Exploring pioneer history at Ash Hollow cemetery

Pure Nebraska
Published: Mar. 28, 2023 at 5:38 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - During a visit to the cemetery near Ash Hollow State Historical Park, we learned about a grave that’s considered one of the oldest marked graves found along the Oregon Trail in Nebraska.

We talked with Ash Hollow State Historical Park Superintendent Tamara Cooper about the grave of Rachel Pattison, which is prominently displayed as a monument near the entrance to the cemetery. “Rachel Pattison was a victim of cholera, and she died in 1849 at the age of 18,” Cooper said. “This makes her grave one of the oldest marked graves in Nebraska along the Oregon Trail.” The Ash Hollow cemetery really got its start with Pattison’s grave. “It was here, and later, as with most prairie cemeteries, people started taking care of the marked headstones,” Cooper said. “Eventually someone else was buried here, eventually the population in the area rose, the community was established, and this cemetery grew.”

The story of Rachel Pattison demonstrates the sacrifice pioneers made in trying to seek a new life in a new part of the country. “Rachel left Illinois at the age of 18,” Cooper said. “She married Nathan Pattison, and he was 23. They married in March, and by June she had passed away. The only solid evidence we have of this event is a couple of journal articles, which came from her father-in-law James Pattison and then, of course, Nathan. Nathan wrote that Rachel “took ill this morning”. She died later that evening. His father-in-law offers a little more information. We know they had lost a couple of oxen, due to poisonous weeds. The Pattisons emigrated with three wagons and 12 oxen, and that was somewhat affluent at the time. They planned on staying in Ash Hollow as most people did, to rest up. Of course, we have the springs here, and it made an ideal stopping place. They stopped here on the 18th, and we know on the 19th she was sick. She was treated immediately by a Dr. Caleb Ormsby out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, but there was really nothing that could be done. Cholera was a swift killer.”

Cooper says stopping at the cemetery, you can learn a lot about local history, but also about the broader story of pioneers heading west. “We had roughly half a million people come through Ash Hollow with the overland trail migration,” Cooper said. “Rachel Pattison’s grave opens up the American story. She really tells the larger picture of how we’ve emigrated, how our population has ended up in different areas of the U.S.” What’s neat is you can see the original headstone from 1849, encased in glass at the cemetery. “The community of Lewellen and Garden County fundraised for this in the 1940′s,” Cooper said. “They put a case over the top, so the headstone wouldn’t be so susceptible to erosion.”