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Search for ancestors leads to an abandoned cemetery
A bit of Irish history
JOHN GORSKI STANDS next to the headstone marking the grave of his great-great-great grandmother, Mary Crowley, in the Kneeland Cemetery in rural Seneca.

CROWLEY RIDGE - The Great Famine was a period of starvation and disease in Ireland. It lasted from 1845 to the early 1850s.Though it was thousands of miles to the east, this famine would play an integral part in the history of Crawford County.

During this period, over two million Irish, approximately 25% of Ireland’s population, would leave their homeland for America. 

It was a two-to-three-month perilous trip, in overcrowded, unventilated, and unsanitary conditions, aboard the Irish famine ships. The immigrants began arriving in New York, Philadelphia and Boston in the late 1840s. Each ship carried 400 to 1,000 or more Irish.

After arrival inspections and examinations, many tired and poor Irish immigrants settled in the urban cities where they landed. Mostwould live in poorhouses, boarding houses or tenement areas.

Over half of the immigrants arriving in New York, seeking cheap land and a rural life, would disembark from the sailing ship and board trains headed to the interior of the United States.  

In the 1850s, the New York Central, the New York & Erie and the Pennsylvania Railroad operated from Castle Garden West, a train station located in lower Manhattan.

All three railroads carried passengers on an approximately 24-hour trip from New York to the transfer station in Chicago. There, those headed to Wisconsin boarded the train to Madison. Some of the recently arrived Irish immigrants then traveled by ox team or horse to Crawford County.

Crawford County

Most areas of Crawford County were heavily wooded when the Irish arrived. The area was logged; log houses built; and farms started.

Many Irish settled in the Seneca and Eastman areas around Crowley Ridge. By 1860, nearly half of the foreign-born Seneca population was Irish. The area’s Irish surnames included Kneeland, Mullaney, Crowley, Garvey, Lenahan, Donahue, Duffy, Foley, Nugent, Sullivan, Kane, Joy, Peasley, Mathews, Flanagan, Smith, McNamara, Brady and Dagnon, among others.

Initially, religious services were held at the Garvey log house.  Later, the foundation of the Garvey log house would serve as the foundation for the area’s first Roman Catholic Church. This ‘Little Frame Church’ was replaced, when the present-day St. Patrick Church in Seneca was built in 1874.

Kneeland Cemetery

The cemetery adjacent to the ‘Little Frame Church’ was known as the Kneeland Cemetery. Thomas Kneeland had donated three acres to the church for the cemetery.

That’s history. The ‘Little Frame Church’ and Kneeland Cemetery just faded into obscurity–abandoned and forgotten. Then, they were re-discovered more than a century later, when John Gorski and his cousin Tom Stuckey started researching their Irish ancestors. The research led to their great-great-great grandmother, Mary (nee Keefe) Crowley.

Ultimately, this led the two retirees, Gorski and Stuckey, to the search for the burial location of their great-great-great grandmother,who emigrated to the area from Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland. The search for Mary Crowley’s grave led her descendants to therural, abandoned Kneeland Cemetery.

Widowed by the famine, Mary and her family came to Crawford County in the 1850s to escape British Rule and the famine. The mother gathered her children, packed some meager belongings and food and left Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland in the fall of 1852. 

Having lost her husband Patrick Crowley Sr., Mary hoped she was leaving behind a life of poverty and hunger. Like so many Irish families at the time, she prayed for a better life for her family. A new life, food, work and land in America held out that hope. 

Mary Crowley and her children arrived in New York on October 28, 1852 on the sailing ship Constitution. After a short stay, working to earn travel money in the apple orchards of upstate New York, Mary and her children, Edward, John Francis, and Alice headed west by train and then ox cart to Crawford County Wisconsin.

Crowley Ridge

Another of Mary’s sons, Patrick Jr., had traveled ahead of the family to Crawford County in 1849. Mary’s daughter Johanna would join the family later. The Crowley family acquired Homestead Act land in 1857 and settled in and around what is now known as Crowley Ridge.

