America's Boot Hill Graveyards
by Steve Johnson
October 2, 2010
name "Boot Hill" often conjures up images of lawlessness
in the rugged Old West of the 1800's. Many movie westerns seemed
to have romanticized the trials and tribulations of the "cowboy"
who met their fate too early in life. Gunslingers, lawmen, and bank
robbers all shared company in the hills outside of restless towns
throughout the Old West.
The term, "Boot Hill" is used to describe a cemetery,
typically located in towns throughout the western territories of
the United States, where lawlessness flourished. While many
towns in the western United States had cemeteries, only those that
were known for violence used the term "boot hill".
The name itself is somewhat of a humorous commentary. So many men
were being killed in these towns that local residents had little
time to give them proper funerals. Hence they were, "buried
with their boots on".
Towns that sported boot hill graveyards were typically those that
attracted a lot of people with no family. As people died, there
was no one to claim the bodies, and hence no reason to host a funeral
Dodge City, KS had been a starting point for people travelling
west along the Santa Fe Trail. Tombstone, AZ, Virginia City, MT,
and Calico, CA were mining settlements. These towns added saloons,
brothels, and theatres to cash in on the large numbers of single
men working or passing through these towns.
Originally, settlers had buried their dead at Army Forts located
throughout the territories. But when lawlessness set in, and people
were being killed faster than they could bury them, the need for
a local cemetery became clear. Hence, the boot hills.
The boot hills ultimately became predecessors to larger, more formal
cemeteries. They fulfilled an immediate need until a permanent cemetery
could be established. The boot hill graveyard in Tombstone,
AZ was used only for six years until the present day "Tombstone
Cemetery" was established. The boot hill in Deadwood,
South Dakota, known as "Ingleside", was used only for
two years until the permanent "Mount Moriah" was established.
Interestingly, Ingleside went forgotten and most people today refer
to Mount Moriah as "Boot Hill".
Other towns converted their boot hills into formal cemeteries,
such as that in Calico, California. There were also towns that had
boot hills but never called them by that term, such as that in Bodie,
Many of the boot hill graveyards do not exist anymore, having been
erased by time and Mother Nature. The boot hills you visit in places
like Tombstone, Arizona, Dodge City, Kansas, and Virginia City,
Montana, were all rebuilt and are used as tourist attractions.
Originally, many of the dead were not given gravemarkers, only
those rare few who had surviving family, or prominent townsfolk,
were given markers, and these markers were almost always made of
wood. The grave markers you see at many boot hills today are
not original. Local historical societies, and restoration
groups have painstakingly researched the burial plots of the deceased
and planted new markers.
Recently, many old west towns have rebuilt themselves into tourist
attractions, and renamed their original graveyards as "boot
hill" for additional tourist interest, when in fact they were
never used as such. And these days people tend to use "boot
hill" loosely to describe any old abandoned graveyard they
find lying out in the vast expanses of western USA.
Some boot hill graveyards featured here on Interment.net...
Graveyard, Tombstone, AZ
Cemetery, Calico, CA
City Pioneer Cemetery, Idaho City, ID
Cemetery, Medimont, ID
Cemetery, Custer County, ID
Cemetery, Virginia City, MT