Boot Hill Cemetery
408 N. Hwy 80
Tombstone, Arizona 85638
Information telephone: 520-457-3300
Number of interments: approximately 250
Open: 7:30 a.m. – dusk
Boot Hill is an American term for a burial ground in the western part of the country, dating to the post-Civil War era in the last third of the 1800s. A graveyard called Boot Hill (or Boothill) denoted a settlement where men “died with their boots on” or violently and suddenly, as opposed to quietly in bed of old age or illness.
Tombstone, Arizona dates to 1877, when a prospector named Ed Schieffelin discovered silver and named the first mine Tombstone. By 1879, a town had sprung up in a relatively flat area nearby. Gunslingers, gamblers, prospectors, Chinese laborers, and fancy ladies flocked to the town, which at one time was the fastest growing city between St. Louis and San Francisco. The high tide of population reached an estimated 20,000 people.
Shortly after the mine opened, the area found itself in need of a graveyard. A slight hill northwest of town was chosen. It didn’t have a name in its earliest days. Tombstone’s pioneer cemetery remained in use only until 1884, when the New Tombstone City Cemetery opened on Allen Street. That cemetery continues to be in use today.
While Tombstone’s early history was mirrored by boomtowns across the west, one event made its mark in the folklore of the West. The Gunfight at the OK Corral didn’t actually happen at the corral, but nearby on Fremont Street. On October 26, 1881, US Marshalls Virgil Earp and his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, joined by the newly deputized Doc Holliday, faced down the Clantons and the McLaurys. Half a minute and 30 shots later, Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were ready for their journey to Boot Hill.
One of the best known epitaphs comes from a gravemarker in Tombstone. Lester Moore was an agent for the Wells-Fargo Stagecoach. He and another man had a dispute over a package. Both men died in the gun battle that followed. Moore’s marker reads, “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a .44. No Les no more.”
George Johnson’s epitaph also approaches poetry: “Here lies George Johnson, hanged by mistake. He was right. We was wrong. We strung him up and now he’s gone.” Johnson was hanged for stealing a horse – which in fact he had legally purchased.
John Heath was taken from the county jail by a mob from the nearby town of Bisbee. They were incensed because he’d led five men in a robbery that had killed “respected citizens.” Heath was lynched from a telegraph pole near the city court house.
The graveyard was neglected for many years. Vandals stole the original wooden grave markers and the desert reclaimed the hill. The locals referred to the area as the “Old Cemetery” until the late 1920s, when it was renamed in hopes of drawing tourists. Its namesake is the Boot Hill Cemetary (sic) in Dodge City, Kansas, which dates to 1871. That will be the subject of another Cemetery of the Week someday.
The graves in Boot Hill were originally heaped with stones “to keep the varmints from stealing the bones.” Those heaps of stones and historic records helped when it came time to make new markers for the graves, but a number of the pioneers resting here went to their final rewards anonymously. No one carried ID in those days; the West was where one went to reinvent oneself. The names and stories of some of these pioneers may never be known.
NPR’s feature on the graveyard
A listing of people known to be buried in Boot Hill
The Ghost Trackers’ night-time report
A brief history of Tombstone
GPS information provided by CemeteryRegistry.us
Other Old West graveyards on Cemetery Travel:
Week 25: Bodie State Historic Park
Week #66: Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery
Week #68: the Brigham Young Family Graveyard