February 23, 2012

Gravestones found in ditch belonged to once-prominent Wichita family

The gravestones found last week abandoned in a ditch a few miles southwest of Haysville are an important link to Wichita’s legacy.

The gravestones found last week abandoned in a ditch a few miles southwest of Haysville are an important link to Wichita’s legacy.

They were from at least two of the most prominent families in Wichita from 140 years ago whose faith helped start two Wichita churches.

J.M. Steele, a Civil War veteran who came to Wichita and became a real estate, insurance and loan agent, was a charter member of the First Presbyterian Church. He married Mary Celia Meagher, who was from a Catholic family from Ireland. Her mother, Ellen, is considered by historians to be the "mother of Wichita’s Catholic churches." Many of the city’s early Masses were celebrated in the Meagher home before a church was built. Mary Celia’s brothers were famed Kansas lawmen Mike and John Meagher.

Together, J.M. and Mary Celia had several children, three of whom died within a month of each other in the scarlet fever epidemic of 1877: Henry, 3; Eliza, 4; and Timothy, 2.

The Steeles built a memorial for the children in Wichita’s first cemetery, Highland, at Ninth and Hillside, before they left for Tacoma, Wash., in the 1880s. Few if any relatives remain in the Wichita area, according to Gary Huffman, archivist at First Presbyterian Church. In recent decades, the Steele memorial has simply crumbled.

At least two other stones recovered last week were related to the Meagher family. Timothy Joseph O’Connor was the son of Celia’s sister, Elizabeth; and Timothy Meagher, husband of Ellen (Celia’s mother), was an invalid when the Meagher family moved to Wichita. He died in 1871.

Early Wichita leaders described J.M. Steele as a figure of strength and force. He was instrumental in helping make Wichita a cowtown and in developing and selling much of early town’s business and residential lots. During the 1870s, there was hardly an issue of The Wichita Eagle that didn’t carry an advertisement for Steele’s real estate.

But there was another reason Steele was important. Beginning in 1868 and continuing for almost a decade, the Chisholm Trail carried thousands of cattle from Texas to Abilene by way of Wichita or Park City.

Park City residents tried to lure cowboys off the dusty Chisholm Trail, telling them the waters in Chisholm Creek through Wichita were poisonous and that if they went by Park City it would be a straighter route to Abilene

Wichita leaders N.A. English, Mike Meagher, J.R. Mead and J.M. Steele rode out to the cattle herds and offered the drovers financial incentives if they brought their herds through Wichita.

“Those four men put us on the map,” said Eric Cale, director of the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum.

The vandalism of the Highland Cemetery tombstones has area historians concerned.

The cemetery was created in 1870 when Henry Smith deeded his farmland for Wichita’s first cemetery. Buried in it are some of Wichita’s most historic characters:

•  John Noble, whose paintings depicted dramatic seascapes and whose boyhood hero, William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson is buried only a few paces away.
•  Jack Ledford, a notorious outlaw who died in an outhouse during a Wichita shootout.
•  Many members of lawman Bat Masterson’s family.

The problem is, Cale said, the cemetery has no staff to care for its 10,000 graves, and seldom has visitors. It is cared for by the city of Wichita.

“Highland Cemetery is in need of public concern,” Cale said. “It is very historic and very vulnerable.”

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