Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Iron Crosses of the Great Plains

By Celia Yeary
Symbols of Strength and Spirituality
Imagine you are an immigrant, perhaps German or Polish, living on the Great Plains of America during the Nineteenth Century. An outbreak of diphtheria takes the lives of some friends, neighbors, and worst of all, your own little son. You go to the barn to find pieces of wood to fashion a small coffin. Heartbroken, you and your wife bury your precious little boy. You forgo the common wooden cross to mark the grave. 
Instead, you visit the "smithy" in the village, another immigrant like yourself who understands you want a traditional iron cross, one that will last centuries.

You work with the smithy to create a special cross made of iron and other bits of scrap metal he might have. The cross will be unique, one of a kind, to mark the child's grave. The design will tell a story...
In September 2005, my husband and I embarked on our fourth and last trip to Europe. After landing in Frankfurt, we began a long trip by tour bus through Central Europe. I admit the trip did not interest me at first, but my husband thought we should see this area of Europe. By the time we finished the tour, I said it was second on my list of favorites.

We visited places in several countries (in order): Frankfurt, Berlin, Warsaw, Poznan, Auschwitz, Krakow, Slovakia, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, Rothenberg. and back to the Frankfurt Airport.

During this long journey, I was enthralled with everything (except Auschwitz), but one vision remained with me--the iron crosses in cemeteries on the long drive between Eastern Germany and into Poland. The tour guide never mentioned them, but I'd watch out the bus window and see one cemetery after another among fields of flowers or crops of some kind.

The iron crosses were easily identifiable. The cemeteries always lay close to the road, and since the bus didn't travel very fast on the narrow roads, I had time to study quite a few.

When we arrived home, I looked up information about the Wrought Iron Crosses, and learned how and why they were made.

Several years later, we...once again...were on a tour bus. This time we were on one of several tours to SEE AMERICA FIRST. No, we saw it last! We flew to Denver and met our fellow passengers, and boarded the bus the next morning. (3/4 of the passengers were from the UK--I fell in love with the joyous group discovering America.)


On the first leg of the trip, we drove from Denver to Cheyenne and on to South Dakota to Mt. Rushmore and Deadwood.  Much of the countryside was flat--the Plains or Prairies. Once again I saw cemeteries with the iron crosses. I was thrilled, and tried to explain to others, but no one else seemed as excited.
The iron crosses are made and used by Germans from Russia, for the most part, and some were made by the Irish, the Hungarians, The Czechs, The Ukrainians, and others.

These immigrants who came to America during the migration to the West brought with them the blacksmiths and artists who created iron crosses for their deceased loved ones.
The unique crosses are scattered from central Canada to Kansas, from the Mississippi to the Rockies. Those prevalent in the Dakotas are of the Germans from Russia.

The cross represents the sacred.

The iron represents strength.

Unlike wooden crosses, they were tough enough to withstand prairie fires, storms, and even time itself.
Each cross is unique, made from metals that were available at the time. The size, shape, style, color, design, and symbols all have cultural significance. Each one tells a story, and not everyone can "read" the story. For example, one features an iron snake crawling up the cross. At the very top of this same cross is an angel. It tells the story of creation, the fall of man, and heavenly salvation.
Common features were the sun, a heart, a star, leaves, flowers, a tree, and shapes of animals. Filigree was popular on many crosses.

Have you seen the Iron Crosses of the Plains of the United States? I'd love to know if anyone else has seen these, either in Europe or America.

Thank you for visiting my blog today.

Wikimedia Commons
Encyclopedia of the Great Plains
Rural Kansas Tourism 


  1. Celia, that a neat post. I'd never known that tradition. I wish my ancestor had used that, because one cemetery is full of what remains of wooden crosses with no way to identify which person was buried where.

  2. Celia, this is a fascinating topic. I've never seen the iron crosses. My mom was of Czech descent (Bohemian in her family's case) from a little town in Minnesota. She's buried in the Czech cemetery up there. Some of the monuments are very old, but they're all granite or some other stone. No iron crosses.

  3. Celia, how interesting. I had not heard of this nor seen any of the crosses. Thanks for sharing this new (to me)imformation today.

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  5. I wish I had seen these iron crosses, Celia. We have been through Europe several times, but I can't recall them. Next trip I will an effort to find a place where they stand.

    Out here in gold rush country, the cemetaries are a mess. I was on a committee that searched for all the places and their condition. They certainly did not show the same respect. Sad!

  6. Caroline--I've tromped through many cemeteries in North Texas, and many of the old headstones were just that--stones, chunks of limestone which the weather can destroy. I've never run across a wooden cross at all. But my goodness, countless graves are scattered across the West of people who died from wagon trains or whatever befell them. No, a wooden cross, after a hundred years, would be gone by some means.
    I'd like to see wooden crosses--I didn't think any existed.
    Thanks for your comment.

  7. Lyn--I can't find anyone who's ever seen them--in American or in Europe--except me. There is a PBS program about them, I think made by a historical group in Kansas. Actually, I watched the program-years after I'd seen them, when PBS ran it. I tried to find a way to see a copy, but obviously it's not available to the public. I recall it's very moving.
    Thanks for taking time to read about them.

  8. Linda--As I've said, I can't find anyone who has seen them. If PBS ever runs the video about them again, I hope I catch it. I saw it once, years ago.
    Thanks for coming by and commenting--you know I appreciate it.

  9. Paisley--In Europe, they'll be in rural areas mostly in Poland and E. Germany. We walked through another cemetery, I believe it was in Budapest--it was close to our hotel, and my husband and I went walking late one afternoon to get out and away from people (too much togetherness, sometimes, on those tours.)Around a corner, there was an amazing cemetery closed in behind tall thick stone walls. No one stopped us when we walked through the gate. It was a mixture of Catholics, Jews, and protestants. Each group had their own section, and the headstones were unique to that group.
    The The Jewish graves often had a little house built over the grave. The Catholics always had a promiment cross...etc. Very, very interesting. And many of the graves had photos encased in glass or plactic--wow, those were really interesting, those old black and white photos. Lot of flowers, and while we roamed around, several women came and went--no men--just women, and they'd bring a bucket, go to the water faucet, and fill it. So many graves had growing flowers around them, and they had to be watered by hand.
    Well, enough of that.
    I'm truly sorry the cemeteries you speak of is so unkempt...but that happens in many places.
    Thank you.

  10. I don't think I've ever seen an iron cross, but the pictures you posted are so intriguing. I would have wanted to wander around and study them in depth. Even more, I'd want to figure out the stories told by each cross.

    Enjoyed the post!

  11. I love visiting cemeteries and reading the inscriptions. It's so peaceful and quiet in these places. As many cemeteries as I've ever visited, I have never seen an iron cross as a grave marker. I really enjoyed reading your blog about them. How unique.

  12. Maggie--the crosses are intriguing. If I hadn't visited Poland, I probably wouldn't have noticed them years later in South Dakota. I'm hoping PBS will one day replay the film about the crosses scattered on the American Plains.
    Thanks for coming by.

  13. Sarah--it's odd, isn't it, how much we enjoy roaming through cemeteries. The old ones are the best, because of the unique headstones.
    You seen the kind, I'm sure, that only allow a small flat stone--from granite, usually--in the ground. They're small, about a foot wide and 9 inches tall. Not unique nor interesting. Just easy to maintain.


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