Changing Stories

Reading the changing stories and various accounts of the history of the Chicago City Cemetery spurred the research for this Hidden Truths project. The historical Chicago Tribune reveals discrepancies in the early cemetery history, and also tells a variety of stories that attempt to explain the remaining visible cemetery vestiges - the Couch Tomb and the Kennison Boulder. Presented below, are a selection of explanations regarding the acquisition of the grounds, and subsequent transformation of the cemetery into Lincoln Park.

Published in three volumes from 1884 through 1886, A.T. Andreas’ History of Chicago, is perhaps the most often referenced chronicle of the city’s early years. This is an excerpt from the Chicago Cemeteries section of the second volume, which covered the years 1857 through 1871:

The Chicago Cemetery tract contained altogether 3,136 burial lots
, and was designated, under the old survey, as the “Milliman” tract. By a decision of the Supreme Court, the city lost the title to the Milliman tract, and not being able to perfect or obtain title, the Common Council in 1865, ordered the vacation of the tract, authorizing lot-owners to exchange their lots for lots in any of the new cemeteries, of equal size and of their own selection.

The first sentence implies that the Milliman Tract contained 3,136 burial lots. The 12-acre Milliman tract contained 654 burial lots. This sentence also states, confusingly, that the Chicago Cemetery was designated as the Milliman tract under the old survey. The so-called Old Survey was the original 35-acre section of the City Cemetery, established in 1843. The Milliman tract was acquired in 1850. The Supreme Court order and the subsequent disinterments were only in relation to the 12-acre Milliman tract, located at the northwest corner of the 57-acre City Cemetery.

It is possible that the inaccurate information presented in the Andreas volume became the main source that perpetuated the legend that all bodies were removed from the City Cemetery. The most curious aspect of this carelessly abbreviated history is that at the time of its 1885 publication, exhumations were still occurring in the old cemetery grounds. The Lincoln Park Annual Reports listed cemetery lot exchange costs as late as 1886.

Chicago Daily Tribune, November 17, 1892


The occupied cemetery grounds actually
extended past Menomonee Street, spelled
incorrectly in this article. The City Cemetery's
burials extended further north, past Wisconsin Street.


An early newspaper reference to the City Cemetery states the history similar to the Andreas account. Beginning with a mention of the earlier cemeteries, the newspaper wrote:

Chicago Daily Tribune, May 5, 1895
The two tracts selected became the first established cemeteries, and one was located at what is now Twenty-third Street and the lake and the other at what is now Chicago Avenue and the lake. In 1842 the South Side cemetery was abandoned and the bodies that had been buried there were removed five years later to the Lincoln Park ground by order of city authorities. This new tract contained 3,136 burial lots and was commonly known as the “Millman [sic] tract.” It was also here that the remains of those interred in the old North Side cemetery found their next resting place. In 1865 the City Council ordered the vacation of this graveyard, and then the largest disinterment known in the history of the city took place. At that time Rosehill, Oakwoods, and Graceland had been established, and when the two years had expired within which the city had to clear the “Millman [sic] tract,” or Chicago Cemetery, the City Council named a committee of three to make the selection of nearly 200 lot-owners who had failed to hand in their claims, and whose whereabouts could not be ascertained. The bodies were divided among Graceland, Calvary, Rosehill and Oakwoods. More than 4,000 Confederate dead, who passed away while prisoners of war at Camp Douglas, were included in this last removal.

The Tribune began the story in the same way as Andreas, then continued on to confuse things even further. Not only did the 1895 account misspell Milliman, but it also seemed to imply that the 200 unclaimed lots from the 12-acre tract were divided among the four newer cemeteries. Thirty years after the actual events, the story had already changed.

Adding to the confusion, this 1897 article excerpt has 2000 Union soldiers removed from a cemetery at Camp Douglas to Lincoln Park. No such thing occurred. The 4,000 Confederate dead were originally reported to have been buried in the City Cemetery potter's field from 1862 through 1865. Union soldiers were never part of the story. See more about the Confederate graves, here.

Chicago Daily Tribune, August 8, 1897


By 1931 and later, the newspaper histories of the Chicago Cemetery were written in the context of the confusions surrounding the Couch Tomb, the Kennison Boulder, and the unexpected findings of skeletal remains during various Lincoln Park improvements.

Chicago Daily Tribune, February 18, 1931
The Chicago cemetery tract contained 3,136 burial lots and extended on either side of Clark Street, north of North Avenue. By a decision of the Supreme Court the city lost title to the land and in 1865 the council ordered the vacation of the tract, authorizing lot holders to exchange their lots for lots in the then new cemeteries. The bodies were reinterred as nearly as possible in the same order as they had been in Chicago cemetery. The bones found yesterday are believed to have escaped the selection.

In the account above, the cemetery was placed wrongly on either side of Clark Street. Also, the sentence regarding the reburials' organization in a similar arrangement as their placement in the City Cemetery, was a misguided retelling of the unclaimed Milliman Tract reburials. In 1867, the remains within the 200 unclaimed lots were removed to this location in Oak Woods Cemetery.

Chicago Daily Tribune, December 10, 1941
In case you ever wonder why Lincoln Park contains two graves - the mausoleum of Ira Couch and the grave of David Kennison, survivor of the Boston Tea Party, it may interest you to know that once it was a cemetery. In the early 1800s the land was a grant for a federal canal, but in 1847, when a third of rugged little Chicago died in a cholera epidemic, it became a cemetery.

