Scattered throughout the immaculate grounds of Lakeview Cemetery, classic Victorian sculptures pay homage to Seattle’s pioneer fortitude and frontier savvy. Most of Seattle’s founding families (Denny, Renton, Mercer, Boren, Yesler, and others) are buried in the western hill section, offering a ‘one-stop shopping’ approach for local history buffs.
The stylish memorials act as a seemingly prim contradiction to neighboring Capitol Hill’s stated irreverence.
However, the founding families’ elegance smoothly glosses over the scruffy reality of a frontier town’s robust approach to living. With few niceties available to soften the harsher edges, unconventional allowances were sometimes made in Seattle that might not have been tolerated in other, more established cities.
Where else but in a frontier town could someone like Asa Mercer travel back east to round up cargo-loads of women (aka, The Mercer Girls) for Seattle’s overly male-skewed population? Where else but in a 19th century western frontier town could one of those potential brides refuse marriage in favor of a successful career? And where else but in a frontier town could the local madam run an openly successful, high-end brothel catering to prominent businessmen?
Even Wyatt Earp got into the action here before settling down in California, although his preferred take was a share of the profits from a gambling hall in Pioneer Square.
Just because you’re dead, doesn’t mean you won’t be moving
Seattle also took a rather non-conformist approach to cemeteries.
Call it what you will – urban expansion, population explosion, or just plain land lust – but as the city gradually transformed from a frontier backwater in 1851 to a Yukon gold rush re-supply hotspot in the 1890s, living space became a premium.
In order to accommodate the needs of the living, the dead were moved.
Over the course of several years, one cemetery after another was relocated from undeveloped (but now highly desirable) parts of town to new, more distant locations.
The book, Cemeteries of Seattle offers an intriguing perspective on Seattle’s first cemeteries and their relocations:
“The first known cemetery in the city of Seattle was located at 2nd and Pine from around 1853-1860. An 1878 directory claimed there were about 20 burials at this site. Most were removed and reburied. The next known burial site was at the first church of Seattle, at the corner of 2nd and Columbia. There were also burials in the old tide flats at Maynard’s Point. The few bodies that had been buried there were removed in September, 1864. The Seattle Cemetery on what’s now Denny Way, was started around 1861 and on January 3, 1873, the Seattle Cemetery was made official by ordinance.
In early 1870s, Lake View Cemetery was born.
Then in February 1884, approximately 223 bodies were exhumed, dug up from the old Seattle Cemetery and re-buried in Lake View and other local sites. The former ordinance-approved, Old Seattle Cemetery was turned into Denny Park. Legend has it that some missed spots were found. During the late midnight hours they were quietly removed and re-buried, giving new meaning to the term, ‘graveyard shift’.” (1)
Coming up next: Moving five times; The Nora Johns Hill story
1. Robin Shannon, Cemeteries of Seattle, Arcadia Publishing, 2007, Page 7.
The Seattle Public Library Special Collections – Genealogy department
South King County Genealogical Society