Mile 311: Susan Haile Grave Site

susan-haile-grave-stoneThe following lines rely extensively on the article by Randy Brown in the Spring, 2007, issue of Overland Journal, titled The Grave of Susan C. Haile. When I first visited this area in the late 1960s with Boy Scouts, it was generally known as the “Lone Grave.” Randy Brown writes, “Most assuredly, however, when Susan Haile died in 1852 hers was not a lone grave. This was in the midst of the ‘cholera corridor’, . . . .” Most likely there were dozens even hundreds of graves along the Thirty-two Mile Creek/Platte River Valley stretch, but we know only the Susan Haile grave location. We know of the Haile grave because of the existence of a headstone. Intriguing legends and questions accompany the Haile story. Who was she? How did she die? How was a gravestone transported to the spot?

Often extended family units or clans moved from Virginia and Pennsylvania to Tennessee and Kentucky and then again to Missouri. The Seawells, Susan’s grandparents followed this pattern and eventually settled in Missouri. Susan and R. C. Haile were married in 1836 when she was almost 19. Randy Brown searched for accounts of the journey but concludes, “Unfortunately, there is no contemporary account of the journey. They probably left the Missouri River in the Kansas City area, or they could well have headed northwest . . . to St. Joseph, one of the major outfitting towns of the time. . . . All that is known of the journey is that when they reached the Platte River in south-central Nebraska, Susan C. Haile died.” The legend of the “Lone Grave” began when settlers in the late 1860s discovered the engraved stone marker.

The legends explaining her death are interesting and can be found in many sources. According to the legend, they secured water from the government well approximately six miles southeast of the grave (see images 23, 24, 25). It has been suggested that this water had been poisoned by Indians and thus caused the death of Susan Haile. Scholars take issue with this explanation for several reasons: 1) the Pawnees who traveled in the area were not warlike or hostile, 2) the Pawnees would have used the water themselves, and 3) the Pawnees did not have a poison effective in a well. 1852 was the height of the cholera epidemic on the trail. It is more likely that Susan Haile drank contaminated water that infected her with cholera, a violent intestinal disorder that led to rapid dehydration and then death sometimes in less than a day.

The next part of the legend suggests that the grieving husband returned to St. Joseph and purchased a granite marker which he brought back to the gravesite in a wheel-barrow. Catherine Renschler and Randy Brown have read many sources and conclude that it is most unlikely that R. C. Haile pushed a stone 250 miles across the prairie in a wheel-barrow. But Brown asserts, “Part of the legend may be true. Richard Haile marked his wife’s grave with a headboard and could have returned to the settlements to get a proper marble headstone.. . .The wheelbarrow aspect, however, is undoubtedly an embellishment added in later years by local people.”

Bill Sole (1972) wrote about the “Lone Grave” for the Adams County Centennial Year Publication in 1972. The first marker was, he writes, “. . .chipped to pieces by travelers and relic hunters.” In 1900 children of Waterhouse Sunday School raised funds for a new marker and this one fell victim to souvenir hunters as well. The present stone was dedicated July 30, 1933, by members of the Hastings Outdoor Club.

Following communication with the descendants of Susan Haile and extensive research by Randy Brown and the Oregon California Trails Association, a new OCTA Plaque was installed and the Adams County Historical Society organized a program in Kenesaw followed by a dedication of the OCTA plaque at the grave site.

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In addition to the gravesite, this site is important for other reasons. Susan Hail is buried at the precise spot where the Oregon Trail broke over a small rise and came in view of the Platte River. The Nebraska City-Fort Kearny road passed north of this site about a mile and a half, joining the main Oregon Trail a little more than six miles west, There were several alternate roads in this vicinity. This was one of the great moments in the experience of the emigrants, for the first leg of the journey was now almost complete. Arrival at the Platte River meant that they were within striking distance of Fort Kearny, the first sign of civilization in this remote country. The Platte River was broad and flat, with little or no timber, quite unlike its appearance today. Perhaps because the broad flat treeless valley during spring flood once resembled a sandy seashore, early travelers called this spot “The Coast of Nebraska”. (Also it is noted some writers of the day wrote about the white canvas topped wagons moving through the deep prairie grass resembling “Ships at Sea” as they moved across miles of waving grasses).

Both northwest and southeast of the Susan Hail grave (Sections 18 and 19) are fairly extensive grassed over Oregon Trail traces, made by the passage of thousands of animals and wagons as they descended the low sandy hill towards the river.

Note: It has been recommended as early as 1975 by Historian Merrill Mattes and as recently as a March 1981 comprehensive report on historic sites and trail segment status by the National Park Service, United States Department of Interior, that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission should seek adequate funding to purchase approximately thirty acres of pasture land. This site which would be an unmanned park administered from Fort Kearny State Historical Park, fifteen miles to the west would be called “Coast of Nebraska” as proposed by Merrill Mattes and the National Park Service.

—The Oregon Trail, Rock Creek Station, Nebraska to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, p. 6

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The site is marked on the XP Bikepacking Route map.