Introducing "Buried History"—Edition 1: Foul Play
Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., contains 55,000 burials, or “residents” as they are affectionately known by cemetery staff. Here, people who have shaped our nation in various and colorful ways are buried beneath roughly 10,000 tombstones, meaning most of the interred do not have individual markers. Many people are buried under large family markers or don't have any identification at all.
The cemetery was founded in 1807, two miles behind the Capitol. Before refrigeration and embalming techniques were invented, people had to be buried close to where they passed away and quickly due to health concerns. American Congressmen were among the first to be buried in the cemetery because of its proximity to the Capitol building. The most famous tombstone there is the “cenotaph,” used to mark more than 100 plots that were reserved for the country’s first lawmakers. At the time, some Congressmen joked that the idea of being buried beneath the hideous cenotaphs made death “that much more terrifying.” Nevertheless, the name “Congressional Cemetery” has stuck even after most congressmen were no longer buried on its grounds. Now privately maintained, it still holds evidence of great U.S. history. The cemetery accepts burials today; though it almost always takes an act of Congress.
Lesser known inhabitants include the 36 Native American leaders, diplomats and tribal members who reside on the cemetery grounds, many of whom ended up there after falling ill during visits to the nation’s capital to fight for rights, negotiate treaties or settle debts owed to them. But two of the cemetery’s residents died under mysterious circumstances, most likely homicide. These two cases remain unsolved, reminding us of the tension between Native Nations and the federal government in the 19th century. Washington D.C. was a hostile environment for Native peoples in the 1800s.
Scarlet Crow (Kan Ya Tu Duta) of the Wahpeton Sisseton Sioux Tribe is one of the unsolved murder cases. Crow was adamantly against the treaty his nation was in Washington D.C. to sign. On Feb. 24, 1867, he disappeared from the barracks where his delegation was staying on New York and 19th streets. His fellow tribesmen were immediately concerned and requested an official search. An ad was placed in the lost-and-found section of the Washington Chronicle containing his description and a reward for information leading to his return. Two weeks after his disappearance, his remains were reported in the woods near the Aqueduct Bridge (today the Key Bridge) in Arlington, Virginia. According to the papers published by the University of North Dakota in 2006, his remains were found by a man named John Birch and a boy named Joseph Golden who were searching for a lost cow. They reported the body to a county officer who claimed the reward and reported it to Indian Agent Joseph Brown. (Read Senator Byron L. Dorgan's tribute to Scarlet Crow).
Crow appeared to have hung himself from a branch with a strip of his own green, three-point blanket. Agent Brown on the scene noted that the knots in the blanket were not the kind used by Native people. The rest of the blanket was tucked in around Crow’s body, suggesting someone else had been there. Additionally, the branch couldn’t support the weight of a small child. He appeared to have been well-fed and only recently deceased. The Indian Agent suspected that people who had reported the body were responsible and advised against paying the reward. The Agent didn't want to set a precedent of paying rewards for dead Native delegates, but he also did not want to accuse them without evidence so the reward was paid. The short-lived investigation ended, and suicide remains the official cause of death. Scarlet Crow’s son, Sam Crow, petitioned Congress for a headstone in 1912. Congress finally placed a marker on his grave in 1916 -- 49 years after his death. (Read Crow's obituary).
Buried next to Scarlet Crow is a second murder case: Ut-Sin-Malikan of the Nez Perce Nation. The soft earth caused the headstones sink over time. The top of his headstone now barely pokes up through the marshy ground; his namely is nearly illegible. Ut-Sin-Malikan signed Treaties with the U.S. in 1855 and 1863. He was against the further division of Nez Perce land when he arrived in Washington in 1868. He became ill and was shoved to his death from his hotel window.
These are a few of the stories that show a long political relationship between Native Nations and the U. S. government. It is appropriate that the evidence of this history is buried in one of the oldest cemeteries in Washington D.C. These leaders are buried alongside Congressmen, the first woman to run for president, and the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They remind us as a nation that we come from many backgrounds, perspectives and cultures. This is the history that made America the country it is today. These men deserve to be remembered as part of that history.
Often in U.S. history books, the Native story is untold, or buried beneath a shuffle of images and brief comments. This ongoing series hope to bring some of these stories to light.
Future editions of Buried History will explore: Chiefs buried on the site, 14 Cherokee who are buried according to their political beliefs, and stories about some of the Native children resting on the site. Share your thoughts with us on the comments below. What are some of the buried stories where you live?
—Rachael Cassidy (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma)
Washington Chronicle Newspaper, February 1867
Congressional Cemetery Records: www.congressionalcemetery.org
Rebecca Roberts, program director, Congressional Cemetery
Diplomats in Buckskin: A History of Indian Delegations in Washington City, Herman J. Viola,1995
Garcia Papers, University of North Dakota, 2006