MCDOWELL CREEK, Kan. - Learning history is like reading a detective story--pretty soon you can't put it down. But history offers no final chapter where everything is explained. With history, the surprises just keep coming.
For example, I learned about one contentious burial here in my own community at the end of the nineteenth century that at first seemed a simple case of racism. In 1869, the Estes family migrated from North Carolina to McDowell Creek, where they helped to found the Briggs community.
They brought an African-American household servant and her daughter with them. The daughter grew up, married a soldier from the fort, and moved to New York, but the mother -- Delilah Estes, or "Lila," as she was known -- stayed with the family until her death in the 1890s. Joe Estes wanted Lila buried in the Briggs Cemetery, but the township board refused.
A fellow North Carolinian named Maxwell Ramsour -- who had provided the land for the cemetery in the first place -- contacted Joe and offered to bury Delilah on his own land. Ramsour's property adjoined the cemetery, and he dug a grave just outside the cemetery fence. That's where Delilah Estes was laid to rest. This solution did not soothe Joe's anger, however, and he immediately changed his own burial plans. "If Briggs Cemetery is too good for a Christian woman like Lila, then it's too good for me," he is reputed to have said. Indeed, when his own time came, he was buried in Fairview Cemetery, not Briggs Cemetery.
The township board's rejection fits the tenor of the times, as racism intensified all over the country during the 1890's. But then I learned another story from McDowell Creek that raises the possibility that racism might not have been the only factor.. There is a small family cemetery on our place where members of the Garansson family are buried, along with one Johanna Nelson, 1880-1881. The story is that the Nelsons had first asked to have their baby buried in the Briggs Cemetery but were refused. They then appealed to the Garanssons, who allowed the little girl to be buried in their family plot. The Briggs community was commonly referred to as "Swede Hollow" -- you would think a toddler with a good Swedish name like Nelson would have been welcome in their cemetery. But she was not. What made the Briggs Cemetery so picky? Could other forms of exclusion have contributed to the rejection of Delilah Estes, in addition to racism?
Who knows what other stories might offer more clues? The ghosts of Delilah Estes and Johanna Nelson -- and of all those who made us what we are today -- still have much to teach us.
(Dee Poole, Jesse Estes, and Jerry Cameron contributed information to this column.)