Boot Hill Cemetery
by Dawn Graves
This rough name has been given to many cemeteries in the Wild West. The term comes from the fact that these were often burial grounds for gunfighters and people who died violently – “with their boots still on.”
Sidney's Boot Hill cemetery was originally created in 1868 for fallen soldiers who were protecting the town and railroad. However, three railroad workers who had been attacked by a band of Sioux Indians are said to be the first people to be buried there.
While numerous soldiers had been placed at Boot Hill, many others laid to rest there were victims of murder, sickness or lynching. So many lynchings, in fact, that Sidney has been called the “Lynching Capital of Nebraska.”
One man was even hanged twice!
The story goes that Charles Patterson got in a heated argument with one Robert W. Porter and shot him. Patterson was taken to jail and Porter was buried at Boot Hill.
Porter's friends, upon hearing about this and not having much faith in the court system, went to the jail, took Patterson out and strung him up on a telegraph pole on Front Street. Feeling very good about themselves, they went to the saloon to drink.
However, the sheriff showed up, cut Patterson down and took him back to jail, since he hadn't been strangled.
Meanwhile, the lynch mob, now very drunk and having heard the news, riled themselves up, overwhelmed the guards at the jail and hung Patterson a second time, from the same pole.
Patterson was buried at Boot Hill … with his boots on.
Originally created to lay fallen soldiers to rest, Sidney's Boot Hill cemetery had fallen into disrepair by 1876. Being situated on private land, cattle and hogs wandered through it freely, knocking over headstones and breaking headboards. The newspaper called it a “disgrace to the community” and implored the citizens to contribute funds to beautify it.
Over time, the funds were raised to complete the project.
The commanding officer at Fort Sidney committed to have disorderly soldiers construct a wall out of native stone that was two feet thick and four feet high. The stone was quarried from a short distance away, on the north hill east of the water tower.
The fence was completed in 1877 and the grounds were landscaped, bringing the cemetery up to the standards the fallen soldiers deserved.
The first official ceremonies were meant to be held there in 1879 on Memorial Day (or Decoration Day, as it was also known). The Grand Army of the Republic and detachments from Fort Sidney were to be present. Due to bad weather, however, the ceremony was held at the Masonic Hall. The following day, school children visited the cemetery and decorated the graves of the soldiers.
That shows just how far the conditions of Boot Hill had progressed.
The cemetery's last known burial was done in 1884, and was permanently abandoned shortly thereafter.
It was national news in 1922, when G.H. Austin of Julesburg, Colorado was contracted by the U.S. government to relocate the bodies of 20 Fort Sidney soldiers and six Pawnee Indian scouts from Sidney's neglected and dilapidated Boot Hill cemetery.
Austin realized this was a nearly impossible task, since many of the graves were unidentified. He was therefore told to remove all of the unclaimed bodies, so that no soldier would be left behind.
Up to 212 bodies were disinterred after a solid week of work before Austin was ordered to stop after the last known soldier was located. 24 of the bodies were determined to be soldiers and four seemed to have been Indian scouts. 44 men, 18 women and 57 children were also recovered. 54 other remains could not be classified.
The unfinished exhumation left a good portion of the cemetery untouched, including the many “sunset to sunrise” burials outside the stone walls. Amazingly, citizens witnessing the event even knew where and who many of the dead outside the walls were, but the dig had come to an end.
Unclaimed bodies of soldiers and others were sent to Fort McPherson in Maxwell, Nebraska, with many graves being marked as “Unknown.”
Researchers claim that as many as 500 bodies were buried in Sidney's Boot Hill cemetery in total, both within and outside the walls. If true, how many unknown graves may still be located around the site to this day?
In 1922 when G.H. Austin was contracted to remove the bodies of Fort Sidney soldiers from Sidney's Boot Hill cemetery. What he ending up finding there gave a vivid glance into the nature of Sidney's early history as a rough, lawless town.
Among the 212 exhumed bodies Austin and his men had time to uncover were soldiers, Indian scouts, gunfighters, women and children.
The graves that were uncovered had a fascinating story to tell.
Some of the findings at the time included one man whose hands had been bound to his neck by wire, a woman and a baby in the same grave with buckshot wounds to their heads, and the graves of two brothers who many say died by the gun of “Wild” Bill Hickok during a poker game.
There was a woman in yellow silk, whom tradition says was the “Queen of the Wild Ladies” in Sidney. There were murdered Indian scouts still wearing beautifully beaded vests, and a single grave with two little Indian papooses wrapped in a red wool blanket.
They found that the casket of one man was much longer than the norm. When they measured the bones, it was found that he must have been over seven feet tall.
A father and son were buried next to each other, with their single headstone stating that they had been “killed by Indians.” Older folks at the site reported that they remembered the father and son kneeling in prayer when they were killed with tomahawks. Other men were found to have been lynched.
Of course, not all the graves that were dug up had such drama associated with them. Despite this, the quantity of questionable burials and stories attached to them throughout history served to cement the reputation of Boot Hill as being the “Bad Man's” cemetery.