Researchers delve into Shawnee Indian Mission’s ‘complicated history’ with search for unmarked graves

Shawnee Indian Mission Cemetery

Shawnee Indian Mission Cemetery, often referred to as Johnson Cemetery because the county's namesake Thomas Johnson and his family are buried there, is looking into whether or not there are unmarked graves at the site. Located off Shawnee Mission Parkway, a ground penetrating study conducted Tuesday will have results of what lies in the subsurface in about three weeks. Photo credit Juliana Garcia.

Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway is trying to discover more about what officials call the Mission’s “complicated history.”

Researchers are conducting a study at the cemetery, a Kansas State Historical site located off Shawnee Mission Parkway and Canterbury Road in Fairway, looking for unmarked graves and human remains that could suggest more about who is buried there and when they were interred.

A team went out to the cemetery earlier this week with radar pulse equipment, able to scan the ground’s subsurface down to a depth of four to five feet without breaking the soil.

The cemetery is a small plot of land surround by a wrought iron fence just a few feet away from where vehicles zip by on the four-lane Shawnee Mission Parkway.

The site is part of the Shawnee Indian Mission, thought it is separate from the Mission’s main grounds about a block away.

The site is often referred to as Johnson Cemetery or the Shawnee Methodist Mission Cemetery because it is the burial site of the county’s namesake, Rev. Thomas Johnson and a majority of his family.

What could be there?

The Shawnee Indian Mission School was founded in 1839 in what is now Fairway by Johnson, a Southern Methodist minister.

Historical records show children mostly from the Shawnee and Delaware tribes were enrolled in the school and taught English, as well as manual skills.

Still, Jennifer Laughlin, the Shawnee Indian Mission’s current site director, said documentation from the 1830s to the 1860s — when the Mission was active — is sparse.

Laughlin said the study may help fill in some of those gaps in the Mission’s past — a “complicated history,” she says. If there are any findings, it’s likely that programming will be created to inform Mission visitors.

“There’s just so much undocumented history, so even uncovering little tidbits helps us get a bigger picture,” Laughlin said. “We want to educate on the full history of the Mission. We just don’t necessarily have that yet — 182 years later.”

The ground penetrating study will have results in about three weeks, project coordinator Kristen Zane said.

Still, if the study were to find remains underneath the surface, Zane — who is also a member of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas — said there’s likely no way to know who the remains belonged to.

“We’re assuming there are no [unknown] bodies here, but there might have been a mass burial of children from the Mission,” Zane said. “We just don’t know. We aren’t going to know whose remains they are, but at least we’ll know if there is a body and we can pay the respect its owed.”

In the late 1800s, the cemetery was considered a plot for only white people to be buried in, Laughlin said, but the Mission is curious to try to discover if any Native American children who attended the Mission school were buried there as well.

Laughlin and Zane admit the study may not find anything but also said simply searching for something new and previously unknown is rewarding.

“We may not get a lot of information, but we don’t know and that’s part of the excitement,” Laughlin said.