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Just how many bodies are buried in this tiny North Dakota cemetery? More than meets the eye

Posted 7/31/23 (Mon)

The North Dakota Historical Society is testing out new ground-penetrating radar to help find loved ones lost in time.

By Tracy Briggs

July 30, 2023 at 8:33 AM

LOGAN CENTER TOWNSHIP – With storm clouds threatening from the northwest, a group of people gets out of their cars on a gravel road in an isolated corner of Grand Forks County. More than a dozen –some historians, some government officials, some curious family members – all here to witness a mystery solved at the Logan Center Cemetery.

It’s a small place - less than half the size of a football field. A couple of dozen headstones pop up from the earth adjacent to a cornfield. But today, new technology is seeking to prove there might be many more bodies buried here.

North Dakota State Archaeologist Andrew Robinson and others from the State Historical Society of North Dakota are here with brand new ground penetrating radar and drones to figure out the location of several unmarked graves containing people, who for a number of reasons, have been lost in time.

A mystery on the prairie

The first ground in Logan Center Township was tilled in 1881 – lush prairie that provided a new beginning for the mostly German and Irish immigrants who moved here. Many of them were family or felt like it. At its peak in 1925, there were 53 homes in the township. Today there are six. But the tiny Logan Center Cemetery still stands. Built near the site of the township’s first school which later became a church, it became the final resting place for the earliest pioneers.

However, a while back Township Supervisor Dennis McCoy started to suspect that some people were missing. He saw 24 grave markers, some of which contained the name of a husband, but not the wife, despite there being evidence that she was buried there as well.

“It’s possible that she wouldn’t have a marker for a couple of different reasons. It cost a lot of money so quite often, they would just pay for a marker for the husband and not the wife. This is out in the prairie as you can see. So she could have had a wooden marker, but it could have blown away or been destroyed in a prairie fire,” McCoy said.

Additionally, flat grave markers might have been buried as the landscape here became overgrown. It’s also possible that, while a husband might be buried here, his widow might have remarried and be buried elsewhere. Or perhaps by the time of her death, all her children had moved away and there was no one left her to take care of her affairs at the cemetery. So many questions.

McCoy contacted the State Historical Society of North Dakota to see if officials there might be of help in determining exactly what lies underneath the ground here. Is it more than meets the eye? Will there be more than one casket buried in plots marked for just one?

High tech help

Fortunately, the timing was perfect. When McCoy asked for help, Robinson jumped at the chance to investigate. They had new equipment in-house, including ground penetrating radar and drones which could find anomalies in the soil.

“Anomalies could be anywhere it could be a large rock. It could be burial shafts. It could be human remains and could be a casket,” Robinson said. “So that's why we're using the different types of equipment because it'll show potential different types of things under the ground.”

The ground-penetrating radar equipment is relatively small. It looks a little like a jerry-rigged deluxe push golf cart. After marking grids in the small cemetery, Robinson and other staff push the cart up and down looking for blips on the radar.

Looking for great, great grandmother

Kate Wiese is here from Overland Park, Kansas, to get some answers about her great-great-grandmother.

Wiese, who said she’s on more than Facebook, started digging into the archives to learn her great-great-grandfather George Fisher lived in the Logan Center Township and is buried here at the cemetery. His daughter, Lois, Wiese’s great-grandmother, is also buried here. But more questions remained unanswered.

“According to Find a Almira Lee Fisher, who is Lois’s mother and George's wife, is also buried here, but there's no indication of where her body might be,” Wiese said. “ I also know that I believe after they arrived here, Almira gave birth to a son who did not survive and I'm guessing he's probably also buried here, but there's no marker.”

When Wiese learned that Robinson and the Historical Society would be doing a survey of the cemetery, she jumped at the chance to make the trip north to get some answers.

But she’ll have to wait a bit. The crew did pick up many anomalies in the soil, as evidenced by the many little pink flags placed in the ground. But Robinson said they’ll have to process the data further to get definitive answers.

Wiese said if they come to a conclusion that her great- great-grandmother and a great-grand-uncle are buried here, they’ll look at a way of honoring them.

“I will probably see what we can do to create a headstone and mark where they are buried because I'm sure that there was one there at one time,” she said.

More important projects ahead

The undertaking at Logan Center Cemetery is actually a test run for the ground-penetrating equipment. It was purchased in the first place by the Historical Society after the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa asked the society for help in locating lost graves at the former reservation school.

Robinson said they were happy to have the opportunity to use the equipment as they work on finalizing the project in Turtle Mountain.

“It’s a pretty important and significant thing working with the tribe and it’s delicate because the reservation school era is a difficult period in the tribal history. We want to make sure it’s done right,” he said.

He said the project in Turtle Mountain could happen in the near future depending upon discussions and weather conditions.

For all of the people who came out to the cemetery today, many who have loved ones buried here, it was worth dodging a few raindrops to get the mysteries of the past solved.

“It’s interesting to locate these people. You don't want them to be forgotten,” said Wiese. “I think it's good to know where your past is so you know where you're going in the future. I think it's always good to know your history.”

McCoy agrees. He has advice for anybody reading this story.

“I don't care if your ashes are spread in Timbuktu. We all need a stone. I'm really into genealogy. I'm really into family. And one of the most important things you can do to honor those that have gone before is to remember them in stories and in prayer,” McCoy said. “ If there's a stone there, you're much more likely to do it. Someday we’ll all be gone and but these stones allow us to read what they’ve done and know who they were. That’s important.”