American Indian veteran honored for Civil War service

Anna Palm
Morning Sun (Mount Pleasant)

Mount Pleasant — For 97 years, Pvt. Joseph A. Fisher has been buried in an unmarked grave in Woodland Cemetery in Rosebush.

On behalf of the Swartz Creek Area Historical Society, the American Indian veteran has now received a Civil War headstone and will be recognized for his service in a grave dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. Oct. 10.

A similar event took place in Chippewa Cemetery on June 11 for Joseph’s older brother, Madison, whose grave had also remained unmarked since 1906.

The historical society’s president, Len Thomas, said the issue came to their attention when members Kristie and Scott Potter, descendants of the Fisher brothers, pointed out there were no official Civil War headstones in place.

“They’re veterans and they deserve to be honored,” Thomas told the Morning Sun. “The emphasis is now on WWII veterans, because it’s more recent, but the Civil War veterans served our country, too, and put themselves in harm’s way on our own soil.”

At the time, the society had documents stating Madison was in Chippewa Cemetery, but none about Joseph. However, they assumed he was also there since both brothers had worked on Crapo farm in the area, so they ordered two government-issued headstones.

Thomas said the one for Madison arrived first and when Joseph’s came to his driveway, he received a letter from Kristie. Through research, she had found a death certificate for the younger brother along with one for his wife Elizabeth “Eliza” Fisher, which revealed that Joseph was buried next to Eliza in Woodland Cemetery.

“I was glad to find that Kristie and Scott Potter found the death certificate,” Thomas said. “They have been overwhelmed by us working so hard to get an official headstone for their relatives. During the ceremony for Madison, they were extremely, extremely emotional about it.”

Kristie Potter said she took it upon herself to see what she could find out about her ancestor, which led her to the death certificate. The son, Peter Fisher, filled out both his father’s as well as his mother’s death certificate.

Isabella Township Clerk Cara Lynch, who received the call from Thomas regarding Joseph’s resting place, said Woodside Cemetery has an entire section on the northern side that they call “the old cemetery.” The headstones there are gone so it looks like an open area, but Native Americans have been buried there.

“Personally I know there are unmarked graves, because the old markers have fallen victim to damage or vandalism, some have deteriorated and others were never marked at all,” Lynch said.

She added not everyone could afford to have a stone made back then. Instead, people used a wooden cross, and other cemeteries have had wooden headstones, which are essentially a wooden board with the basic information, which all give way after time.

A family can call the Veteran’s Affairs and request a headstone, or a brass marker. The government will issue one or the other or both at no cost. During the wait, Woodside Cemetery uses a flag holder to mark the grave.

In regards to Joseph Fisher, Lynch said a lot of records for the cemeteries from the 1800s to the early 1900s are limited, because they didn’t keep good records on who was buried and where.

Isabella Township has records of receipts back to 1930, but before that she said they don’t know which plots were sold.

“The Cemetery Deed books say who purchased the plot, but not who is buried in the plot,” she said. “Sometimes a family would buy several plots and they were all listed under one name so it’s unclear who is buried there without a headstone stating the name.”

Thomas said a few other reasons why graves from that time are unmarked may be because the death certificates back then probably didn’t have a place stating the deceased person was a Civil War veteran or any kind of veteran. In other cases, some soldiers were buried on the battlefield or out of state. Sometimes, the family members didn’t know that their relative had died or where they were buried due to these circumstances.

“You’d be surprised how many (unmarked graves) you can find out there,” he added.

Since 2002, Thomas and his wife have visited cemeteries in the counties of Isabella, Genesse and Lapeer. So far they’ve discovered 9,000 Civil War graves and sent 60 applications for GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) flag holders, which are grave markers for Union soldiers. He said he feels very passionate about his personal project to assure that Civil War veterans receive the honor they deserve.

“I’m 75 years old and my generation may be the last generation to remember or look back on the Civil War veterans.”

Joseph Fisher served in the 8th Michigan Calvary, Company M from Feb. 11, 1863, to July 5, 1864. He died at the age of 78 on Dec. 1, 1918.

Kristie said she would most definitely be at the ceremony, because giving her ancestor a Civil War headstone is an honor.

“It has everything to do with respect, it has everything to do with Native Americans and the struggles they’ve had,” she said. “And despite that, they were brave enough to stand up and fight for their country. It was because of pride, a deep pride in their country.”