Thomson Pioneer Cemetery at Minnesota’s Jay Cooke State Park

(Last Updated On: August 15, 2021)

Clues to the past at Thomson Pioneer Cemetery

There are lots of reasons for me to love Jay Cooke State Park: beautiful fall foliage (or spring flowers), weird geology, rushing cascades, easy-to-reach scenic overlooks, and historic buildings. But there is one thing that probably makes Jay Cooke unique among Minnesota’s state parks . . .  a cemetery.

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

There isn’t much information on the Thomson Pioneer Cemetery or the people buried there. Few gravestones remain and, of those that do, most have been damaged over time through a combination of natural forces and human neglect (or outright vandalism). It’s also likely that many early graves had simple wood or metal markers that have long since vanished due to the erosive effects of time.

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

Walking through the cemetery one discovers a few standing grave markers, broken and moss-covered markers, stray bits of marble and granite, and unmarked shallow pits that surely must have been the site of old burials.

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

The earliest remaining grave marker is that of Maritta Leach, who died in 1862 at the age of 70. I’d love to know more about her, as at the time of her death, the town of Thomson had yet to be founded (that would happen about 1869) and Carlton County itself had only been established five years earlier. It’s hard to imagine how difficult life must have been here, yet she lived a long life. I wonder how she ended up in this place and what stories she could tell us.

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

The next documented grave here is that of John Moody, a 20-year-old man who was buried in 1875.

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

By the time of his death, Thomson was the seat of government for Carlton County and the village must have seemed like an up-and-coming place. Presumably the population continued to grow and the remaining grave stones in the cemetery include those of children, indicating families lived in the area.

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

Despite years of squabbling with the nearby city of Carlton over which town was most worthy to serve as the county seat, Thomson held that honor  until 1889. That was the year when the county auditor’s safe – containing the county records – was went missing in the dark of night and remained missing until Carlton was named the new county seat.

That seems to have pretty much marked the end of Thomson’s growth (today the population stands at 160), a change in status that appears to be reflected in the pioneer cemetery. Of the gravestones that remain today, the most recent are from the early 1890s. Of those, the last one erected memorializes John A. King, who served in the Civil War as a young man.

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

Thomson Cemetery, Jay Cooke State Park -

These few bits of stone are all that remains here of those who passed this way generations before us.  Their lives must have been very different from ours, yet they were also people very like us . . . people hoping the memory of those they loved and lost would continue on.

The Thomson Pioneer Cemetery is located in Jay Cooke State Park, south of Duluth, Minnesota. A park pass is required to visit the cemetery. has a page on the Thomson Cemetery, with a few pictures basic information on some of the people buried there. Note that some of that information appears duplicative.

rocky river cascades with fall leaves and text "Jay Cooke State Park Minnesota"

small boats on a lake shore with text "Minnesota State Parks"


20 thoughts on “Thomson Pioneer Cemetery at Minnesota’s Jay Cooke State Park”

  1. What a beautiful spot for a cemetery. It would be interesting to learn more about the persons buried there. I enjoyed the historical context you provided to their lives.

    1. Yes, Donna, it would be interesting to know more about them, but it seems like there isn’t much info available. The only personal info I found in my quick search was on the civil war soldier and a note about one of the women buried there that said she was Swedish and died of consumption, but didn’t seem to have any more info 🙁 It makes me want to know more.

  2. That looks like a beautiful old cemetery, and you took some lovely photos! Semi-abandoned cemeteries like that are some of my favourite ones…there’s a similar one in Ohio hidden in the middle of a forest, and I used to love going there and reading all the gravestones.

    1. The last burial there appears to have been in the 1920s. I don’t think they have a map of where all the graves are located, so doubt they would allow a burial. (Because there is no way to know whether it would disturb an existing burial until you started digging.) Spreading ashes is generally allowed on public land (and water) in Minnesota, although the rules can vary by jurisdiction. Anyone interested in spreading ashes anywhere in the park who wants to be sure they are following the rules should contact the park for more info.

