When passing Trinity Cathedral on Sixth Avenue, I stopped to check on the renovations, and to pay my respects to the Shawnee Indian chief Red Pole. But a workman told me there are no bodies buried there! Where are they? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

When passing Trinity Cathedral on Sixth Avenue, I stopped to check on the renovations, and to pay my respects to the Shawnee Indian chief Red Pole. But a workman told me there are no bodies buried there! Where are they?

Question submitted by: Alice Craig, McKeesport

When this question first came in, I'll admit I was a bit alarmed. I've never bought into the fears about Pittsburgh's young people leaving ... but the site next door to Trinity has been a graveyard for centuries, having been considered holy ground by Native Americans. If you can't hold on to people there, you've definitely got a problem with population loss.

Some bodies have been removed from the tiny cemetery around Trinity Cathedral, one of the city's oldest Episcopalian churches. But that happened long ago, and it's likely Red Pole still lies in his original resting place. The Cathedral's renovations -- which have included washing decades' worth of soot from the building's formerly black exterior -- also include landscaping the graveyard and preserving tombstones, but they don't involve disturbing graves.

"We're not exhuming anybody," says Cathy Brall, the church's canon, or senior minister. The work is "primarily landscaping, and we move very slowly."

But earlier changes to the urban landscape have prompted the removal of bodies. When the Oliver Building next door was built in the early 1900s, for example, Henry C. Frick paid to have the bodies exhumed and buried elsewhere. Some were reinterred in a site closer to Trinity -- Canon Brall says she has seen the underground brick vaults where they are interred. Others were moved to the Allegheny and Homewood cemeteries, which had much more room.

Nor was that the first time bodies had been relocated. Records at the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association suggest the Lawrenceville graveyard received at least nine bodies exhumed from Trinity in 1863. And that wasn't an isolated incident: As development sprung up inside the center city, space became too valuable to be used as a graveyard. So graves were uprooted and moved to less-developed areas. When it comes to suburban sprawl, in other words, the dead sometimes preceded the living.

What about the gravestones still on Trinity's grounds? "There are definitely still bodies associated with some of the markers," says Brall, but it's hard to be certain which ones they are.

For one thing, the vast majority of bodies buried there were never marked at all: In Pittsburgh: An Urban Portrait, architectural historian Franklin Toker writes that by the mid-1850s, some 4,000 recorded bodies had been buried on the site -- "and probably ten times that many unrecorded ones." And the markers that remain aren't always accurate. For example, a grave marker on the site identifies the family plot for the prestigious Brunot clan (whose name graces an island in the Ohio River). But the Brunots themselves now lie in Allegheny Cemetery.

For those reasons, says Lynne Wohleber, archivist for the Episcopalian Diocese of Pittsburgh, when it comes to saying who lies in the churchyard, "We can't be sure of anything."

Nevertheless, there's good reason to believe that Red Pole is still buried beside the church. For one thing, he was an ally of the settlers, buried with full military honors; his tombstone notes that his death was "lamented by the United States." Had Red Pole's grave been moved, "I'm sure it would have been documented, given his importance," Wohleber says. Besides, he was buried on the side of the church opposite from the Oliver Building. As Wohleber points out, "he's not in a place where his grave was in the way of anything." (Which is, of course, what often got Indians in trouble with European settlers.)

But even when they remain on the church grounds, the dead don't always rest. While landscaping workers have, literally, been only scratching the surface of the graveyard, remains sometimes surface. A crew recently came across a nearly perfectly preserved gravestone dating back to 1794, and portions of a wrought-iron fence that once enclosed the site have also been discovered. Human remains have also surfaced, says Canon Brall. "We're keeping them in the church for now, and when the renovations are finished, they'll be reinterred with special blessings."

And then they can get some peace and quiet. At least for now.

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