The Kansas City Kansan reported on June 21, 1906, that a provision was buried in a section of a 65-page Congressional appropriations bill, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to sell a tract of land located in Kansas City, Kansas. That tract of land was the Huron Indian Cemetery and the bodies therein were to be removed to Quindaro Cemetery farther north. Kansas City officials proposed to sell the land to private investors once the bodies were relocated.
The Wyandot Nation in general and the Conley sisters in particular, were incensed. Although, it wasn’t the first time developers had tried to finagle a sale of the prime piece of Kansas City real estate, this time the met the immovable force of Lyda and her sisters. The women had dedicated their lives to this moment and were not about to be swayed from their goal of protecting their forebear’s final resting place.
"In this cemetery are buried one-hundred of our ancestors,” said Lyda Conley in the October 25, 1906 edition of the Kansas City Times, “...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."
Armed with their father’s Civil War musket and the support of their community, the sisters moved into a small shack they built over the graves of their parents. The Conley sisters established "Fort Conley" on cemetery grounds and led a successful resistance to this proposed action.
The women padlocked the front gate and hung a sign on it warning all persons to "Trespass at Your Peril”. They took potshots at workers with the old gun and tore down fences built by the city almost as fast as they were erected.
"Praying aloud to the Great Spirit by night and guarding the graves of their ancestors by day, the Conley sisters have kept a constant vigil at the old Indian burial ground,” reported the August 1, 1909, Kansas City Kansan, “Even in the coldest months of winter they did not desert their post; and when the warm and pleasant days and the summer nights arrived, they were found ever faithful in their watch.”
Lyda takes her case to the Supreme Court During the October 1909 term of the Supreme Court of the United States, Lyda Burton Conley made history. She became the first woman attorney of Native American descent admitted to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court. In a profession largely dominated by men and a society where women almost always played a supporting role, Lyda took the reins of purpose firmly in hand.
Although the case was on the docket that began in late fall, Lyda didn’t present her petition before the Court until the following January. In an age long before the invention of photocopiers, the ever-prepared Lyda came prepared. She stormed Washington, D.C. armed with photographed pages of law books supporting her cause.
On January 14, 1910 Ms. Conley argued the case dubbed Conley v. Ballinger before the chief justices of the United States. The outcome of the case was decided on January 31, 1910. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. delivered the opinion of the Court. Despite his decision to dismiss the suit, Holmes took into account a provision in a 1855 treaty that allowed that the “portion now enclosed and used as a public burying-ground [Huron Cemetery], shall be permanently reserved and appropriated for that purpose.”
However, Lyda Conley had based her suit on her Wyandot ancestry. Unfortunately, since the treaty took their lands and dissolved the tribal status of the Kansas Wyandots and made them United States citizens, Holmes had no choice but to deny her claim. The Kansas Wyandots were now made up of those formerly known as "absentee" or "citizen class" Wyandot Indians.
Holmes agreed with her in theory, but the Court refused to interfere with or change the decision that the United States Congress and the Interior Department had made to sell the land. Technically, Lyda lost her case, but through the notoriety of her actions she gained support for her cause and the Huron cemetery was not sold nor the bodies removed. Women’s, church, civic and other groups rallied around her cause offering support to the Conley sisters. Even the Supreme Court gave her a tacit nod of approval notwithstanding its dismissal of the case.
“What is said to be the most sympathetic decision in many years by the U.S. Supreme Court was given in the suit of Lyda B. Conley to prevent the disturbance of the Indian Burial Ground,” reported the February 4, 1910, Kansas City Star, “The bill was dismissed without costs.”
History of the Wyandots According to Janith K. English, principal chief of the Wyandot Nation of Kansas, on March 17, 1842, the tribe ceded all lands in Ohio and Michigan in exchange for 148,000 acres west of the Mississippi [Kansas]. The Government promised to pay the Wyandots $17,000 annually, forever, plus $500 per year for the support of the school and $100,000 for moving expenses.
“On July 12, 1843, 664 Wyandots started on their Journey to Kansas,” English writes, “but illness - possibly typhoid - struck while the Wyandots were still camped along the Missouri River. Between 60 and 100 of their number died. Their bodies were carried across the river to a high ridge, which overlooked the Kansas and Missouri Rivers. Huron cemetery is established.”
