Boot Hill Cemetery

By Marva Ellwanger 

Sidney, Nebraska’s original cemetery was once a national story!

Let’s go back in time to August of 1922. G.H. Austin of Julesburg, Colorado arrived at Sidney’s Boot Hill Cemetery with 15 men. Austin was contracted by the U.S. Government to relocate the buried bodies of 20 Fort Sidney soldiers and six Pawnee Indian scouts. No soldier was to be left behind.

Where to begin, though. Sidney’s first cemetery was active from 1868 to 1894. Originally, it had been created to lay fallen soldiers to rest who had been sent to protect Union Pacific railroad workers from Indian raids. However, as time marched on, soldiers weren’t the only people who were buried at Sidney’s Boot Hill.

When gold was found in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Sidney became the jumping off point for those seeking their fortune. Sidney’s population surged, and it became the toughest town on the tracks. As many as 80 saloons, gaming halls, and brothels lined Front Street. Unattended and abandoned for almost 40 years, Sidney’s forgotten cemetery became known for midnight burials.

The government also sent Captain Harry Northcott to oversee the recovery of soldiers from Boot Hill. Thanks to the passage of time and hundreds of unmarked graves, both men knew this was going to be an impossible task. After talking to people from the area, they started digging.

Austin went about methodically separating each set of bones and packing them into a metal-lined box 26 inches long and a foot wide. Each box contained the remains of one person. Each was numbered and given a detailed description.

While the townsfolk looked on, one soldier, an American Indian officer, was found wearing a United States Army uniform. He was loaded with beads and wrapped in an army blanket. One of the workers scooped a handful of beads and dropped them over the fence for those that came to watch.

Another body found was a woman buried along with her infant. They had both been shot and had numerous buckshot wounds.

They also found a man with 12-gauge wire around his neck, whose hand was brought up to the side of his head and secured with the same wire. Each body exhumed had a story to tell. Many of the stories were told in letters sent to Austin’s nephew.

When the last soldier was found, the digging stopped. In all, 211 bodies were exhumed. Captain Northcott had been sent to remove the bodies of 21 soldiers and two civilians that were relatives of a soldier. The rest were Indian scouts, women, children, gunfighters, saloon girls and settlers to the area. Unclaimed bodies were relocated to Fort McPherson. A few went to Sidney’s Greenwood Cemetery.

Only a portion of the cemetery was exhumed. A large portion of the graves were left untouched. Today, a large part of Boot Hill has been paved over by Sidney’s Elm Street and covered by active railroad tracks. Austin’s report claimed there were roughly around 200 bodies still resting in the cemetery. Unofficially, this number could easily be more than 700.