A proud mother and grandmother, Mary Crowley passed away on Crowley Ridge, December 23, 1862. She was buried on a hill on a neighbor’s property. Her burial location had a clear view of Crowley Ridge to the south. The Crowley family erected an obelisk style monument that still stands today. 

The stone and Mary’s burial location were unknown to her Crowley ancestors until Gorski and Stuckey, began a search for the grave. The research path led them to the Kneeland Cemetery.

 Abandoned, inactive, partially overgrown and relatively unknown, finding the burial location fueled an interest and passion in Mary Crowley’s modern-day descendants for learning more about the cemetery.

In 1874, when the present day St. Patrick Church and Cemetery in Seneca was opened the ‘Little Frame Church,’ known as St. Pete, and the adjacent three-acre cemetery, known as Kneeland Cemetery, were abandoned, forgotten and left to the history books.

For nearly 150 years, other than some clearing in the early days, the ‘Little Frame Church,’ the first Roman Catholic Church in the area, known as St. Peter and the adjacent cemetery were abandoned. Now, the cemetery is being revived by John Gorski, Tom Stuckey and others. 

With their help, the cemetery was cleared, regularly mowed, title searched, headstones cleaned, property surveyed, graves identified by historical research and GPR technology and signage added. The Kneeland Cemetery was again a part of the community.

Cemetery overgrown

Over the years, the Kneeland Cemetery became overgrown.  Rabbit hunting in the overgrown cemetery was popular.  At some point, approximately a half-acre of the three-acre cemetery was fenced. Cattle and hogs were pastured there.  Significant damage to headstones was the unfortunate  result.

Past roadwork eliminated direct access to the cemetery from the original entrance. Access now is through an easement/right-of-way.

With no record of the Kneeland Cemetery burials, the remaining headstones proved the only known record of the pioneer settlers buried there. Those headstones, most in relatively poor condition and difficult to read, tell of 27 primarily Irish pioneer settlers buried at Kneeland.  

The earliest burials, according to the headstones, are Kneeland and Crowley family burials in 1862.

 Vintage newspaper and historical accounts state, with no names mentioned, that some of the original settler graves were moved from Kneeland to St. Patrick Cemetery in Seneca when that opened in 1874.

The Kneeland burials are those of some of the original area settlers that acquired land after the 1839 area survey, the formation of the State of Wisconsin and the introduction of the Homestead Act.

Continued research in old newspapers, county documents, history books, resident interviews, genealogy records, use of advanced technology, and the help and cooperation of UW and the Wisconsin Historical Society has determined additional unmarked graves exist at the Kneeland Cemetery. 

This research also led to the discovery of a previously unknown Native American burial mound in the area now named ‘Crowley Mound’ by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Catholic services

The first Catholic services held within the Town of Seneca were in the home of Robert Garvey in November 1855 by the Reverend Lucien Gaultier, a French priest from Prairie du Chien. (Mary, daughter of Robert Garvey, was a housekeeper for Father Gaultier.) 

A meeting to organize a Mission parish took place in the Robert Garvey log house. A part of the stone foundation of the log house can still be seen from County E.

In 1866 a frame building church was built in the Garvey Settlement, on the ground that was then part of the Kneeland farm. The church was called St. Peter’s.

The donated property was described as: 

“Conveys the following: Commencing at the SE corner of Sec. 27-9-5, running at 31 perches to a post, thence W. 20 perches 17 1⁄4 links to a post, thence S. to the Lynxville & Georgetown road, thence along said road to the S. line of the above named section, thence along said line to the place of beginning, containing 3 acres.” 

