitytimes.com/news/the-pioneers-and-soldiers-memorial-cemetery.html.
- Layman's Cemetery, 2945 Cedar Avenue South, Minneapolis Minnesota, Placeography. Accessed March 25th 2020. http://www.placeography.org/index.php/Layman%27s_Cemetery%2C_2945_Cedar_Avenue_South%2C_Minneapolis_Minnesota.
- Best Cemetery: Pioneers and Soldiers Cemetery, City Pages. Accessed March 25th 2020. http://www.citypages.com/best-of/2013/people-and-places/pioneers-and-soldiers-cemetery-7365381.
- Stowes, Jonika. Black history unearthed in Mpls' oldest cemetery , October 11th 2018. Accessed March 25th 2020. http://spokesman-recorder.com/2018/10/11/black-history-unearthed-in-mpls-oldest-cemetery/.