As so often was the case, the Wyandot Nation did not receive the land promised them by the government, so on December 14 an agreement was made between the Delaware and Wyandot Tribes. The Delawares granted three sections of land of 540 acres each at the junction of the Kansas and Missouri Rivers. They granted and quit claimed to the Wyandott Nation 36 additional sections of land for $46,080. But peace still eluded the Wyandots when in 1844; another epidemic resulted in over 100 burials in Huron Cemetery. The Wyandots struggled on.
The Conley Sisters Lyda, Lena and Ida Conley were born to Andrew and Eliza Zane Conley in the latter part of the 19th century. Eliza was a descendant of the Wyandot Nation and was just five-years-old when her people were removed from Ohio to Kansas in 1843. She died in 1879. Andrew, born in Connecticut, was of English descent. He died in 1885.
The girls were raised in the Wyandot community known as Quindaro in the northern part of Kansas City, Kansas. Friends of the family note the girls were raised in an idyllic household setting. They grew up both privileged and grateful.
As young women, Lyda and Lena chose to continue their education by rowing daily across the Missouri River to attend Park College in Parkville, Missouri. Both finished courses that allowed them to teach business classes, but Lyda also went onto study law. It was her singular goal to become an attorney and to take only those cases brought to her by descendants of the Wyandot tribe. She had found her purpose. She passed the bar and realized her dream to become a lawyer in 1902.
As adults, the sisters lived a modest life on north 3rd Street in the Armourdale district of Kansas City. Lyda and Lena often shared a home packed floor to ceiling with newspapers and books. When money was tight and the winters got cold, the women would often spend their time in the heated library near their home. They read everything they could get their hands on in an effort to stay abreast of current happenings and keep in touch with their past.
Lyda was the youngest. She was small, slightly built and attractive with an upturned nose and delicate features. She was a complementary combination of her mother’s stunning Native American ancestry and her father’s English mannerisms. She was always studious and spoke as one that was well educated. Reporters that met her often described her as demure but confident.
There was nothing demure about Lena. She was thin and wiry and often preferred the company of animals to that of people. An untiring and outspoken animal advocate, neighbors often sought her care for their sick pets and livestock. At one time, Lena went to the Wyandot Indian reservation in Oklahoma where she was an instructor and served as a matron for the girls.
Ida, the eldest, had a broad flat face and was shorter and heavier than the other two. She lived nearby and kept house for a railroad porter. Often referred to as the quiet sister, she supported her siblings in their efforts to advance and defend the Wyandot cause. She lived as anonymously as her famous sisters would allow her.
The women regularly attended the Seventh Street Methodist Church where they often taught Sunday school. On warm weather days, they would lead the children across the street to the jailhouse lawn and conduct their classes within in view and earshot of the prisoners housed in the basement of the building. The children would sing hymns for the men behind the barred windows. At the end of the class, the Conley sisters would take up the children’s offering and distribute it among the inmates – some of which were of Wyandot descent. It was the women’s hope that the money would help them get good start on a better life once they were released from jail.
The Conley sisters continued to battle the bureaucrats and developers in Kansas City until their deaths. Their names continued to grace the papers for more than 50 years, and still pop up occasionally today.
Lyda Conley died on May 28, 1946 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. According to her close friend, Wilma Kollman, after returning home from the library, a man jumped out of the bushes and hit Lyda in the back of the head with a brick. “He took her purse and ran,” Kollman said, “The purse had 20 cents in it. She was dead within 24 hours.”
Oddly, her obituary does not mention the incident.
At Lyda’s funeral the Rev. R. N. Burress said, “In every breeze that stirs these trees, in every flower that graces this lofty hilltop, the works of Miss Conley will long be recalled when important men are forgotten.”
Two years later, Ida died quietly in October 1948. She was laid to rest with very little fanfare. She would have wanted it that way.
On September 15, 1958, Lena Conley joined her sisters. She was buried in next to them in the cemetery they dedicated their lives to saving. Forever proud of her Native American ancestry, she had her Wyandot Indian name, Floating Voice, chiseled into her tombstone. None of the Conley sisters ever married.
Although vastly different in personality and appearance, the Conley sisters were united in their fight to preserve the dignity of their ancestors. The power of their purpose gave them the strength to fight City Hall against daunting odds. They were secure with that purpose and kept their eyes firmly on their goal. And thanks to their tireless efforts, the Huron Cemetery continues to rest peacefully to this day in the center of Kansas City.