"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cemetery Hunting in Seward

It's a gorgeous February Sunday and I'm standing over the grave of Etta Shattuck, born 1868 and died before her twentieth birthday, on 6 February 1888, in the aftermath of the Children's Blizzard. The sun was rich butter yellow when I set out from Lincoln on Hwy 34, thinned to lemon by the time I reached the Seward city limits. It's not flat here, the hills like shoulders.

This is a place of deliberation. This is a place where trees plant themselves at creek edges, looking from a distance like morning-after scruff, but these creeks are not simply water. They plow their way through the soil, ripping it away, forming their own paths, their own beds. This is a place of gravity. This is a place where the weather and the world comes to you, because it can't help itself.

But I'm standing at Etta's grave because we just finished talking about the Children's Blizzard in my English 150 class, combining David Laskin's book The Children's Blizzard with Ted Kooser's poetry Blizzard Voices. Ted asked me on Friday if I'd been out to see Etta's grave and I had not yet done so--but it was beautiful yesterday, so I fired up the Jeep and went to see what I could find. I hoped I could find her, so I could report back to my class on Monday.

Etta was a schoolteacher, the sole support for her family, which included her father, a Civil War veteran. There were many markers for Civil War veterans in the three cemeteries I went to yesterday and such things are the reason I love to hunt cemeteries, for these stories. I know that through the Homestead Act and the ones that followed it, if you were a Civil War veteran you could get a year knocked off the five year "prove up" limit for every year you were in the service. That must have sounded mighty good to those who fought. Etta was caught in the storm, rode it out in a haystack, survived. But gangrene followed the frostbite and she had both legs amputated below the knee. Whatever complications followed nobody knows, but she did not survive.

I've said this before: hang around in a cemetery long enough and you'll find out everything you need to know about the town you're in. You'll find out who the main families are. You'll find out when it was settled, what its original language was, when the language switched to English. You'll find out about epidemics, war participation, and more. And that's what I found.

I found the Berneckers, two brothers, married, with children, families buried in adjacent plots. The children's graves are in German, one of the mother's in English (much later). Of the children there, the dates stuck out. 1883. Oscar Bernecker and his wife Mary lost three young children with about two weeks in 1883. A few feet away, Herman and Salome Bernecker lost two of their young children in 1883. Five children in one family in such a short period of time. I don't always Google to find out what happened, but I did for these kids: it was a diphtheria epidemic. Ten years later, Oscar and Mary had twin girls, one of whom lived for five weeks and the other who died after three months.

Too many graves of children here. Intellectually, I know about mortality rates and I know that they were much worse on the Plains, in rural areas. But too many children.

Today we start talking about the Dust Bowl in my 150. And we'll talk about the interviews that my students did over the weekend for their own project. We'll talk about how many hundreds of gravestones there are in the cemeteries I visited and for all that death came to each of them, there are no identical stories in any of those stones. Each one is unique, each one is a story that should be told. I found graves where the young mother and her child died in childbirth, I found young men in their thirties, I found old ones of ninety. Accidental deaths, went to sleep and never woke up, murder, diphtheria epidemics, cancer, pneumonia, premature birth. Each one is a unique story, never to be repeated. But that doesn't mean we can't listen.

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