Chancellor Franklin Murphy and his two daughters “rediscovered” Pioneer Cemetery during a spring 1952 walk on undeveloped property west of Iowa Street and south of Irving Hill Road.
His interest piqued, he asked the KU Endowment Association to negotiate with the City of Lawrence to acquire the land, which the association did for $1 in May 1953.
Originally named Oread Cemetery, it had existed since the summer of 1854, shortly after the New England Emigrant Aid Society founded the town of Lawrence. Among the earliest burials were victims of the “Bleeding Kansas” border violence between abolitionists — Lawrence was a stronghold — and proslavery forces in the late 1850s.
The murder of Thomas K. Barber by proslavery partisans on Dec. 6, 1855, was memorialized by poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and an obelisk honoring Barber was erected. During the Civil War, a guerrilla raid led by William Clarke Quantrill on Aug. 21, 1863, killed about 200 Lawrence men and boys; about 70 were buried in Oread Cemetery. When the city opened Oak Hill Cemetery in 1865, most were reburied there. A large obelisk dedicated to unknown dead of the Civil War was dedicated in 1906.
Oread Cemetery fell into disuse; the city renamed it Pioneer Cemetery in 1928 and some repairs were made, but it again deteriorated. After the endowment association purchased the land, landscaping and repairs were done. In May 1968 burials resumed after noted chemist Elmer V. McCollum, an alumnus who discovered vitamins A and D and who had grown up near the cemetery, requested that his ashes be placed there.
Since then, more than 450 faculty and staff members have been inurned at Pioneer Cemetery. They include former chancellors Deane W. Malott, Raymond Nichols, and W. Clarke Wescoe; professors Takeru Higuchi, Fred Kurata, Raymond Moore, Charles Oldfather, Henry Shenk, and Edward Smissman; former dean of women Emily Taylor; and administrators Fred Ellsworth of the alumni association and Irvin Youngberg of the endowment association.
The memorial to Barber was restored and rededicated in spring 1997 by the Historic Mount Oread Fund and others. In 2004, the fund placed tablets engraved with Whittier’s poem at the monument.