Cincinnati’s oldest cemetery is home to more than just our city’s first settlers, it is also the site of what was once a thriving Native American village. The area known as Pioneer Cemetery is located just off Wilmer Avenue in the city’s East End. It sits unassumingly across the street from Lunken Airport and is the only reminder of the pioneer settlement that once was – they called it Columbia. A group of just 26 people landed at the confluence of the Ohio and Little Miami rivers and formed the tiny community. The date was November 18, 1788. It was the first settlement in what is now Cincinnati, preceding Losantiville by one month.
The 2.2 acre cemetery is the final resting place of both Revolutionary and Civil War veterans as well as the aforementioned pioneers. Burials at the cemetery began as early as 1790. When visiting, you will see the grave of Major Benjamin Stites, the founding father of Columbia, who lived from 1734 to 1804. There is also a large memorial monument which is marked “To the First Boat-load” which contains the names of the first pioneers. The large Corinthian pillar you see in the center of the cemetery was taken from the old Post Office building and placed there in 1888, just prior to the razing of the post office. The oldest headstone that still exists in the cemetery memorializes five month old Phebe Stites, the daughter of Captain Hezekiah Stites. Little Phebe died on March 14, 1797, presumably struck down by cholera which plagued so many of the settlers. While walking through the cemetery, I noted so many of the graves belonged to very young children and infants. Times were tough for these pioneers, to say the least.
In 1958, it was discovered that the area of Pioneer Cemetery was not just a permanent home to our city’s founders but also an archaeological site. Evidence discovered there led researchers to believe that the terrace upon which the cemetery lies was once the site of a Native American village which dated back to the Woodland Period beginning around 1000 BCE. Because of the historical significance of the pioneer cemetery absolutely no formal excavation of the site was ever conducted and any relics from the original, Native American inhabitants remain a mystery.
The area was neglected for decades until 1967 when Frederick L. Payne, then Supervising Horticulturalist for the Park Board, began a restoration project. His work was tireless and included hands-on restoration of gravesites and tombstones, as well as preparing two texts that permanently recorded the history of the cemetery. These volumes list all the persons who could be identified as buried there since 1790, and include photographs of all markers that existed during the restoration period, which continued through 1971. These manuscripts are now housed at the Cincinnati Historical Society.
Frederick L. Payne retired as Director of Parks on January 1, 1987. Not long after, he did an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer wherein he discussed a few of the trials and tribulations the settlers dealt with. In speaking about the brutal first winter endured by the settlers Payne said, “Mothers had a little story they would tell their children about a friend that would come in the fall. The friend was corn.” He also conveyed that “the settlers used to say they had three enemies: Indians, copperhead snakes, and rattlesnakes, and only one gave warning – the rattlesnake.” The Native Americans that remained in the area kept a close eye on the intruders from a look-out above what is now part of Alms Park.
Frederick Payne, the man that did so much to conserve this part of our history died on December 18, 2005 at the age of 72. A small colonial garden is planted at the cemetery to honor his dedication to preserving this piece of Cincinnati. When I visited this past weekend it was in bloom with Lenten rose, Winter Aconite and Speedwell. He did not, however, choose Pioneer Cemetery as his final resting place, rather leaving it to the ones who came before him.
The size and scope of the Native American enclave will sadly never be known as the Pioneer Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and with that distinction, may not be excavated. The secrets of the people that were here before us, at least along that section of the river, will be forever shrouded in mystery. Thousands of years of life and death encapsulated in one small area along the banks of the Ohio River reminded me of the wise Native American proverb:
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.
Eckert, John. Tombstone returned to East End Resting Place. The Cincinnati Enquirer. Cincinnati, Ohio January 13, 1987, Tue · Page 78
Edwards, Jennifer. Columbia Tusculum redo planned. The Cincinnati Enquirer. Cincinnati, Ohio. December 29, 2003
McDonald and Woodward. Indian Mounds of the Atlantic Coast: A Guide from Maine to Florida, McDonald & Woodward Publishing Company, Newark OH, 1987