Prospect Hill Cemetery is located between North 31st and 33rd Streets and Parker and Grant Streets in North Omaha. Its home to city pioneers, Buffalo soldiers and many ghosts, and its story needs to be shared a lot. This is a history of Prospect Hill.
Burials Before Omaha
Before Omaha was founded, there were pioneers traveling west through the town. In 1855, the US Army platted and graded Military Road, a pathway along present-day California Street from the Missouri River west to North 29th Street, northwest along present-day Oregon Trail Street to North 33rd and Parker Street, then southwest to Hamilton and west-northwest past that. This trail was used before that, too, by the prospecting ’49ers who traveled west through what was then called Indian Territory, and others like them.
Some of these pioneers died in Iowa, and their bodies were kept for the most prominent point settlers would see when the crossed the Missouri River. It was called Prospect Hill, likely for those 1849 prospectors heading to California. Along with them, Mormons using a more southernly route than Florence buried their dead on the hill, and there were reportedly American Indian burials there, too. That’s a long tradition for Omaha’s pioneer burial ground.
Omaha City was burying its dead at Prospect Hill before there was a formal cemetery there. With the first burial records dating to the city’s founding in 1854, it should be no surprise that Jacob Shull (1817-1857) was buried there in 1857, a year before it was formally dedicated.
Early Years of Omaha
Prospect Hill Cemetery is located on the northeast corner of North 33rd and Parker Street. It was formally dedicated as a cemetery in 1858.
An 1885 report in the Omaha Bee said James Winship was the first person buried in the cemetery in the 1850s. Prospect Hill Cemetery’s first official burial was Alonzo F. Salisbury, Omaha pioneer and member of the Nebraska Territorial Legislature. He died in 1858. The fancy grave marker of William Kountze (1836-1858) was the first sculpture at the cemetery.
That year, Omaha pioneer Moses Shinn (1809-1881) set aside 10 acres of his land to be a cemetery for the city. Mayor Jesse Lowe (1814-1868) formally designated the land for burial purposes, and the next year another 20 acres was added. They were called the Cedar Hill Cemetery. In 1890, five more acres were added for the Omaha City Cemetery. Byron Reed (1821-1891) soon bought all the land, including the Cedar Hill Cemetery and the Omaha City Cemetery, and consolidated it into a single cemetery. He closed the burials at the other two cemeteries and moved most of the graves into Prospect Hill. Reed maintained the cemetery at his own expense for more than 20 years.
In 1886, an association including George Joslyn, J. J. Brown and others were supposedly taking excellent care of the cemetery. However, within a few years it was a different story. In the late 1880s, Forest Lawn Cemetery bought the Prospect Hill Cemetery. Seeking to popularize their new internment site, the Forest Lawn Cemetery Association willfully neglected Prospect Hill, including tearing down the surrounding fence and letting cattle plod over the destroy several burials at the cemetery.
Forest Lawn Failed Prospect Hill
An informal association was founded, the water was turned back on at the cemetery, cows were scared off the land and the fences were mended. Lots were cleaned up and new lots were being sold.
By 1890, there was a growing awareness throughout Omaha about the terribly condition of the cemetery. Writing about it in February of that year, the Omaha World-Herald said, “The desolation and neglect of this old burial ground is a disgrace to a civilized community, and it is time for the people of Omaha, and particularly for those that are specially interested to realize that fact and provide a remedy.” They called on a group to be formed to take ownership back from Forest Lawn and preserve the cemetery. That led to the development of the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association late in 1890.
After court cases and a ban by the City of Omaha around the turn of the century, Prospect Hill couldn’t expand further. Today, it has a total of 17 acres. Today, the cemetery has two buildings, a chapel and the sexton’s house. Both are built in a the Tudor-Revival style, they were made of brick and stone.
Approximately 15,000 burials happened at Prospect Hill, including those of many Omaha pioneers, including influential developers, religious leaders, mayors, judges, and benefactors, for whom Omaha streets, parks and schools were named. Names from the cemetery that Omahans today recognize include Millard, Armstrong, Poppleton, Metz, Cuming, Reed, and Krug, among many others.
The Prospect Hill Cemetery Association was formalized and formally gained control of their cemetery by 1898. An independent nonprofit association has ran it since then.
There is a sexton’s house built with brick and accented in stone, and a Tudor-Revival gatehouse located on Parker Street.
African American Burials at Prospect Hill
African Americans were buried at Prospect Hill from the 1860s through the last burials at the cemetery. In 1981, the Girls Club of Omaha, now called Girls, Inc., conducted “a youth investigation of Blacks buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery.” Their goal was to, “acquaint youth of the Black community with the ceremonies of death, the divergence of death and the interment rites among different ages, stages and cultures and to generate a resurgence of pride in Omaha’s Black history.” Using various methods to study records from the cemetery, these young people determined that between 1863 and 1971, there were more than 800 African American burials at Prospect Hill Cemetery in North Omaha. Among those are at least 10 Buffalo Soldiers.
