Metis Graveyard

Pembina, North Dakota A History of the Pembina, N.D., Metis Cemetery (April 1, 1999)

        Father Severe Dumoulin established a Catholic mission at Pembina in 1818; by 1823, when the community was moved north to St. Francois-Xavier, he had recorded 49 burials.  The names of these people were burned in a fire at St. Boniface Cathedral in 1860. There is a list that has been prepared by volunteers for Assomption Catholic Church, Pembina, which lists the names of the people buried from 1849 when Father Belcourt was there, to 1892 when the last burial is recorded. There are 165 names on this list; the only one that we know of that was moved was Joe Rolette Sr. He was moved to the new non-denominational cemetery which is west of the town of Pembina.

        There were two villages centred in Pembina in the 1790's.  These fur trade posts were established around the forks of the Pembina and the Red rivers. This area was  prone to flooding; there were severe floods in 1826, 1851 and 1860.  Father Dumoulin established his mission on a ridge north of the Forks about half a mile south of the 49th. parallel.  The ridge is located near highway I-29 between a wayside stop and the Red River. The site is marked by a plaque erected by the State Historical Society in 1963 stating that the cemetery is "three hundred feet to the east".  This ridge which runs beside a coulee is a high spot in the area and less prone to flooding Eye-witnesses who lived nearby in the 1920's and 1930's describe the site as a  "mound".

        In 1893, after the Catholic Church stopped burying people there, the State Legislature of North Dakota passed an appropriation of $500  "to purchase and maintain the site". Unfortunately, they never set aside the money and the cemetery was virtually abandoned.  A farmer named Frank Moris obtained the land from the original landowner, Edward Lemon, and neighbors claimed that Lemon  respected the cemetery by farming around it.  By the 1920's markers, which were probably wooden crosses, had deteriorated and fallen down. Nevertheless, this site of the oldest Christian burial ground in North Dakota was known and respected. At some point in the 1920's or 1930's (accounts differ), Frank Moris decided to plant a crop on the site. He subsequently farmed over the mound or ridge and his relatives continued to farm over it.  In the 1930's, the local Catholic priest, Father Belleau, recorded that a local Metis, Mr. Francois-Xavier Gosselin estimated that the mission was five acres and the cemetery was ten acres.

        In the 1950's, James Reardon, biographer of Father Belcourt, visited the site and reported the location.  He said that Frank Moris had started cultivating it in the 1920's, uncovering squared timbers which were part of  the mission buildings.  In the 1960's, local heritage boosters, Mayor Albert Christopher and his wife Henrietta, "Pat", tried to lobby the Moris family to stop farming over the graves. They were unsuccessful. In 1963 they lobbied the State Historical Society to put up the plaque, but were unsuccessful at getting a cross and a fence.  In 1968, they organized a group of volunteers, to create a list of the names of people buried in the cemetery from the parish registers; they had a plaque made with the names from this list, but the Moris family would not permit them to have it put up at the site.  It can now be seen in the church yard in town.  About 90% of the names are French Metis.  In the late 1980's, Dr. Jacqueline Peterson, from the University of Minnesota, approached the State Historical Society to have the site protected. She registered it with the State Health Department, but unfortunately cited the wrong section. She subsequently moved and the State Historical Society did not take any action although they appeared to know that the wrong location had been registered.  to protect the site from farming. There meet with Fern Swenson, archaeologist, in October 1992. She claimed that she did not have permission from the landowner to go on the land to do a site survey and that she did not know the exact location of the site.  She claimed the State Historical Society had no information on the history of the site.  In October 1993, there was a call made to the owner, Mrs. Emma Moris, and asked for a meeting Mrs. Moris refused claiming that all the graves had been moved.  She then threatened to call her lawyer. She claimed she had never received a phone call from the state archaeologist asking for permission to do a site survey

        In the fall of 1993, There was a person filed a complaint with the Pembina County States Attorney because it is illegal in North Dakota to farm over a cemetery. She claimed she could do nothing because it was an abandoned cemetery.  When no action was taken, There was call to the Attorney General in Bismarck. Within a week, the States Attorney notified him that the archaeologist had permission to do a site survey.  This was not done until a year later in June 1995.  At that time, finding two small pieces of human bone on the surface, the archaeologist declared that she had found the cemetery and in 1996, a year later, set aside two and a half acres, guessing at the size and location of the site.  There has had been lobbying for geophysical testing to find the graves. We felt that the graves should be located before the boundaries were set.

        In September 1997, the State Historical Society gave a grant to the Pembina County Commissioners to hire High Plains Consortium of Bismarck to use underground radar to find the graves. In April 1998, their report suggested a larger site than what was set aside; the results identified 480-600 anomalies in the soil which the geologist claimed were potential grave sites. There has been 215 graves identified from historical records and the state archaeologist had told HPC to look for about 100 graves. These testing results were larger than expected and state officials denied them, suggesting they were "gopher holes or freeze thaw cracks" after digging four small test pits in the spring of 1998.  There was a challenged to these denials from June to October 1998 when we organized a public meeting in Pembina.  The state archaeologist Fern Swenson did not have the courtesy to attend, although she made her report public a week later.  She recommended increasing the size of the site to 3.7 acres although she continued to deny the validity of the results of the underground radar testing.  She had called in another firm to use another technique and claimed the results were "inconclusive".  Dr. Ray Butler, the geologist from HPC, attended a meeting and explained his techniques.  He offered to find the rest of the graves for less than $1000 and estimated the site to be around five acres. In November, the Pembina County Commissioners invited three Pembina Metis descendants to a meeting and heard their views; they subsequently voted to set aside 3.7 acres. However, nothing has happened since December when the descendants were told they could expect a resolution.  It appears that the Moris family have refused to give up the 3.7 acres.

        In January, 1999, Samuel Wegner Superintendent of the State Historical Society, promised to organize a public meeting in Pembina in April or May to discuss the issue however, we have not heard anything since January.

Table of Contents
Alphabetical Listing
Surname List
Index of Names
Sources (Bibliography)
News Paper clips
Radar Survey
Reports to Pembina Metis Descendants
Investigation at Dumoulin Mission & Cemetery Site (32PB100) Pembina County, ND
Critique of Dumoulin Mission & Cemetery Site

Reports by Frances Pulscher
Launching of The Blue Ribbon Campaign by Frances Pulscher
CBC News 25 June 1999

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Mathew & Frances Pulscher
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