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Monday, July 15, 2019

Boot Hill, Boot Hill, Boot Hill

by Patti Sherry-Crews

Boot Hill, Tombstone, AZ

Did you think Boot Hill was located in a specific place. A spot on a map you could stick a pin in. It’s in one of those fabled Old West towns, right? Tombstone. Or were you thinking of Dodge City? Deadwood? Wait, where is Boot Hill?

Well, you better get a box of pins, because there isn’t one graveyard with a weathered, old sign creaking in the wind. In reality Boot Hills, plural, are a type of place in many towns. Wikipedia lists 40 cemeteries who've earned the moniker Boot Hill scattered across the American west from Tombstone, Arizona to Skagway, Alaska. The reputation being its residents  "they died with their boots on" or in other words, probably didn't die in their sleep in a warm cozy bed with some angel of mercy wiping their fevered brow. If they died with their boots on, they probably didn’t expect dying was on the agenda that day. Fell where they stood.

To put Boot Hills in the context of time and place, understand how towns sprang up almost overnight starting in the late 19th century America. Towns built around the mining or cattle industry swelled with those heading west seeking a quick fortune. Men made up a majority of the tide of people pouring in. Lacking the taming influence of wives and families, though having plenty of saloons and weapons, the scene was ripe for trouble. Things being what they were, people started dropping before you could finish the sentence “do you want to say that to my face?”. Where to put the growing number of bodies?

Dodge City, Kansas, situated on the Santa Fe Trail, claims the first Boot Hill. One day a black man called Tex was minding his own business, watching an exchange of gunfire in front of the saloon, like you do, when for no reason someone shot him dead. The shooter said he did it "just to see him kick". Case in point: tough places, these boom towns. The body lay in the street for a time while folks figured out what to do with this man who left behind nobody to mourn him or pay for his burial.

A nearby hill seemed like a good spot to bury Tex. Other such deaths followed and Boot Hill became a pauper's cemetery. Some bodies, buried without the benefit of even a pine box, suffered further indignity when coyotes dug them up.

But then someone noticed there was a nice view from that hill. Too nice a view to be wasted on dead paupers. The hill suddenly had potential. All the bodies were relocated. But people proved skittish about building on a former graveyard and the land didn't sell according to plan. Instead they put a grade school there (of course, they did. Kids were finding human bones in the playground for years). Today, though the original cemetery no longer exists, the Boot Hill Cemetery Museum in Dodge City is a tourist attraction.

Boot Hill and Hangman's Tree, Dodge City, Kansas

One of the best known Boot Hill cemeteries you can visit today is in Tombstone, Arizona. The rise and fall and rise again of this cemetery in a mining town typifies the cycle of a boom-town and its accompanying Boot Hill in the west.

It was in 1879 when the people of Tombstone starting using a dry, dusty, cactus-filled patch on the edge of town for burials. There was even a Chinese and a Jewish section. Among its most famous residents are the Cowboys who were on the losing end of the conflict known as shootout at the OK Corral. The Cowboys, Bill Clanton and the McLaury brothers, are buried here. The victors, Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers lived to fight another day, moved on, and eventually died to be buried elsewhere.

The last burial in this cemetery took place in 1884. Of those 300 burials, about 40% are of those who died before their expiration date. So noteworthy was a peaceful death that one grave marker reads, "M.E. Kellogg 1882, Died a Natural Death."

Number and causes of “premature” deaths in Tombstone Boothill:

2 Died in childbirth  
5 Suicide                  
7 Apaches                
10 Hanged                
21 Accident (mainly mining related or drownings)
21 Disease                
52 Gunshot, knife, or blunt instrument  

Of course, the cemetery wasn't called Boothill back in the day. It was simply the Tombstone Cemetery. Then in 1884 a new cemetery was built, and that other place with graves was called...the old cemetery. The old cemetery wasn't called Boothill until the 1920's when Dime store westerns became popular.

After the new City Cemetery was built many townspeople with money had their loved ones moved to where they weren’t spending eternal slumber alongside gunslingers and prostitutes. The old cemetery was neglected. The wooden slab markers were taken as souvenirs or used for firewood by vagrants, cattle roamed through, and in general the place became a dump, reverting back to nature.

