A potter's field is a place that has traditionally been used for the burial of those without families and the indigent. The Chicago City Cemetery's potter's field was located east of the deeded family plots, near the Lake Michigan shore. An 1859 ordinance which prohibited sales of new lots in the City Cemetery, did not prohibit burials in private lots or in the potter's field. Consequently, even as the City was attempting to limit the use of the cemetery due to the recently published sanitary concerns of John H. Rauch, the cemetery grounds continued to be used as before. According to Rauch there were 11,341 interments from January 1860 through March 1866. This figure does not include his account of 3,871 Confederate prisoners of war who died while being held at Camp Douglas on Chicago's south side and were buried in the potter's field between 1862 and 1865. Rauch's total calculation, based on his viewing of the City Sexton's records, amounts to 15,212 bodies buried within that six year period.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the City's death total during the years 1847 and 1859, when the City Cemetery was the only municipal graveyard, amounts to 18,768. This sum does not include deaths and subsequent burials that began in 1843. It would appear from these figures that a fair estimate of the number of individuals who were interred in the Chicago City and Catholic cemeteries along the lake shore amount to more than 34,000. It has been estimated by the Chicago Tribune, that between 10,000 and 25,000 individuals were buried in the potter's field. For more mortality statistics, see the Numbers section

From the descriptions of Chicago's potter's field, areas were maintained at a standard similar to the family-owned sections of the cemetery. The deeded family lots were sold in 9x24 foot and later, 9x12 foot blocks, areas considered ample to hold eight and four bodies, respectively. The potter's field of single graves was described as having headstones marking graves, and traditional iron fencing surrounding the individual lots. During the cholera epidemics of 1849 and 1854, when large numbers of deaths occurred, it is likely that bodies were laid in dug trenches. Likewise, during the Civil War years of 1862 - 1865, the bodies of nearly 4,000 rebel soldiers were buried in groups.

Shortly after the 1859 ordinance was enacted to stop the sales of family lots in the City Cemetery, an agreement was made between the City and the directors of the new Rosehill Cemetery, for Rosehill to set aside space within its grounds for the burial of the poor in single lots. This arrangement apparently did not last long, if it was even actualized. By 1863, in a Chicago Tribune letter to the editor in rebuttal to an editorial, J. Woodbridge Smith, of the Rosehill Cemetery wrote that their contract had been fulfilled, essentially contradicting the Common Council file detailing the agreement. See the city document and newspaper clippings here, within the "Rosehill Cemetery and the Potter's Field" section.


Pamela Bannos © 2014