Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Potter’s Field in the Grand Forks Cemetery


Along Gateway Drive in Grand Forks lies the city’s cemetery ground with rows of granite and marble gravestones. The most forlorn portion of the burial grounds must be Potter’s Field, where the local government provided graves for poor, elderly and ill people who died without any relatives to pay for their burial. On this date in 1911, the Grand Forks Herald reported on the Memorial Park Cemetery Association’s purchase of a half-acre of land for use as a potter’s field.

The history of the term “Potter’s Field” dates back to New Testament times, when Judas Iscariot, deeply remorseful for betraying Jesus, took the thirty pieces of silver he was paid and threw the coins into the Temple, then took his own life. The priests gathered the money and bought a potter’s field near Jerusalem, which had clay for making pottery, for use as a burial ground for paupers and strangers who perished without means.

In the ensuing years after the purchase of the Potter’s Field in Grand Forks, it became the final resting place for paupers, criminals and strangers who died in dire poverty. The local officials had space for 600 burials.

One of the saddest stories of them all was that of a nameless baby “interred in an unmarked grave” in December of 1914.

“Unknown parents” had left a newborn baby boy on the doorstep of the J. Nelson Kelly residence. Mr. Kelly was the well-known superintendent of Grand Forks schools.

The little baby, abandoned on a bleak and bitterly cold November night, managed to hang on to life for several weeks due to the best efforts of local doctors. Mr. and Mrs. H.L. Sandbeck took the baby into their home and cared for him as if he were their very own child. Alas, pneumonia set into the infant’s lungs and, despite the best efforts of all, death came to the little boy on December 15.

The county buried the foundling baby in “an unmarked grave” in Potter’s Field. The kind-hearted couple who had cared for him said a prayer as they laid him in a tiny casket.

“No granite slab will mark the baby’s grave,” wrote the Grand Forks Herald, “no name” was written on any marker to note that a little soul was buried in that place. The mysteries of the sorrows and paternity of the abandoned baby remained a secret of that silent grave in Grand Forks’ Potter’s Field.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.

Sources: “Potter’s Field Will Be Reality In Grand Forks As Result of Purchase,” Grand Forks Herald, April 11, 1912, p. 8.

“Nameless Babe Interred In An Unmarked Grave,” Grand Forks Herald, December 17, 1914, p. 5.

“Sunshine Department of W.C.T.U.,” Grand Forks Herald, September 14, 1913, p. 10.

“Will Bury Victim In Potter’s Field,” Grand Forks Herald, May 6, 1914, p. 10.

“Potter’s Field,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed on March 8, 2012.

“Potter’s Field, Grand Forks, N.D.”, accessed on March 8, 2012.