Following are some of notable Black people buried in North Omaha’s Prospect Hill Cemetery.
- Name unknown (d. 1863) – First recorded Black burial at Prospect Hill Cemetery
- Julia (1858-1870) – Last name unknown. Servant
- Pearl Hibbler Adams (d. 1941) – Organist at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church
- King Alls (d. 1940) – Packinghouse worker in South Omaha
- Rosa Alls (d. 1929)
- Pvt. Richard Curry (1846-1883) – US Army Buffalo Soldier, a Civil War veteran, and First Master of the Prince Hall Masons of Nebraska in 1868
- Jennie Gibson (d. 1947)
- Isaac Goodwin (d. 1951) – A local chef who was the first person to die at the new Veterans Hospital
- Lucy Gray (d. 1940) – Hairdresser
- Rev. P. M. Harris (d. 1942) – Minister at Pilgrim Baptist Church; previously an African Methodist Episcopal minister and barber
- Charles Hines (d. 1943)
- Horace Kinney (d. 1888) – Prince Hall mason
- Elon Harper Maxwell (d. 1941) – Housewife and mother of four
- Sgt. Allen McClare (1879-1944) – US Army Buffalo Soldier, Spanish-American War veteran
- Cora Owen (d. 1952) – Housewife and property owner; wife of Leonard Owen
- Leonard Owen (d. 1944) – Fontenelle Club waiter and husband of Cora Owen
- Henry Pullem (d. 1933) Packinghouse worker
Burying Anna Wilson
Perhaps the most notorious burial at Prospect Hill was that of Madame Anna Wilson. Wilson was the owner and proprietor of a popular brothel in downtown Omaha, and the long-time partner of a famous gambler named Dan Allen. Dying wealthy in her 70s, Wilson left her gigantic mansion/former brothel to the City of Omaha on her death. She also made arrangements for a unique monument for her grave, which was installed when she died in 1911.
Being a madame tied with the city’s darker side, Wilson wasn’t favored by the upper class women of Omaha. So much so that when she died, Wilson Wilson left distinct directions in her will that ensured that she and Dan Allen, who died 20 years earlier, were be left in Prospect Hill Cemetery forever.
Today, a polished stone with four posts represents the bed posts Anna Wilson shared with her love Dan Allen. But the secret of the bed in the cemetery is that the concrete slab below the polished stone is nine feet deep. Wilson supposedly did this to ensure that the society women wouldn’t dig her up and move her to another cemetery. There will never be another burial in Omaha quite like that of Anna Wilson.
Today, the Prospect Hill Cemetery Association holds an annual Memorial Day event at the cemetery, including a tribute to Anna Wilson.
While the cemetery is actively maintained today by a volunteer association, it hasn’t accepted burials in a long time.
The Prospect Hill Cemetery’s last official internment happened in the 1970s, and since then it has been closed to more burials. For almost 40 years, it sat behind a major public housing project and was largely neglected and forgotten by Omaha. However, in the last 20 years since those projects were demolished, there’s been a resurgence of interest in the Prospect Hill. Today, events are held regularly and the cemetery’s board of directors meets regularly to manage the cemetery’s affairs.
The City of Omaha was designated as an official Omaha Landmark in 1979. However, it is not listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
North Omaha history owes a debt of gratitude to the cemetery for bringing many of the city’s founding fathers here to rest. Like many other history lovers before me, I owe the cemetery for sparking my imagination about Old Omaha in my youth.
You Might Like…
- The Woman in White
- A History of Missing Cemeteries in North Omaha
- A History of Digging Up the Dead in North Omaha
- A History of Cemeteries in North Omaha
- North Omaha History Podcast Episode 8: Prospect Hill Cemetery – Adam walks us through Omaha’s oldest cemetery – Prospect Hill. Where is it and who’s buried there? (April 11, 2017; 16 mins). Listen Online or download on iTunes.
- Official Prospect Hill Cemetery website
- Prospect Hill Cemetery article on Wikipedia
- Graveyards Of Omaha: Prospect Hill Cemetery
- Official walking tour of the cemetery
- African American burials at Prospect Hill Cemetery
- Michael Young’s Prospect Hill Cemetery bibliography
- Baumann, L. B.; Martin, C. W.; and Simpson, S. J. (1990) Omaha’s Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery: A history of Prospect Hill Cemetery with biographical notes on over 1,400 people interred therein. Omaha: Prospect Hill Cemetery Historical Development Foundation
- Project Prospect: A youth investigation of Blacks buried at Prospect Hill Cemetery by the Girls Club of Omaha in 1981