  3. The cemetery is my favorite spot in Jay Cooke! I have had some interesting experiences there as well. We brought our new puppy out there in 2011/2012, and as he pooped in the cemetery I had a bad feeling about it. My puppy was sick for a week afterwards…..bad juju. Also more recently, this fall, I went out there with a friend after dark. As we got up there, we could feel something just out of control. Like we were being watched. It seemed extra dark and just heavy…you could feel that we were unwanted there.
    Also, there has been witchcraft known up there. It is interesting.

    1. I wouldn’t be surprised if place is haunted – those people must have had very hard lives and there has been so much disrespect paid to the graves over the years. . . I’ve visited cemeteries at night in search of dark skies, but this is not one I would visit after dark. Even on a beautiful sunny day there is something a little unsettling about it.

  4. Hi, I found your page after finding what I believe is my husband’s ancestor buried in this cemetery on Find A Grave, Maritta Leach. I believe the year of death is incorrect but that it’s her. My husband’s ancestor Mari(e)tta (Merchant) Leach was born in NY between 1815 and 1821 (depending on census). She was enumerated with her husband Winfield Scott Leach in 1850 in NY, 1860 in WI, 1870 in Princeton, MN, 1880 in Minneapolis, MN. In 1880 was with their daughter, son-in-law and kids. In 1885 I found Winfield with his daughter and grandkids in Thomson, Carlton, MN. I believe perhaps she died in 1882 rather than 1862. I plan on going to the Carlton county courthouse to check for her death. This is the link to her husband’s entry on Find a Grave:

    Just thought I’d share as I see you said you weren’t able to find info on many of the people. She married Winfield about 1840 and they had two children, Martin and Ann. Martin is my husband’s 4th great-grandpa. I have a hunch on who her parents were but am hoping checking on her death will verify that for me. Winfield was a Civil War vet. After Mari(e)tta died, he moved to PA, remarried and died there.

    1. Carrie, thank you for the information! 1882 makes a lot more sense, because 1862 was so early in the development of this area and she would have been quite old before coming here. I think some of these markers have replacement stones and it would have been easy to mistake an 8 for a 6! It’s nice to know that she had children that survived her. It’s so hard to imagine what her life was like, but I love knowing that she still has family around! How nice that you were able to find both ancestors – good luck with the rest of your genealogical research.

  5. Interesting cemetery. Sad that it’s not more cared for or more noted about this place. Would not have stopped here except for note in park Interetive Center. Glad we did stop. Will have to look more about the area.

    1. I agree that it would be nice to see it more cared for. At least it’s being mowed and maintained. I get the sense that it was completely abandoned for a long time. A lot of settlers came through this area, but many moved on leaving behind hints of their lives in all sorts of unexpected places. It’s worth looking around a bit. Have fun exploring!

  6. The lovely cemetery in the forest makes a person reflect on those who were buried there and what their lives were like. It really is sad that this historic treasure is not well cared for. Is there such a thing as a historic cemetery conservator who could give expert advice? Especially sad is the path that trods right through the Otto family plot. I would implore the park officials to divert the path.

    1. Deb, That’s a really good question. I know in some parks DNR has done quite a bit of historic interpretation and conservation. I’m not sure why this cemetery has been so neglected, although I think some of that happened before the park had it. It really should get a little more care.

  7. I believe my great great grandmother, Anna Palki, was buried here in 1880. She was the wife of Finnish settler, Erick Palki. If anyone has any information about this I would greatly appreciate it.

    1. Its very near the northwest entrance on highway 210. It has a sign and will be on your left as you come into the park. It’s marked as a historic site on the MN DNR’s park map, but it doesn’t seem to be identified on google maps.

  8. We couldn’t see the entire cemetery without a park pass.
    I believe cemeteries should welcome all, at any time, free of charges to visit.

    1. I didn’t realize you couldn’t get into the full cemetery without a park pass, although I’m not quite sure what you mean by the “full cemetery.” It’s been a few years now since I last stopped by there and I always have a park pass — I’ll have to put it on my list to check-out again.

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