Wagner Cemetery History, Hilyard Township,
Macoupin County Illinois
© 2012 Jim Frank
Written June 5, 2012
Dousing/Witching Jun 2012 at Wagner Cemetery Picture 1 Picture 2 Picture 3 Picture 4 Picture 5
Demonstration sponsored by the Macoupin County Historical Society and Jim Frank
You are right, the name of the cemetery I and local folks around here call the Waggoner Cemetery located along the northern edge of section 4 of Hilyard Township should be spelled Wagner not Waggoner. I guess evolution over the past 177 years changed our local dialect to that pronunciation. All the Wagner’s buried in this cemetery has the name Wagner on the tombstones.
Peter Wagner and William R. Rhodes were the first two settlers that entered land in this locality in section 33 of Polk Township in 1835. Both families previously lived in the forks of the Wood River in Madison County before moving to Macoupin County. In the summer of 1834, Peter Wagner and Wm. Rhodes, close friends, along with their sons, came up here into this area of Township 9, Range 8, now known as Polk township. They picked out land and both erected cabins south of the Macoupin Creek in section 33. Peter Wagner was a veteran of the war of 1812, and well known as an Indian fighter while living in Madison County. After building their cabins and laying out their farms that summer, they returned to Madison County to spend the winter with their wives and families. In the following spring, both Peter Wagner and Wm. Rhodes entered the land here in Polk Township with the Government. Peter Wagner entered 160 acres in the northeast quarter of Section 33. He had built his cabin in the edge of the woods and a little over one half of his grant was actually prairie, he being one of the first to enter prairie ground in this area. I now own 140 acres of this farm.
William Rhodes land grant where he built his cabin was in the east one-half of the north-west quarter (80 acres). His grant is a part of the farm where I live on the west side of the now Shipman Blacktop Road. Peter Wagner’s 160 acres was on the east side of the now Shipman Blacktop Road. Both cabins were about two-thirds of a quarter mile apart and you could say they were in hollering distant from each other. Their closest neighbors at that time were two families, the Hilyard and the Gray families living several miles southeast of where Plainview is now. From Peter Wagner, the name of Wagner’s Prairie was given to the prairie stretching from south of the Macoupin Creek to several miles southeast of Plainview and to about 4 miles west to the Harmony church area. Incidentally, this area north of Plainview also was later called North Bend as the Macoupin Creek made a north bend in its path dissecting across the township.
Shortly later, another friend of the Wagner and Rhodes families, William Pruitt and family moved here from Madison county and settled on an adjoining 160 acres of property in section 28. He too had been an Indian fighter while living in Madison county. This property, he entered with the government in 1839. Many of the children of these three large neighboring amilies intermarried and many are now buried in the Wagner cemetery.
Jacob D. Wagner, an adult son of Peter Wagoner, entered 80 acres of land from the Government in 1839 at the north edge of Hilyard in section 4 and this is where the Wagner/ Waggoner cemetery is now. Jacob married Elizabeth Deck and after a few years, they moved to Dent County, Missouri where Mrs. Wagner passed away a few years later. He and his children moved back here. He then married a woman from near Gillespie, Illinois, and he farmed near Gillespie. Upon both of their deaths, they were both interred in the Wagner Cemetery. Like wise, his son Jacob II and his wife Maud were also buried later in the Wagner Cemetery.
I see in the history write-up in the 1879 Macoupin County History book by Brinks, McDonough & Co, Peter Wagner’s name is spelled as Wagoner. In my abstract of the farm, it is also spelled as Wagoner and another place as Waggoner with the double g. You can see how the name is changed verbally and then written as it sounded.
Another interesting note a little off the subject but telling how names are often changed verbally is how years ago people living in the Macoupin creek area mispronounced the word “Ma-coup-in” as Ma-goup-in”. I was in high school before I learned of the correct pronouncement.
When the Public Work Affair inventoried the Wagner Cemetery during the 1930’s Depression giving unemployed people part time jobs, they listed the cemetery as laid out in 1846 and stated the first burial was Peter Wagner who died in 1846. However, there is a tombstone listing a James Hallford burial in Dec. of 1839, while Jacob Wagner owned the property. Mrs. Hallford maiden name was Pruitt, and the Hallford’s and Pruitt’s share the same tombstone. The Baird family at one time owned forty acres just at the east edge of the cemetery and that is how the cemetery at one time was referred to as the Baird family. There are no tombstones showing the name of Baird. Unless some family members are buried in the unknown list of unmarked gravesites. The Baird’s at one time owned considerable land around Plainview and later settled in Carlinville and around Bunker Hill. There is a cemetery near Bunker Hill called the Baird cemetery. I do not know if that cemetery was named after that family or someone else named Baird.
