Monday, May 18, 2015

The Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico, with Ellen Rippel

Coffin handle from infant’s grave.
In April I did a guest column for Southwest Armchair Traveler and mentioned my search for “grounded” topics.  These pursuits have led to my involvement in diverse subjects, the most important of which was documenting the 1972 discovery of a century-old lost cemetery in Las Vegas, New Mexico. The Southwest is filled with fascinating, old graveyards but this particular one was, and still is, very special to me.

In October of 2013 I wrote Outlaws & Outcasts: The Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico.  A re-write of my 1979 history thesis from N.M. Highlands University, it was something I had put off doing for over 30 years. (I was good at procrastination, and had successfully raised it to an art form.) Here’s an excerpt from the book, recounting when the graveyard was first discovered by a backhoe operator in 1972:

The quarrying got underway right after Labor Day. The driver of a large backhoe began removing the grasses and top layer of soil, revealing the stone that he would soon crush into gravel. He glanced down while he was working, and something caught his eye. He looked more closely at the area he had begun to clear. 

The surface was sprinkled with bones, coffin fragments, and what appeared to be parts of a human skull – unmistakably all items associated with a burial. He guessed from the deteriorated condition of the objects that the grave was not a recent one.... The driver climbed down from the backhoe to get a closer look. He realized he was seeing the contents of not just one grave, but several graves.

Thus began the mystery of the Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico.
This is what the area around the quarry site probably looked like in 1972 –
hilly terrain, pinon trees, and lots of rock, but no hint of a cemetery.

The paupers’ cemetery in Las Vegas, NM was of particular interest to historians because it was known to have included famous outlaws – hanged or shot by lawmen and vigilantes during the early railroad days in the late nineteenth century.  But the exact location of “Boot Hill” became forgotten over time.  When the graveyard was accidently uncovered in 1972 only a small portion of it was archaeologically retrieved. Seventeen bodies were found, but conceivably as many as 25 or more additional bodies were needlessly destroyed.  And with that destruction, a large part of Southwest history was forever lost.  

Desecration of cemeteries, not just in New Mexico, but throughout the U.S., is not uncommon.  Sometimes folks who lived close to a cemetery – maybe a non-active one, maybe one that held people with different beliefs than theirs – would take a headstone and use it for a step in front of a doorway. This pilferage (and the fact that grave markers in a paupers’ lot were often handmade of wood scraps) makes it understandable how a cemetery might disappear in a brief period. 

Celluloid collar and silk tie from one of the better-preserved graves.
A major motivator for writing Outlaws & Outcasts was when I discovered the forgotten cemetery was the pauper’s graveyard dating back to the 1800s. The people buried there had been discounted as being poor, disreputable or insignificant. What troubled me was that an infant’s grave was one of the 17 uncovered.  I wondered what a baby might have done to justify that kind of oblivion. At least now I can rest easy knowing that my book – recounting the facts of the discovery of the Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas – will help assure the people buried there are not forgotten, and that one of the mysteries of the Southwest has been solved.

Ellen Rippel is the author of Outlaws & Outcasts:  The Lost Cemetery of Las Vegas, New Mexico. For those who love history, archaeology, or quirky stories from the Land of Enchantment, the book is an intriguing summary of the unearthing of an unknown century-old graveyard in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1972. Outlaws & Outcasts is filled with stories of early outlaws and fascinating historical insights, including examinations of historical burial practices and customs, and a search through the scarce literature on events specific to the existence of the cemetery. 

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