Pioneer Graveyard: Johnson County History

When I was growing up, the cemetery along 135th street fascinated me. Located between Pflumm and Quivira in Johnson County, it looked haunted, far older than the modern cemeteries with their fresh flowers, checkerboard lawns, and tidy fences. Back then (in the late 1990s or early 2000s) there was little development along that stretch of 135th, but my family drove past the cemetery all the time. It would have been easy to miss — from the road, the tombstones were almost completely obscured by trees.

To this day, I’m convinced that the only reason I ever knew this old cemetery existed was because I was young; I was always looking out the window, not at the road. Today, I’d drive right past and not even know what I had missed. It was tiny. I know it’s a cliche, but blink and you could miss it. Seriously — with all the trees, you had to be looking straight out the passenger side window to get a glimpse of it.  

Pleasant Ridge / Redpath Cemetery as it appeared when I was a child. This image was taken in 2005 or earlier.

A few years ago, the cemetery caught my eye again. I had forgotten all about it until a new apartment complex sprung up on that deserted plot. Despite how easy it would be to interpret this in a cynical manner, it actually ended up being a lifeline for the graveyard: as part of the new development, the trees were cut down. The weeds were gone. A new fence was erected, wrapping the graveyard — perhaps for the first time in a century — within clear boundaries.

Shortly after this, I Googled “cemetery 135th and Rosehill.” I wasn’t expecting anything. After all, it looked like it had been out of use for a hundred years. Much to my surprise, it came up. It had been known as the Pleasant Ridge Cemetery, and was also listed under the alternate name of Redpath Cemetery. A history reference site called Johnson County KSGenWeb has an entire article on it.

The land the cemetery stands on was owned by March 1855, predating both Johnson County (established in August 1855) and the state of Kansas itself, which achieved statehood in 1861. As a territory, Kansas had only existed for a year. This early group of settlers lived in Johnson County during the tumultuous period known as Bleeding Kansas, which saw nearby Olathe attacked at least three times between 1862 and 1864. Meanwhile, Olathe’s famous Mahaffie Stagecoach stop was functioning by 1858. Wild Bill Hickok was also present in Johnson County, serving as lawman for a nearby pioneer community in modern-day Lenexa, while Buffalo Bill Cody and Jesse James spent time farther north in Leavenworth and St. Joseph, respectively.  

What kind of rough existence did these early settlers endure? The headstones show that life as a pioneer was precarious at best: a number of the graves are those of infants, while numerous others died in their 40s. A handful of them lived into their 70s and 80s, though, so a long life was not out of the question. It must have been harsh, but surprisingly, the earliest gravestone I could find dates from 1863, seven years after the land was first settled (it is possible that some of the illegible tombstones are earlier). The KSGenWeb site lists the earliest burial as 1865, instead interpreting the “1863” grave as 1868. It’s hard to tell either way.

The earliest date of death I could find, 1863, although KSGenWeb believes this actually reads 1868.

I decided to stop in and pay these original Johnson County residents a visit:

Illegible tombstones

One of the infant graves

Mary Harsh, who died at 45. Her obituary is still available and lists her cause of death as typhoid fever.

Several Hutchesons can be found in the cemetery. One of them, Elizabeth Mitchell, reached 85, dying in 1916. Her obituary sadly notes that “the closing years of her life were passed in weakness and considerable suffering…” She left behind an astounding 32 grandchildren.

Two of the Hutcheson graves.

The cemetery was widely used from the 1860s-1880s, with a handful of early 20th century burials, too. The final interment occurred in 1960, when a woman named Mary Everett was buried alongside her husband, who had died in his 40s during the Coolidge administration.

Mary Everett is the final burial in the cemetery.

Today, Johnson County is half a million strong, made up of middle and upper-middle class suburbs, but the foundations were laid (perhaps literally) by people whose graves stand just a few feet away from where we drive every day. The Pleasant Ridge / Redpath Cemetery is a vital piece of Johnson County history, and its graves date back much farther than I ever imagined as a child. These old tombstones are not only a reminder of Johnson County’s early days, but of how difficult and unpredictable life could be at that time.

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