While the Hallford family owned the property in the mid-1840’s where the cemetery is now, he had the cemetery recorded at the Macoupin County courthouse. This cemetery consist of slightly over one acre with approximately 100 names that are listed on gravestones. There are many indentations in the earth where other graves have been and are unmarked. Also remains of the bottom portion of long lost tombstones. Rule of thumb usually suggest there are as many unmarked family graves as marked on tombstones in these old cemeteries. I have been able to add a few more names buried there in unmarked graves as I read the old newspapers and find information of burials locally. At one time, this cemetery was locally called and was referred to in the newspapers as the Dorman cemetery. The Dorman family owned and lived on the property across the road on the north side of the township road.
Now some more interesting history about this cemetery. The Dorman family owned the property across the road from the Wagner cemetery and when they transferred the property to new owners, the abstract gave the property dimensions of the Dorman land with the exception of the Dorman cemetery located across the road from the other cemetery. Whenever I asked people it there was another cemetery located there, they would tell me, “No, there were never a cemetery there; the cemetery is on the south side of the road.”
In 1851 and 1852 as the Alton-Springfield railroad was being built through Hilyard and Polk townships, the cholera epidemic was raging at its worst across the state as well as all over the other U.S. states. The Irish potato famine was taking place in Ireland at the same time and people from that country were fleeing from Ireland and coming to the United States as well as migrating to Australia. Thousand and thousands and thousands of these poor class starving Irish were coming to this country and taking any low paying job available just to have work and a paycheck to survive. Railroad companies would meet the ships as these people disembarked in New York, Pennsylvania and New Orleans, hire these men (many as young as 14 years of age), and transport them to work wherever they were building a railroad. If you wonder how these immigrants could afford the passage across the sea to the United States, many of the railroads hired the men in Ireland and transported them across the ocean. We also learn that many of the ships coming to New Orleans, were crossing the ocean to New Orleans with empty cargoes and would haul these people free of charge as they needed the weight of these people to use or serve as ballast in the ships. The ships were coming to New Orleans where they would be loaded with shipments of bales of cotton to take back to Europe. At New Orleans, it was easy to recruit the needed laborers and transport them up the Mississippi river to Alton to work at building this railroads as well as other railroads in the central states.
As the railroad was being built through this area, the raging cholera epidemic was at its worst. Sanitation was very poor in the work camps and all kinds of disease were prevalent. The year 1851, weather-wise, was a very wet year and the dampness, flies and insects were terrible, easily promoting spreading all kinds of disease. In 1851, ten percent of the local population in Carlinville died from the Cholera. Records state that 93% of any one contacting cholera died from the effects. Death often came in a short matter of hours.
Back in 1952, as I was getting interested in local history, two elderly men in their possible eighties, that lived near Plainview, (a Mr. Emmett Hurry and Osa Wadsworth), told me that during the Cholera epidemic while the railroad was being built, several Irish laborers working at construction of the railroad quickly died and they were buried in the north-east corner of the Wagner cemetery and that was the reason no one else ever were buried in that corner of the cemetery. This early cemetery was just a quarter of a mile from where they were working at building the railroad and being close by was the ideal location to bury these laborers.
Then around 1975, while doing some local history research, I talked with another two other elderly gentlemen, one living north and the other living west of Macoupin Station, Dave Morris and Jim Pursey. They both, while interviewing these men, told me that in the winter of 1851-1852, the railroad had a large tent campsite for the workers a little north of Macoupin Station. This camp was at a base of a hill in the Macoupin bottom on the east side along where they were digging through embankments of location before railroad tracks could be laid. Slips, wheelbarrows, picks and shovels were the mode of earth removal. When hardpan earth was encountered, then dynamite was used to break up the densely compacted earth. The hill and trees at this camp location gave protection of cold and north-west and western winter winds. One of the elderly gents told me he understood that at least 200 of these laborers were cholera victims and were buried on the hill along the railroad there. He said of many of the graves at one time, he claimed he had seen remains of small wood crosses on the grave or sometime a small chunk of rock marked the grave. (I have my doubts if he really saw this.) The other person said he thought there were more likely about 70 laborers buried there. I walked down the railroad at that time and found this hill which was covered with tall prairie grass and stomped around in the tall grass but could not find any traces of remaining wooden crosses nor rocks. Of course any wood markings had long ago either rotted or was burnt up in fires along the railroad set by sparks from the steam locomotives.
