How Muskogee County continues to forget 1,000 dead people
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(MUSKOGEE, Okla.) Are hundreds of people buried in an abandoned Muskogee County cemetery being carelessly looked over? Or is the disregard intentional?
The historic cemetery is located on private property and the property owner died nearly a decade ago. Someone out of state pays the taxes on the land every year, but no restoration work has begun on the cemetery inside of it.
VNN has been digging into the history of Union Agency Cemetery since March. Like any good mystery, every answer we’ve uncovered has led to more questions.
The abandoned cemetery isn’t just the believed final resting place of Bass Reeves, one of Indian Country’s most celebrated lawmen. Up to 1,000 people are buried there, many of whom were local community leaders.
But, for the last 40+ years, the property has fallen into serious neglect. And the mystery of who exactly is buried there isn’t the only one needing to be solved.
Muskogee residents like Collotta Kade-Bailey tell us back in the 60s and 70s, the cemetery was well-kept and visited often by relatives of the deceased.
“We’ve just forgotten them,” Kade-Bailey said. “And not being able to go in there to keep their monuments up, to keep the grounds well-kept. It’s very disheartening. It really is. And if we don’t do it now, our generation, generations to come. It won’t have any meaning to them. And it will have been lost.”
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When Sage Fields, the property owner during that time, died with no heirs or will, no one else stepped in to maintain the property. Nature took over. It’s now so overgrown that getting into the cemetery is nearly impossible, let alone locating the graves of deceased relatives.
Trees have knocked down tombstones. Coffins lie exposed.
Records show Union Agency Cemetery is an old Muscogee (Creek) Freedmen cemetery, established around 1858 when the area was called Agency. The land was allotted to a former slave named Lizzie Fields in 1903. Special thanks to the Lucinda Hickory Research Institute for helping us out with that component of the investigation.
Years of mineral, oil, and gas rights followed suit, marked by Lizzie Fields’ X, indicating she likely could not read or write.
She left the cemetery land to her son, Thomas, when she died in 1926. The land later passed to Sage Fields, Thomas’s son.
After Sage Fields died in 1978, the land sat vacant (aside for the graves) for 30 years until a woman named Marion Delores Moore came forward from California saying she was Fields’ long-lost daughter. Her claim wasn’t protested in court, and she received the rights to the property in 2008.
Meanwhile the land, and cemetery, continued to be neglected.
VNN partnered with Ark Investigations in May. They discovered the long-lost daughter who inherited the property actually died in 2013.
But someone has been mailing in the taxes for the property, as recently as March of this year.
The registered caretaker is listed as Moore’s sister on her death certificate, the same woman who has been mailing in the tax payments since Moore’s death.
Rhonda Grayson with the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedman Band told us requests she made to the caretaker by mail to restore the cemetery have gone unanswered for the last several years.
“It’s just not safe for the descendants,” Grayson said. “Even if we could find a way to get in there, it’s just not safe to enter into the cemetery. I mean there is a whole massive cleanup effort that has to take place before we could even get in there and preserve it. Fix it up.”
We reached out to the caretaker and the caretaker’s daughter by phone and text but have received no response back.
We also reached out to Muskogee County Commissioner Ken Doke, whose district the private property is in, by phone and email and have dropped by his office to talk about the cemetery but have not heard back.
Muscogee County District Attorney Larry Edwards told us he finds the matter interesting, but without any criminal charges on his desk there is not much he can do about it.
VNN is currently working with additional researchers such as the Oklahoma Historical Society to track down what other historical information is available on the cemetery. With their help, we found Union Agency Cemetery was listed as public property in Indian-Pioneer History Project records dating back to 1937.
Do you have any information about Union Agency Cemetery? Send tips via email to email@example.com or by phone to 903-265-9432.
Additional special thanks to Muskogee County Land Records Supervisor Katie Hayes for helping VNN locate the decades of property records needed to help tell this story.
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