This Tribune article states the cemetery was formed in 1847, specifically for cholera victims. The first major cholera outbreak in Chicago occurred in 1849. By that time the City Cemetery was already in use for six years. See more about cholera and the City Cemetery, here.

At the 100-year anniversary of Rosehill Cemetery, the Tribune presented a history consistent with the Andreas account and the other earlier newspaper articles, all of which counted the 12-acre Milliman Tract as the representation of the entire 57-acres of occupied City Cemetery grounds.

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 27, 1959
Shortly after its establishment, the city council voted Chicago out of the municipal cemetery business, and passed an ordinance for the removal of 3,000 burial lots from what now is Lincoln Park to Rosehill and several other private cemeteries.

Other articles:

Chicago Tribune, October 29, 1976
There was once a municipal burying ground on the land now occupied by Lincoln Park. Many of Chicago's earliest residents were buried there only to have the remains exhumed and reinterred in Graceland, Rosehill, and other area cemeteries. One mausoleum and grave remain in Lincoln Park because the families of the deceased refused to have them moved.

The last sentence above, referring to the graves of Ira Couch and David Kennison, is false. See more about those men and their graves in their respective sections within this Web Site.

Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1978
In the 1850s, the south end of what is now Lincoln Park was the City Cemetery. When the graves were moved to turn the land into a park, Couch's tomb remained, apparently because of a "gentleman's agreement." with the park district board members. [See more accounts explaining the varying reasons the Couch Tomb remains in Lincoln Park, here.] When the Chicago Fire swept the heart of the city, it literally died in Lincoln Park. Stories of people taking refuge in opened graves, however, probably refer to the potter's field that was just south of Lincoln Park, as its bodies were moved later than those in the City Cemetery.

The potter's field was not located south of Lincoln Park. It was located on the eastern edge of the City Cemetery, all of which became Lincoln Park. Also, as reported at the time, the potter's field disinterments were completed in 1872. City Cemetery disinterments continued until the mid-1880s.


The Internet has become a new source of information that is presented with equal authority to newspapers.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago's online entry of the history of Chicago cemeteries misrepresents the size of the City Cemetery grounds, saying the grounds covered 60 acres before the addition of the 12-acre Milliman Tract. My research showed that the City Cemetery covered a total of 57 acres, including the Milliman Tract. Also, the same entry establishes the Jewish Cemetery tract as covering a 6/7-acre area, when the Jewish Cemetery plat and history indicates it was a 9/10-acre parcel.

Further clouding my trust in the remaining presented facts, the Encyclopedia of Chicago's Cemeteries section misspells Milliman as Milleman, throughout.

On the Chicago Park District's online entry of the history of Lincoln Park, it says: Lincoln Park began as a small public cemetery on the northernmost boundary of Chicago where victims of cholera and small pox were buried in shallow lakeside graves. Aware of the public health threat, citizens began demanding the cemetery's conversion to parkland in the 1850s.

Focusing on the sanitary and health issues, the origin of the cemetery is confusingly ambiguous. Cholera and small pox victims were buried in the City Cemetery potter's field, located on the eastern edge of the cemetery, but disease victims were also buried throughout the cemetery grounds. Also, it was not merely for sanitary and health reasons that the cemetery grounds eventually became obliterated and then incorporated into Lincoln Park. See the Contributing Factors in Moving the Cemetery section of this Hidden Truths project.

According to the Wikipedia entry on the history of Lincoln Park, "In 1864, the city council decided to turn the 120 acre cemetery into a park. Permission was received from all descendants to move graves with one major exception. The Couch family, who owned a small mausoleum in the cemetery, refused to give their permission. To this day, the Couch mausoleum can still be seen, standing amidst trees, behind the Chicago History Museum. . . . Another large and important group of graves relocated from the site of today's Lincoln Park was that of approximately 6,000 Confederate prisoners-of-war who died at Camp Douglas."

Contrary to the Wikipedia article, the City Cemetery did not occupy one hundred and twenty acres, descendents did not give permission to remove graves (they handled the arrangement themselves), and 6,000 Confederate prisoners were not buried in the cemetery. See the Potter's Field section of this Hidden Truths project for information about the 3,000 Confederate soldiers who were presumed to have been buried in the potter's field.

The Early Chicago Web Site, in its treatment of early cemeteries, states, "In 1842, the city fathers established a new municipal burial ground on a tract of land now roughly bounded by North Avenue, LaSalle, Wisconsin, and State streets; in 1866 just after the Civil War ended, a lawsuit closed this cemetery, necessitating the removal of bodies and monuments, and the acreage became the southern portion of Lake Park, later renamed Lincoln Park."

The cemetery was more accurately bounded on the west by Green Bay Road, today's Clark Street, not LaSalle Street. Also, this Early Chicago entry implies the Milliman Tract lawsuit closed the cemetery. The cemetery was closed as a result of a myriad of reasons, as evidenced by the Contributing Factors in Moving the Cemetery section, here.


The page of text presented to the left, is not directly related to the Chicago City Cemetery. But like the litany of transcribed errors, above, it shows how history can be passed down inaccurately through the ages.

The passage is reproduced from page 337 of the book, Chicago Antiquities: Comprising Original Items and Relations, Letters, Extracts, and Notes. Pertaining to Early Chicago; Embellished with Views, Portraits, Autographs, Etc.,by Henry H. Hurlbut, Chicago: Printed for the Author, 1881.

The subsequent ninety-seven pages of the 673-page volume details errors in books, newspapers, and other published sources, relating to the early history of Chicago.
Pamela Bannos © 2021