William McClain (now retired) who lives in Carlinville has now gotten interested in the building of the early railroad and all the cholera deaths that occurred. He has been doing extensive research but there does not seem to be any railroad construction records that can be located anymore other than a contractors report from here that he may have to shut down for a period because so many of his laborers were expiring from the cholera. There remains, no hiring records, no payroll records, nor names of any deaths that occurred during the construction of the railroad. Last fall Mr. McClain invited two fellows from Monroe county that have been dowsing (witching) for unmarked graves for many of the past numerous years to come up here and aid in finding these unmarked graves.. Their work is virtually professional at finding these unmarked graves. By the use of copper or steel witching rods, they are able to find where the earth has been disturbed and a body had been buried, even years and years ago, and whether the person is a male or female and they even find smaller child graves. They can even tell the length of the grave when dug, giving the idea of the height of the person buried there. Children graves are very short and usually by the length of the grave will usually denote the approximately age of the child buried there.
When these two men arrived, we went to the Wagner cemetery and they were able to locate nine rows of graves with 19 burials in each row. Each apparent grave was spaced three feet apart. All burials showed by witching as being male. These were in the northeast corner of the cemetery as tradition had told. We had no idea that many of men had been buried there. While they were witching here, I mentioned that I had a farm abstract mentioning the Dorman cemetery supposedly across the township road. By witching over there across the road, we found another 72 unmarked graves supposedly containing all males and at the west edge of these burials found a family of four consisting of one male, one female and two children. It makes you wonder who this family was. Could they have been Dorman’s? Who knows! Also under the oiled township road, we found another 48 unmarked graves of all males. In all we figured there were, at least 272 men buried here who probably died of Cholera. Just think, that the laborers that suddenly died here had family and relatives elsewhere and in Ireland that never knew what became of their love ones.
Now, Mr. McClain and myself along with our witching rods and marking flags went looking for the winter railroad camp that had been located north of Macoupin Station that was at this protective south facing hillside. While McCain was searching the hillside by dowsing/witching, he found a large numerous amount of burials on that hillside. As I witched along the bottomland at the base of the hill, I was able to find three rows of possible graves and gave up after counting after finding 115 possible burials because I was into poison ivy and scrub brush. The bottomland at this site is high enough that under a regular flood the flooding water does not reach into this area. This made an ideal campsite. Then to our surprise, we were able to find by witching the outline of quite a few shanties or tents a little further out in the non-flooding bottomland. These shanties or tents were from 33’ to 36’ in length and usually 24’ in width. Each find were with about six feet between each of these shelters. Now we are planning to go back, take measurements and pin point locations of everything, and attempt to map the area. I am wondering if we will not come up with the possibility of nearly three to four hundred gravesites. Where the shelter buildings were, that area is now planted in corn which is less that a foot tall. We want to get all these measurements in the cornfield before the corn gets much higher so we can see where we are working.
I have had a feeling that there is another location a mile or more south of Macoupin Station where there might be more cholera victims buried. We also went there and by witching found ten or more rows of graves with15 each possible burial at that location. Here there were also four possible female burials. The railroad furnished the meals to the laborers and hired many husbands and wives to do the cooking and serving of the food. Because of a locked building on this site, we were not able to fins how many possible graves could be under this building. More searching will be done there later when we can get inside the locked building.
All this is quite a find of forgotten history. Bill McClain is planning of writing a book containing information about the building of the railroad, the Irish laborers and cholera deaths telling what we have been finding and from the extensive research he has been doing. This should turn out to be very interesting. Presently now, we are trying to locate anyone that had Irish ancestors that was employed as laborers in building this railroad then originally known as Sangamon-Alton Railroad (later Chicago-Alton Railroad and now as Union Pacific Railroad) upon coming to this country. If any of these descendants know any of the details of their ancestors working here during this period, we would appreciate if they would contact us. Bill McClain, Carlinville, Illinois or myself, Jim frank, Plainview, Illinois. My e-mail address is email@example.com.
In the past few years, I have written several booklets about the local history of Shipman and Shipman township, Plainview and Hilyard township and Polk township including Macoupin Station and Beaver Dam Park. The modest income from these booklets I have donated to the Macoupin County Historical Society and the Shipman Farm and Home Museum in Shipman. These books are for sale in the gift shop at both of these places along with also for sale at the Shipman Bank.
This narrative is quite long and a good place to end this account in local history. I an so pleased to be able to reveal this long lost history that has taken place in this area in the past that has long been forgotten and is no longer knowledgeable and now forgotten as this past history took place nearly a hundred sixty years ago. In addition, we forget the numerous deaths by diseases that were commonly taking place along with the hardships endured by our ancestors back in those days when little knowledgeable medical help was available.
There will be much more to reveal later as we continue our research on this venture. Many, many hours and days have already been spent researching old newspapers files in Springfield and Alton and other speculations.
Thank you Gloria Frazier for asking me to write something about the history of the Wagner/Baird/Dorman/ Wagoner/Waggoner cemetery and about the Irish railroad laborers that lost their lives during the 1851-1852 cholera epidemic when so many people residing in this county died in this terrible pandemic.
Asst County Coordinator Kathleen Mirabella
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