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Dead Reckoning: Where were El Paso’s earliest cemeteries?

by Mark Cioc-Ortega // September 25, 2013 // Arts & Culture

  • Cemetery 9

    The Neff-Stiles Building on Santa Fe Street at the Corner with Mesa Street. Three skeletons in the area once known as Campo Santo were discovered in January 1910, while workers excavated the foundation for the E. E. Neff (later called the Neff-Stiles) warehouse. (Courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society.)

  • Cemetery 1

    The Mills Plat of 1859. This close-up of the Mills Plat of 1859 shows the location of the Campo Santo in Block 28. Due to damage to the map, the “Campo” is partially rubbed out; only “Santo” can be read clearly. Just above the cemetery name is the image of a monument and the words “Dr. Giddings Monument.”

  • Cemetery 2

    City Engineer Map. This close-up of a map by Juan Hart places the city cemetery (depicted as a rectangle) on a hillside one block east of where it is depicted on the Mills Plat. The word “cemetery” is written inside the rectangle but it is too smudged to read clearly. The map was probably drawn around 1883 and certainly before 1888, as the name El Paso del Norte is used instead of Ciudad Juárez. It is not known whether this cemetery is the original Campo Santo or (more likely) another burial ground just east of the original one.

  • Cemetery 3edit copy

    Francis Parker Photo of a Downtown Cemetery from the 1880s. Parker took this photo from Sunset Heights, looking southeast toward downtown El Paso. A cemetery can be seen on the far left, more elliptical than rectangular in shape. The approximate site of later streets has been added as an overlay to this photo. If the overlay is correct, the cemetery site matches the City Engineer Map more closely than the Mills Plat. This may be a photo of the original Campo Santo, but it’s more likely that it is a later burial ground just east of it. (Courtesy of the El Paso County Historical Society.)

  • Cemetery 4

    Sanborn Map of 1883. The Masonic Lodge No. 130 constructed a two-story building at the corner of San Antonio and Mesa Avenue (Utah Street), next to the original Masonic cemetery. The Lone Star (January 26, 1884) refers to a temporary school house “under the charge of Miss Mary Gates in a room adjoining the Masonic cemetery.” This school house can be seen just north of the Masonic Lodge building, so the cemetery must have adjoined them both.

  • Cemetery 5

    Sanborn Map of 1893 Showing El Paso and Overland Streets. This map depicts the Overland Mail Station on the corner of El Paso and East Overland streets. The St. Charles Hotel and the Myar Opera House can be seen on the west side of El Paso Street. According to W. W. Mills, the Confederate cemetery was close to the Myar Opera House.

  • Cemetery 6

    Sanborn Map of 1893 Showing the Future Cleveland and Buckler Squares. When Fort Bliss was located at Hart’s Mill, these blocks were set aside as a “U.S. Cemetery Reserve.” A few years after Fort Bliss moved to its present location in 1893, the U.S. government gave the two blocks to the City of El Paso.

  • Cemetery 8

    Map of El Paso in 1953. Concordia and Evergreen Cemeteries are remarkably close together. This sense of proximity was lost when Interstate-10 was built between them in the 1960s.

  • Cemetery 10

    Aerial Shot of Downtown El Paso North of Main Street in 2006. Much of this area was used as burial grounds until the opening of Concordia (1884) and the relocation of Fort Bliss (1893).

Concordia Cemetery opened in 1884, Evergreen in 1893. The Smelter Cemetery was established in 1882, but it wasn’t used much before the 1890s. So, where did El Pasoans bury their dead before that? The answer, it seems, is “just about anywhere they wanted to.” Back yards, empty lots, hillsides. The population was small, the desert was vast, and the laws were lax.

Campo Santo was the closest thing early El Paso had to a “boot hill.” It was located just north of the town, close to the intersection of Franklin Avenue and Santa Fe Street, roughly where the Insights Museum parking lot once stood. Campo Santo is Spanish for “saint’s field” or “blessed field,” but come April 2014 El Pasoans will be calling it “right field.” The old cemetery site is about to become the southeast corner of the new Triple-A baseball park.

No one really knows when Campo Santo was established. It may have existed when the future El Paso was part of the Ponce Ranch and belonged to Mexico. More likely, American immigrants established it after the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-1848) to serve the new town of Franklin (El Paso). “The graveyard was convenient,” El Paso pioneer W. W. Mills recalled, “being on one of the hills on what is now known as ‘Sunset Heights.’ At one time there were more people buried there who had died by violence than from all other causes.” The most prominent headstone belonged to a Dr. Giddings, probably a brother or other relative of George Henry Giddings, who operated the San Antonio-Santa Fe Mail Line during much of the 1850s.

Campo Santo wasn’t El Paso’s only burial ground. A second cemetery popped up during the Civil War on the west side of El Paso Street, near the intersection with Overland Street. A brigade of Texas Mounted Volunteers, under the command of Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley, passed through Fort Bliss in late 1861 en route to invade the Territory of New Mexico. When these Confederates retreated to El Paso in April and May 1862, they utilized the Overland Mail Station as a temporary hospital. Those who died at the hospital—about 40 soldiers—were buried in the vacant lots across the street.

