Today’s story is about three sisters working together to preserve the past and getting national fame and recognition in the process. And no, it’s not a fever dream of how we see our lives playing out.
Lyda, Helena and Sallie Conley were also three sisters, but these gals weren’t bloggers. They were working to defend their ancestors’ history and gravesites in Kansas City, Kansas in the early 1900s.
Perhaps the sisters developed an interest in their ancestry because it was pretty dang complicated, and reveals a lot about the American frontier and colonialism. To set the stage, let me give you a brief, Old Testament-esque rundown by generation:
The girls’ great-grandfather Isaac Zane was born in Virginia to European settlers, but was captured by the Native Wyandot tribe and grew up with them.
He married White Crane, the daughter of the Wyandot chief, and they moved to Ohio and had several children and grandchildren. One of these grandchildren was Elizabeth Zane, the girls’ mother.
In 1843, the federal government forced all Wyandot people to leave Ohio and move to Kansas. So, Isaac and White Crane and their children and grandchildren, including Elizabeth, packed up and left.
Elizabeth Zane married Andrew Conley, a westward-bound frontiersman from Connecticut. He was of Scots-Irish and English descent, so: “white.” They had three girls: Lyda, Helena and Sallie.
TL;DR: These sisters were of mixed race in a time and place where being mixed was very common, and yet very complicated, because the government simply didn’t know what to do with you.
The sisters were only 1/16 Native, but in the eyes of the law they were not American. (I know, the irony is real).
In 1855, the federal government offered Wyandot descendents the chance to become U.S. citizens if they renounced their tribal affiliation. Those who took this deal would supposedly receive some land and be allowed to stay in Kansas. If you didn’t renounce your tribe, you had to leave your home to be relocated to Oklahoma. Because, in case you forgot, for most of the 19th century, we moved Native peoples around the country like they were cattle.
The Conley sisters were among several Wyandots who took the deal, and became “absentee” members of the tribe, with no say in any tribal matters. The remaining members of the Wyandot tribe left for Oklahoma.
By the turn of the century, Kansas City was getting to be a hot destination and developers were chomping at the bit to build up commerce and retail in the downtown area. In 1906, the Wyandot Nation — now living in Oklahoma — agreed to sell the Huron Cemetery in Kansas City, which held their ancestors graves. Most likely, the tribe was up against the wall financially and did not have the legal power nor the financial resources to win against big Kansas City developers, so was essentially forced to sell. Congress approved the sale in 1906.
This did not sit well with the Conley sisters, who had grown up in the tribe and whose complicated heritage was represented in that cemetery. Their mother and grandmother were buried there. Sorry, not sorry, said the Conley sisters; y’all will not be bulldozing that cemetery. Not on our watch.
No, literally — not on our round-the-clock, musket-toting watch. Lyda Conley said:
“In this cemetery are buried one-hundred of our ancestors … Why should we not be proud of our ancestors and protect their graves? We shall do it, and woe be to the man that first attempts to steal a body. We are part owners of the ground and have the right under the law to keep off trespassers, the right a man has to shoot a burglar who enters his home.”
The girls built a one-room shack on the cemetery grounds and lived in it 24/7, guarding the property with shotguns. They put up a sign that said “Trespass at Your Own Peril.”
They kept this up for four years.
Four years! Four years during which no man dared cross them, except one sneaky little contractor named William Rodekepf. Rodekepf made some headway in tearing down a fence on one side of the cemetery; the girls rebuilt it. He tore it down again. They rebuilt it again. And so on, and so forth, for the entirety of 1907 until he gave up.
Keeping watch for four years might get a little tiresome, as you can imagine. And though they were preventing any development, the sisters knew they couldn’t keep that up forever. So, leaving Helena in charge of the watch, Lyda — who had graduated from the Kansas City School of Law in 1902 — became the first female lawyer to be admitted to the Kansas Bar. And she was just getting started.
It was an uphill battle: the tribe had no resources to help out the Conleys, though they surely wanted the graves to stay intact. As non-members of the tribe, the sisters lacked the legal standing to claim ownership to the cemetery. And the U.S. government and business interests certainly weren’t on their side. The Federal Indian Commissioner at the time basically said it came down to ownership of the cemetery, which could be contested since the sisters were no longer technically Wyandot members.
But Lyda took the fight to the Supreme Court, becoming the first Native woman to speak before the nation’s highest court.
Though Oliver Wendell Holmes, who delivered the decision, agreed with her in principle, the Court would not alter the agreement to sell originally established by the Department of the Interior. Lyda lost the case, but all around the nation, groups of preservationists and women’s clubs heard their story, and were moved.
In 1913, Senator Charles Curtis, who would become Vice President under Herbert Hoover and who was part Native himself, visited the cemetery and was moved by the Conleys’ fight. He assisted in getting Congress to repeal the Department of the Interior’s decision and to instead protect the cemetery as a national park — not quite what the sisters were after, but a step in the right direction.
Finally, in 1918, Congress not only passed a bill appropriating $10,000 for the care and upkeep of the cemetery, but Kansas passed a law against “in any way molesting or destroying any grave or the improvements placed thereon.” Today, Huron Cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
None of the sisters ever married, and they lived out their lives in Kansas City. When Lyda died in 1946, the Kansas City Star called her “the one-woman Indian mutiny of Kansas City.” All three are buried together in the cemetery they saved, and Helena’s tombstone even contains a warning for future generations: