Death and dying on the trail from disease or accident was a real prospect for 19th century overlanders, and this cemetery was the westernmost graveyard in the United States before Kansas was settled.
New Santa Fe, called Little Santa Fe prior to 1851, boasted a trading post and stage station that served a small but thriving community on Missouri’s westernmost border. All that remains today of the village that developed around the farm of John Bartleston, who erected a cabin along the Santa Fe Trail in 1833, is the community’s cemetery, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
When emigrants left their homes back east and funneled through Jackson County before “jumping off,” many knew they would never see their kin again. And, some would never reach their intended destinations. Issac Wistar recorded in his diary on May 6 and 7, 1849, how cholera was afflicting wagon caravans;“There is quite a populous graveyard at the crossing of the Big Blue, and numerous single graves along the trail." Many were simply laid out in shallow graves, and after a hasty memorial service, wagon trains proceeded. With its location along an ages-old border between Missouri and “Indian Territory,” New Santa Fe’s sacred space might be considered the westernmost dedicated graveyard in the United States along emigrant trails…until settlement began in earnest in Kansas Territory.
Most graves along the trails have been lost to time. Some graves, marked only with temporary wooden crosses or field stones, give real-life meaning to the teaching, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Today, they might be called “green burials.” For this reason, we will never know who or where most deceased overland trail travelers were buried.