Did you know that it was in the quaint Finger Lakes village of Waterloo, New York, that the tradition of Memorial Day began to take shape in the summer of 1865?

It all started when Henry C. Welles, a local druggist, suggested the idea of honoring the patriotic dead by placing flowers on their graves during a social gathering. Though nothing came of this suggestion initially, Welles brought it up again the following spring to General John B. Murray, a civil war hero who was passionate about serving his country.

With General Murray's support and the backing of veterans, civic societies, and residents, plans were developed for a more complete celebration. On May 5, 1866, the Village of Waterloo was adorned with flags at half-mast, draped with evergreens and mourning black, setting the stage for an impressive ceremony. Veterans, civic societies, and a procession of residents marched to the village cemeteries to honor fallen soldiers and decorate their graves.

The following year, on May 5, 1867, Waterloo repeated the solemn and heartfelt ceremonies. It was in 1868 that Waterloo joined other communities in holding their observance on May 30th, as per General Logan's orders, and Memorial Day has been commemorated annually ever since.

Waterloo's Pioneering Role in Memorial Day

VFW Post 6433 via Facebook
VFW Post 6433 via Facebook

Waterloo holds the distinction of being the birthplace of Memorial Day, marking the first formal village-wide annual observance dedicated to honoring the war dead. The significance of this observance was not lost on the State of New York, which recognized Waterloo on March 7, 1966, through a proclamation signed by Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Recognition of Waterloo's pioneering role in establishing Memorial Day extended beyond the state level. On May 17th and May 19th, 1966, the House of Representatives and the Senate of the United States unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 587, officially recognizing Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day.

Henry C. Welles

Henry C. Welles, born on May 13, 1821, in Glastonbury, Connecticut, played a prominent role in the establishment of Memorial Day. After bringing his family to Waterloo, Seneca County, New York in the mid-1820s, Welles became a well-known and respected druggist. He served in village offices, joined church and fraternal groups, and made his mark on the community.

Welles suggested honoring the dead of the Civil War during a social gathering in the summer of 1865. Though largely forgotten by the wider public today, his idea gained momentum when he shared it with General John B. Murray the following year. While General Murray often overshadowed Welles in gaining recognition beyond the village, the newspapers of the time credited Welles for suggesting the first Memorial Day.

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Despite Welles' death in July 1868, he lived long enough to witness Memorial Day being proclaimed nationally by General John Logan of the GAR (Grand Army of the Republic). His status and importance in the community were solidified, as noted in an obituary published in the Geneva Times, rare publicity during that era.

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