“…forever a place of private burial where they shall repose together as one family in the long night of death and rise up together as from one bed at the last day…”
So reads the cemetery deed signed by George G. Dunn on November 21, 1855 bequeathing the family burial plot solely to the decedents of three Revolutionary War heroines Ellenor Dunn, Agnes Alexander, and Jennet Irwin and forever protecting the site from sale.
Indiana University holds a unique distinction among other campuses in the country as the home to two cemeteries. The story of the second, Rogers Cemetery in front of Foster Quad, remains hazy and we’ll leave it for another time. However, the story behind the better known Dunn Cemetery nestled next to the Memorial Union near the center of campus, is a rather lengthy tale.
The three-sided corner grave stone, the oldest in the cemetery, marks the graves of three sisters who came to Bloomington after serving as aides in General George Washington’s Revolutionary army. Legend has it that they worked side-by-side with the Generals’ men sewing on buttons, bandaging wounds and even melting their pewter plates and other metals into bullets. Later the three moved to the then-tiny community of Bloomington, where Ellenor Dunn – the oldest of the three – and her husband Samuel, who was born in Ireland, purchased 160 acres of farm land from the government and built a home which stood near the site of the present-day fieldhouse (HPER building).
Upon his death, Samuel willed the family estate to his eldest son, George Gundy Dunn, who officially established the boundaries of the family burial plot and then willed the land to his son Moses. Following the fire of 1883 which destroyed the main Indiana University campus building, then located at Seminary Square, the university trustees purchases 30 acres from Moses Dunn known as Dunn’s Woods on which to establish a new site for the university. As the university has grown however, the cemetery has remained untouched – protected by George Dunn’s foresight which forever deeded the family plot to his descendants.
In honor of tomorrow’s spooky festivities, close your eyes and conjure up visions from the following words taken from the 1940 issue of the English Department’s journal The Folio, in which Richard Bruick describes an afternoon walk through the hallowed ground:
Once inside, my memory of the outer world was expunged instantly; and, my perception thus circumscribed in its activity…What dull stones they are, gray and drab, as though chosen expressively to symbolize the gloom of life departed. They stand disconsolately in awkward rows, some leaning with the pardonable weariness of a hundred years’ service, others gaunt and worn in the faithful discharge of duty. What is graven on them matters little, for these were people like you and me, whose impress on the world was slight, and lingers not at all…
Their mansion is poor and unkempt, but the dead sleep peacefully. Tenacious ivy lies heavy in the avenues of their stone village, and in their bedsteads, like thick green coverlets. The trees are young here. They have followed the residents by many years – all except that awesome brooding fir, standing great and timeless as though he had absorbed the immortality of all these buried souls, watching in silence over the rock-paled kingdom.
There is beauty here, but I am suddenly oppressed. The wind blows colder and the sun does not shine so bright within these confines. I believe I shall retrace my steps through the iron gate in the wall, back to the evanescent world outside…
While today the cemetery serves as a topic for Halloween, in reality for campus residents the cemetery is one of the most peaceful spots on campus. Situated next to Beck Chapel (1957) this little green spot is more condusive to quiet meditation among nature rather than imagining it to be home to spooks and goblins. In discussing the location of the chapel, Frank Beck most appropriately described the site:
Voices from this spot speak of vanishing years. They proclaim our everlasting link with the pioneer who gave us this spot and he ground about it. They remind us also of the inspiration from which stemmed our University and of the loving toil which nurtured its early growth. Where would one search for a spot more harmonious as a location for a Chapel of Prayer and Meditation.
Further information about Dunn Cemetery and Beck Chapel can be found in the Dunn family collection or the Frank and Daisy Beck papers.
Hello – I am a descendant of Agnes through my father, who is a Bloomington native and IU grad. Joining the DAR has enlightened me about these women and given me great pride. The DAR is especially interested in female patriot ancestors. Thank you, Stephen, for your work!
Greetings Dina — yes 16 years on the job, working originally with Marilynn Mundy and Larry Stephens and, more recently, Mitch Druckemiller. All of them have always treated the cemetery with care and respect and they all seem to appreciate the small but fascinating role it plays in the history of the university and the unique island of serenity it offers passing students, faculty, staff and visitors strolling the campus. If you need any further information from me, please feel free to contact me directly via email or website. srh
Hello Stephen! I didn’t know there was someone outside IU serving in this capacity! Thank you for sharing!
My name is Stephen Hofer and I am a 1976 graduate of Indiana University. I am also descended from two of the three Brewster sisters for whom the Dunn Cemetery was originally created (Ellenor Brewster married Samuel Dunn; hence the name). I enjoyed reading Ms. Schwier’s article about the cemetery, in part because of my relationship to the place. Back in 2006, the IU Office of Risk Management learned of my connection to both the university and the Dunn/Brewster family and asked me if I would assume the responsibility as the genealogical caretaker/curator of the cemetery, a job that really has only one duty and that is to review any requests from people who wish to be buried in the cemetery to see if they can establish their descent from one of the Brewster sisters, the criteria that George Grundy Dunn mandated in the 1855 deed he recorded with the Monroe County Clerk’s office that preserves forever the cemetery site. The university receives such requests periodically, but disposes of many immediately by explaining the family connection that is required for burial. Occasionally, however, someone asks to be buried in the cemetery who knows what the rules are — and then it is my job, on behalf of the Dunn/Brewster descendants, to determine whether the evidence the applicant has collected conclusively establishes their connection to the Brewster sisters’ family tree. I have approved most, but also have turned down a couple — or at least told them they needed additional proof to support their request. It’s a bit odd for me to be in this role because I live in Beverly Hills, California, more than 2,000 miles distance from my alma mater, and I only get back to Bloomington once every few years or so, but the personnel in the Office of Insurance, Loss Control & Claims, which oversees the physical care and maintenance of the cemetery, are gracious and they seem to take a sincere interest in preserving inviolate this little plot of land that sits at the very center of a great university and provides a unique and peaceful heart for this extraordinarily beautiful campus.
Somewhere along the line, we are very distant relatives then as I am also a descendant of one of the Dunn women. I would have to dig through the family archives to recall which one. Some sibs, mom, and I made several stops here over the years to pay our respects. My maternal grandmother grew up in Bloomington and her mantra was that the sky is bluer and the grass greener in Indiana. She missed it.
So glad you came across the post!! Let us know if you have any questions!
I remember hearing about my family’s cemetery on the university campus but this is wonderful to see pictures about it along with the info. Thank you!
Thank you. What a fabulous article. Brings me back to my days as an undergrad walking by the Chapel and cemetery on those crisp fall days with the leaves rustling around – peaceful indeed. Thank you for the history lesson of the campus, these are great!
I remember this cemetery. I walked by it practically every week while I was at IU. It is a beautiful, peaceful place.
I have always loved that little cemetery – I’m not normally a “cemetery person” but it’s a fascinating little nook! Cool to know a little bit more about its history.