But then the town of Tombstone got a second wind thanks to the interest in westerns and tourism. In the 1920’s there were enough old-timers around who knew where the bodies were buried. Literally. Well, they remembered where most of them were buried. Some had to have “Unknown” inscribed on the new wooden slabs, but they may have gone to the grave as unknowns the first time around as well.

So the old cemetery was recreated for the sake of tourism and called Boothill (one word here). And I hate tell you this but some of the more colorful epitaphs may have been embellished with the tourist trade in mind.

Not all boom-towns survived the decline of the industries that built them. Some morphed into ghost towns, which are kind of cool in their own way. Towns like Deadwood, Tombstone, and Dodge City with their Boot Hills and remaining structures have value. We can read about the events of the old west in books, but seeing the relics of those days adds a flavor you get from the sometimes dry pages of history. And how a people bury their dead often tells us more about the people who buried the bodies than about the dead themselves. Walking through boot hills you meet not only the major players such as Wild Bill in Deadwood.

But we also meet the lesser characters. Men and women from all walks of life and parts of the world who helped settle the west. People who would otherwise be lost to us such as two from China who died in Tombstone, Arizona a long way from home.


  1. Wonderful post. I've always loved old cemeteries and gravestones. They often tell you a lot about the society at the time. The thought of children finding human bones on the school grounds gave me pause.

    1. Thank you! I love cemeteries too. I try to visit them when I'm traveling. Besides the interesting artwork, as you note, how people choose to bury their dead tells us a lot about them. thanks for stopping by.

  2. I'm passionate about cemeteries and the history contained on those stones. Fabulous post. Thank you. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. My mother used to take us to cemeteries when we were kids because Chicago has some really notable ones. I've had the bug since then!

    2. I grew up visiting the ones in central Illinois and it sorta just gets in the blood.

  3. Great post. I love old cemeteries but then I have done a lot of family genealogy. I’ve wslked through looking for names. Those old wooden crosses deteriorated and became illegible, by the way. The tops just weathered away until all that was left was a stob, as we call it in Texas.

    1. Hi, Caroline! Always nice to hear from you. I never heard about stobs. I find that very interesting. I bet there are a lot of old grave spots weathered away out there on the old frontier. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Patti, How very interesting, and thanks for taking us on such an interesting tour as well as telling us the bitter truth. I never knew there were multiple boothills. I too love old graveyards and reading the tomb stones to see what if any stories are left behind. How sad however that those old boothill/boothills are what they really were. But still fascinating as all get out. Here in the Finger Lakes region of NY state there are many burial sites of the many different Indian tribes that dwelled over hundreds of miles. I'm looking forward to attending a lecture on them in a few weeks and I'm so looking forward to it. Ya just never know what one might find out.

    1. Hi, Bev! That lecture sounds like it will be interesting. I've been to Indian burial mounds around the Midwest and they do fascinate me. I've been to Tombstone and Deadwood, which though really different from each other were fun to wander around and read the inscriptions.

  5. Kind of shocking. I thought Boot Hill was just for bad guys. I was also surprised to see 5 suicides. It's just not a psychological problem I associated with the old west.
    This was a well researched and interesting post, Patti.

  6. Hi, Sarah, I'm so interested in the whole phenomena of these towns that sprung up and grew so quickly and then to disappear in some cases. I enjoyed doing the research on this one! Thanks for stopping by.

  7. Patti,

    Count me in the group that is fascinated with cemeteries. My interest came from going to work with my grandpa who was a caretaker at the cemetery in my home town, as well as my family (my mom in particular) were in charge of putting flowers on family graves for Memorial Day. There are several 'ghost town cemeteries' in the county where I live, and I usually make it to at least one each year. It's so interesting to read the dates and names on the headstones and plaques. The infants and children's graves always make me sad. :-(

  8. HI, Kaye! Wow, about your grandfather being a caretaker. I'm envious of you and your ghost town cemeteries. When we were little going to cemeteries was free entertainment for family outings. My cousin used to tell everyone about the big park with lots of benches. Those headstones have lots of stories to tell!