By Rich Tarrant
“And city lots are staked for sale, / Above our soldiers’ graves.” – I have for a long while admired the poetry American poet Walt Whitman. Some years ago I had a nice biography of him that I have since lost. But I remember bits and pieces of it. One of the things I do recall was his bitter complaint that during his lifetime some of the cemeteries in New York City where soldiers of the American Revolutionary War lay at rest had somehow been appropriated for the building of (excuse the redundancy) buildings, etc. That is simply to say that the space, as many folks currently refer to such change, was “repurposed”. If that sounds ominous or just plain dreadful – it should, because it’s true. In fact, Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village was originally a potter’s field, but few folks realize that some 20,000 bodies lie beneath that park. Now, the reason I bring this morbid observation up is because of the tales that follow.
From the Sandusky Star-Register of July 14, 1928: “An English army camped within the corporation limits of the town of Vermilion during the years previous to the war of 1812. There was a stockade near the mouth of the river as well as a hut for the treatment of wounded soldiers, and the bones of thirty-seven Kentucky infantrymen taken in the battle as prisoners along the Maumee and Sandusky rivers tell the story of their capture and death while confined within the primitive barracks. The remains of these soldiers were found in excavating for the new filtration plant, the excavation further disclosing the course of the west branch of the river and showing that the river flowed into the lake through two openings. At the mouth of the western branch there was an island. In the course of time this western branch closed as the result of deposit of small timber floating down the river, and today the land, which was at one time an island is the site of a residence of the town. The slight depression surrounding the homelike residence on the little elevation plainly shows the course of the river when it entered the lake to the west of the present opening.”
From Blockhouses and Military Posts of the Firelands by Cherry 1934: “After the massacre of the river Raisin or Frenchtown, a troop of soldiers from Kentucky were landed by the British on an island near the mouth of the Vermilion River.
Many of them were ill and died, and their comrades buried them there. Then one day the water went down and they found themselves not on an island, but a peninsula. The soldiers hurried across to the mainland and took their way homeward.
Years later when the city of Vermilion was growing and the lake shore had changed and the waters were much lower, this island was a part of the town and some workmen set about digging a cellar, and came upon a number of skeletons. They thought they were Indians and that the little knoll was an Indian mound, and so the bones were thrown about, and the men played football with the skulls. Mayor Williams himself offered a dime to the man who could kick one clear to the top of the knoll. Then some time afterward he chanced upon a record of one of these Kentucky soldiers and knew that the graveyard they had so rudely desecrated, were those of soldiers of 1812.”
To be very candid I don’t know which story – or if either one – is a true story. There are some obvious inconsistencies. However, the fact that they appear years apart in two different publications seems more than coincidental. The burial site in both stories seems to have been the spot where Vermilion’s water filtration plant (i.e. the waterworks) was built along Main Street. I would assume that the island in either tale is the land west of the river, north of the waterworks and east of Main Street. Anyway, if your morning coffee happens to taste a little funny, please don’t freak. It is, of course, just your imagination.
Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant is Curator of the Vermilion History Museum and a son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org