On the darkest night in St. Paul, the living and the dead would come together in Jackson Woods. Here, the living would offer their final goodbyes to their loved ones before burying them in an unmarked grave under a canopy of old oak trees. Much to the chagrin of Mr. Jackson, his wooded paradise on the northern edge of St. Paul had become a popular burial site for those who couldn’t afford a proper burial or lacked ties to a local church. By 1853, Jackson petitioned the city to allocate funds to purchase property that could be used for non-sectarian burials.
That same year, a group of prominent citizens gathered the money needed to buy a 40-acre parcel of oak savannah with gently rolling hills just to the north of Jackson Woods to be used as a city cemetery. Promoters of this new cemetery boasted that the site was so remote that there was little chance that “the hum of industry would ever disturb its rural quiet.”
As the cemetery slowly developed, and more land was purchased, Chicago-based landscape architect Horace W.S. Cleveland was retained to fashion the cemetery into the rural garden design that was popular for cemeteries at the time. In 1873, Cleveland took the rectangular tract of land, nearly 80-acres at this time, and designed an open curvilinear plan that did not try to change the nature of the topography, but enhance it and maximize its beauty. Winding pathways followed the natural contours of the land and groves of giant oak trees offered visitors a sense of serenity and comfort.
After the Civil War, Oakland Cemetery became a favorite resting place for deceased Union soldiers. In 1870, Civil War survivors organized Minnesota’s first Memorial Day observance, or Decoration Day as it was known at the time, at Oakland. The graves of 60 Civil War veterans were decorated during that Memorial Day. In 1878, money from the Oakland Cemetery Association was used to set aside a small piece of land in the cemetery as a Soldiers Rest for free burial of Civil War veterans. Lots were also designated for free burial of soldiers lost in the Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, and both World Wars. Currently, 339 heroes have been interred at Soldiers Rest.
Soldiers Rest isn’t the only place at Oakland to pay your respects to fallen soldiers. Over 1,500 veterans from all of the notable battles of the Civil War including Bull Run, Shiloh, Stones River, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga and many more are represented throughout the cemetery, as well as soldiers from the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm.
Additionally, many notable Minnesotans, some with military ties and some without, have chosen Oakland Cemetery as their final resting place: six former Minnesota governors including Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley; Norman Kittson, early trader and politician; Ta-Ti, the widow of Chaska, who saved hundreds of settlers during the Dakota War of 1862; Minnesota’s first Medal of Honor recipient Marshall Sherman; 3M founder Archibald Bush; James Goodhue, who founded the Minnesota Pioneer, Minnesota’s first newspaper; Harriet Bishop, St. Paul’s first school teacher; and numerous immigrants (including my great-great grandparents Peter and Camilla Petersen from Denmark).
Did you know that they host a beautiful Memorial Day service and free Civil War walking tour? Amateur historian and volunteer Pat Hill, who has worked tirelessly to replace the aging headstones in the Soldiers Rest with granite stones, will take you through the cemetery and tell tales of the gallant actions of Minnesota’s most heroic Patriots. More information can be found on the cemetery’s website.
Millet, Larry. AIA Guide to the Twin Cities: The Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul. 2007.
“Oakland Cemetery”. Public Gardens of Minnesota. University of Minnesota.
Oakland Cemetery website.