EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was written in response to a reader-submitted question through Open Source, a platform where readers can ask Richland Source’s newsroom to investigate a question.
MANSFIELD — No place in Mansfield holds quite as much history as Mansfield Cemetery.
With more than 65,000 people buried across more than 100 mowable acres, Mansfield Cemetery is the largest cemetery in Richland County. It was first established in 1845, meaning this is its 176th year in existence.
A short walk with Pam Bautz, administrator of the Mansfield Cemetery Association, and you'll quickly realize the grounds are full of fascinating stories. But there was one story in particular that interested one of our readers.
"After driving through the Mansfield Cemetery, I was curious to know, who was the first person known to be buried there?" asked reader Donald Steele, using our Open Source platform.
Surprisingly, the answer is not as straightforward as you might expect.
The cemetery is run by the Mansfield Cemetery Association, a nonprofit/for-profit entity that is privately owned and funded by all those who own burial rights to a lot in the cemetery.
According to Bautz, before the Mansfield Cemetery Association was officially established in 1845, there were four graveyards in Mansfield. When Mansfield Cemetery was established, people were encouraged to relocate their loved ones -- meaning a person was exhumed and reburied in Mansfield Cemetery.
"Because these relocated people never bought anything from us, they don't show in our death records the same way," Bautz explained. "After that we started selling lots."
The first person to ever purchase a lot in Mansfield Cemetery was Pvt. Robert William Johnston, a volunteer to the Mexican-American War who died in Saltillo in 1847 at the age of 19. However, there was a significant period of time between his death and burial.
"It took over a year to get him home," Bautz said.
In the time it took for Johnston's remains to return to Mansfield, a woman named Mary (Bentley) Bushnell died in 1848 at the age of 35. Mary was the only daughter of Gen. Robert Bentley and the wife of Dr. William Bushnell.
Therefore, even though the first lot sold technically should have been the first burial under the new Mansfield Cemetery name, Mary died before Robert made it home.
That means Mary Bushnell was, by all technical means, the first person buried in Mansfield Cemetery.
"I don't really find that there's a dispute because when you ask me as cemetery head, who's the first one buried, I assume it's the first person I put in the ground," Bautz said. "We sold the lot, we handled the family, we placed her where she went, just like we do today.
"So for me, he might've died first, but he didn't make it here first. And that's why they've always put that little fun fact in there."