To this day it is not known what happened to the dead Confederates. The bodies may have been exhumed and reburied after the Civil War. Or they may have been unearthed when the lots were developed during the 1880s: both the St. Charles Hotel and the Myar Opera House were built across from the Overland Mail Station and W. W. Mills claims the cemetery was located “near where the Opera House now stands.” Some of the bodies may still be there. The Sibley Trail Association, which delved into this mystery many years ago, thought it “probable that bones or artifacts still lie beneath some of the open spaces.”

El Paso’s downtown had a third cemetery, this one for the Freemasons of El Paso Lodge No. 130. It began as a private burial spot for Nathan Webb, who died on October 16, 1866, and was buried in the back yard of his home on the northeast corner of San Antonio Street and Mesa Avenue (then called Utah Street). Webb’s widow donated the land to the local Lodge the following year for use as a Masonic cemetery (the Masons also built a two-story Lodge on a portion of the land at a later date). Moses Carson, the brother of the famous frontiersman “Kit” Carson, was the first Mason to be interred at the cemetery, on January 2, 1868.

District Judge Gaylord Clarke—who was shot dead during a gunfight between B. F. Williams and Albert Fountain over a matter of political patronage—was interred there after his death on December 7, 1870. According to some accounts, Judge Charles Howard, a perpetrator and victim of the Salt War (1877-1878), was also laid to rest there, before being reinterred later in Austin.

It is not known how many graves the Masonic cemetery contained, but probably only a handful. The Lodge was small, boasting just 31 members as late as 1881. The cemetery, moreover, did not survive long: in the 1880s the Masons purchased two acres at Concordia and moved the bodies from the old cemetery to the new one. Except for the one they overlooked. In the early 1900s, Adolf Schwartz purchased the old cemetery site and built the Popular Dry Goods Store atop it. During the construction, workers unearthed a skeleton, probably the remains of poor ol’ Gaylord Clarke. Ever since, the Popular has been haunted, or so the story goes.

When Fort Bliss was reestablished in 1878, the federal government acquired land for yet another cemetery, this one on two adjacent blocks just northeast of Campo Santo in Sunset Heights. It was in service only until around 1893, when Fort Bliss moved from Hart’s Mill to its current location on the La Noria mesa in northeast El Paso. The two blocks were then turned over to the city and became Cleveland Square and Buckler Square. Cleveland is still a public square, though most of its open space disappeared when the El Paso Museum of History was built in 2007. The Buckler name disappeared when the Carnegie Public Library (forerunner to the El Paso Public Library Main Branch) was built atop the square in 1904. The public library too, it is said, is haunted.

The creation of Concordia Cemetery in 1884 saved the downtown area from filling up with dead bodies. Today, Concordia lies in the shadow of the “Spaghetti Bowl,” at the intersection of Interstate 10 and Highway 54, but it was once a working ranch about three miles east of the town.

Hugh Stephenson (a Chihuahua trader and El Paso pioneer) and his wife Juana María Ascarate (the daughter of an aristocratic Mexican family) owned Concordia. It boasted a small settlement of immigrants and pioneers; a small Catholic Church called San Jose de Concordia el Alto; and for a short time, Fort Bliss (1868-1876). There was also a small cemetery at Concordia, which held the body of Stephenson’s wife, Juana María, who died prematurely on February 6, 1856.

In the early 1880s, the descendants of Hugh and Juana Stephenson began selling off parcels of land at Concordia. The City of El Paso purchased two acres for use as a pauper cemetery. El Paso County also purchased two acres for the same purpose. Six acres were set aside for public burials.

Other groups—the Masons (2 acres), Odd Fellows (1 acre), Catholic Church (4 acres), the Jewish community (1 acre), the Chinese community (1/2 acre)—purchased land there as well, and before long Concordia had become a patchwork of eight distinct cemeteries. “The old burying ground in the Satterthwaite addition [Sunset Heights] is being removed from the city limits,” the Lone Star, El Paso’s liveliest newspaper, proudly announced in 1885. “Concordia is a spot that will admit of the raising of shrubs and trees, and it will one day be the prettiest cemetery in this section if people will only cooperate to make it so.”

Concordia did eventually sprout some “shrubs and trees,” though it can hardly be called the city’s “prettiest cemetery,” except for the two beautifully maintained Jewish sections. It did, however, become one of El Paso’s largest: it now sprawls across 54 acres and contains some 65,000 grave sites. Alas, not all of El Paso’s early settlers and soldiers were reinterred at Concordia. Grave markers were missing, records were non-existent, and the boundary lines were blurred, so some bodies were overlooked.

In 1899, workers unearthed a skeleton while digging at Cleveland Square. In 1901, the El Paso & Southwest Railroad grading crew churned up several skeletons while working along Main Street between Chihuahua and Santa Fe streets (“The ground was formerly a cemetery,” an old timer told the local newspapers, “known as El Campo Santo, the first man being buried in 1842, and being abandoned as a burying ground in 1862”). Then, in 1909, three skeletons were dug up as gas company employees dug a trench for a pipe along Missouri Street near Mesa Avenue. A year later, another three skeletons were dug up in the old Camp Santo area, this time as the E. E. Neff Company excavated the foundation for a new warehouse on the intersection of Main and Chihuahua streets. Even more skeletons have been unearthed over the past several decades.

With all the construction and renovation taking place in the downtown area today, El Pasoans have probably not yet seen the last of these unexpected reminders of the town’s long buried and half forgotten past.

Mark Cioc-Ortega is a Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the author of many books and articles on modern European and American history.

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