Cemetery of the Week #95: Dodge City’s Boot Hill

The Hanging Tree in Historic Boot Hill

The Hanging Tree in Historic Boot Hill

Boot Hill Cemetery
500 W Wyatt Earp Boulevard
Dodge City, Kansas 67801
Telephone:(620) 227-8188
In use: 1872-1879
Number of interments: none any longer
Boot Hill Museum Winter Hours: Labor Day – Memorial Day, Monday – Saturday
9 a.m. – 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Years Day. Summer Hours: Memorial Day – Labor Day 8 a.m. – 8 p.m.

In 1865, soon after the Civil War finished, Fort Dodge was founded in the young state of Kansas near the Arkansas River. Its mission was to protect westward-moving settlers from Indian attacks. In 1871, H. J. Sitler built a sod house nearby and opened the area’s first bar inside a tent. Other settlers also recognized that the steady stream of pioneers passing by on the Sante Fe Trail would make for good business, so a town grew up. It became Dodge City.

In its early days, Dodge was a rough, lawless town. Its graveyard was the original Boot Hill, so-called because the men buried there “died with their boots on,” either in a gunfight or from being hanged, as opposed to expiring quietly in their beds of illness or old age.

That’s the legend. However, the tourist sign in my vintage 1960s postcard quotes Josephine McIntire’s poem “Boot Hill,” which says, “To any Traveler who may pass this way, and climb this lonely hill and say/A prayer for us who early found our rest upon the prairie’s wind-swept ageless breast. Weep not for us who early made our beds, wrapped in our blankets, saddles for our heads. For we are happy here, secure and still, locked in this rock-strewn, silent, sun-baked hill.”

The message on the back of the card reads, "Just came from Boot Hill and am tired enough to lay down but they won't let me."  It's postmarked 8/3/66.

The message on the back of the card reads, “Just came from Boot Hill and am tired enough to lay down but they won’t let me.” It’s postmarked 8/3/66.

The Hanging Tree postcard – undated – reports that “This coffinless graveyard was started during the golden gun age of the West. The unfortunate victims had their boots removed and placed under their heads as pillows. This custom gave this historic tract its name. The 43 persons buried here have since been removed.”

The modern sign in the cemetery says that “about 34 persons had been interred” on the site, but their graves were unmarked and were often dug up by wolves. In 1879, the city council ordered that the bodies be removed. It goes on to call the people in the cemetery “drifters, troublemakers, and unknowns,” although several sources say that an actress named Dora Hand was buried there after she was shot by someone who had a grudge against the judge in whose bed she was sleeping at the time of her injury. Newspaper accounts speak of her as a legitimate actress and point out that the judge was not sleeping at home at the time of the attack on account of an illness.

Boot Hill Cemetery is now located in the heart of present-day Dodge City, Kansas. It is part of the Boot Hill Museum, which displays more than 60,000 objects, photographs, and documents from the last half of the 19th century. As part of the museum, Front Street’s businesses have been recreated, including the Long Branch Saloon and the Tonsorial Parlor. The undertaker’s establishment, complete with horse-drawn hearse, made a big impression on me as a child.

Dodge City’s old town offers attractions such as gunfights in the street and cancan girls in the saloon. Like Tombstone’s Boot Hill, there is a gift shop. If you can look beyond the kid-friendly facade, the grave markers reveal details about life and death in the Old West.

Like the wooden markers in Tombstone, Arizona’s Boot Hill, the markers in Dodge City are fairly modern. These, however, are carved, rather than painted like those in Tombstone. Little historical plaques fill in the details that the grave markers omit.

A wooden tablet carved with the name Jack Reynolds, who deceased September 1872, remembers Dodge City’s first recorded killing. Jack was shot six times by a railroad worker.

Nearby, another marker is incised with a buffalo skull. Its historic sign says, “A buffalo hunter named McGill amused himself by shooting into every house he passed. He won’t pass this way again.” The Marion County (Kansas) Record reported on March 29th, 1873: “On Tuesday night, an unmitigated scoundrel and desperado named McGill was shot and killed at Dodge City. This is the same scoundrel who shot and killed a sixteen year-old boy on New Years Day last, without the slightest provocation.”

Another graver marker remembers “George Hoyt, shot July 26, 1878. One night he took a pot shot at Wyatt Earp. Buried on Boot Hill August 21, 1878. Let his faults, if he had any, be hidden in the grave.” George Hoyt was said to be among the drunken cowboys who fired their guns in the Comique Theater. In response, Assistant Marshal Wyatt Earp and Marshall James “Bat” Masterson, along with several other citizens, returned fire. Hoyt received a gunshot to the arm and fled. He died from gangrene in the wound. Some historians doubt that Earp actually shot Hoyt, but he took the credit.

Wikipedia lists 38 towns, stretching from Iowa west to California and north to Alaska, which called their pioneer graveyards Boot Hill at some point in their histories. Some of these “Boot Hills” have already been profiled on Cemetery Travel.

Week #25: Ward’s Cemetery, Bodie, California

Week #64: Pioneer Cemetery, Coloma, California

Week #94: Boot Hill, Tombstone, Arizona

Useful links:
Photos of some of the wooden grave markers

More photos of the graveyard site

The Museum’s website, which doesn’t mention its namesake graveyard

GPS information provided by CemeteryRegistry.us

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