Apparently, the cemetery and church site was in existence before 1862. As recorded on the tombstones still standing in the cemetery, there were burials from 1862 to as late as 1884. Some burials were reinterred in St. Patrick’s 

The three-acre property for Kneeland Cemetery located in Section 27, Township 9, Range 5 West was donated by Thomas Kneeland to Bishop Henni of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Milwaukee in 1870 and recorded March 5, 1870 in Vol. 23, Page 1229 of the records of Crawford County. In 1872, the Bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee deeded the cemetery property to the Bishop of the Diocese of LaCrosse and this transaction was so recorded in Vol. 27, page 124 of the Crawford County records. 

According to the ‘Scanlan Papers’ at UW Platteville, the three-acre cemetery was adjacent to the log home of Robert Garvey where the first Catholic services in the area were held in 1855 and continued until 1866. 

Reverend Lucien Gaultier, a French priest from Prairie du Chien said the first mass. Having outgrown the Garvey log home, in 1866, the area Catholic population erected a ‘little frame church’ near the cemetery and reportedly named it St. Peter.

Move to Seneca

In 1874, the current St. Patrick Church replaced the ‘little frame church.’ Occasionally, services continued at the “little frame church” until as stated in an April 11, 1901 Kickapoo Chief newspaper article, the ‘little frame church’ was ‘sold at auction.’ 

On May 10, 1872, Father Verwst was appointed as the first resident priest in Seneca by Bishop Heiss.

Kneeland Cemetery was ‘abandoned’ in the fall of 1874 when the current St. Patrick Parish Church and Cemetery opened in Seneca. Land for that church was purchased by Bishop Heiss from the Huard family. Land for the cemetery at St. Patrick was donated by Edward and Thomas Garvey. 

To show his appreciation, Father Verwst set aside a large area in the middle of the St. Patrick Cemetery as a burial place for the Garvey family. A pine tree was planted at each corner of this plot. Historical documents state that some of the graves at Kneeland Cemetery were ‘moved’ to the new St. Patrick Cemetery. Years of research have not located any records of Kneeland burials or of the graves that were reportedly moved from Kneeland to St. Patrick Cemetery. 

The only evidence

Currently, the only evidence of the Kneeland Cemetery burials are the remaining headstones, which detail 27 names of those buried there. The earliest burial is 1862 as seen on headstones and the latest burial is John Flanagan in1886. 

The headstones tell a story of those buried at Kneeland Cemetery of primarily being pioneer and early Irish immigrants. Other research has determined there are unmarked graves remaining at Kneeland without headstones. 

After Kneeland Cemetery was abandoned, the cemetery became overgrown. Since the cemetery was abandoned in 1874, the cemetery was cleared of trees, brush and bushes in the 1930s and again later when it was also seeded so mowing could be done. 

Concerted efforts to restore the cemetery were begun again in the fall of 1971.

There are ‘word of mouth’ and personal account stories that the .57-fenced area of the three-acre cemetery was, in the distant past, a favorite rabbit hunting area as well as an area at times used to pasture animals. 

Cemetery today

Today, Kneeland Cemetery is cleared and regularly mowed by St. Patrick Parish. With the help of the diocese and civil records, newspapers and history books, the St. Patrick Parish sexton and the pastor, research on the cemetery continues and a plan for its future is being discussed. 

Signage is being added and the cemetery continues to be acknowledged in various publications. Photos of many of the tombstones can be found online courtesy of the fine volunteer work of ‘Find-A-Grave.’ A 1999 survey of the headstones courtesy of an USGenWeb volunteer can also be found online. 

Research continues and a written detailed history of Kneeland Cemetery is being compiled. Efforts to learn of burials, transcribing headstones, recovering and preserving headstones, date of fencing, the location of the original cemetery access road and the exact location of the ‘little frame Church’ are some of the efforts included in the research project. 

Anyone with information on the Kneeland Cemetery can contact John Gorski at or at 630-272-3612 or reach Tom Stuckey at or at 608-695-8079.

An abandoned and forgotten Wisconsin cemetery is no longer abandoned and certainly not forgotten. 

The information contained in this story was collected, compiled and edited by John Gorski, Tom Stuckey and Charley Preusser.