Boot-Hills and Their Stories


By Frederick Ritchie Bechdolt in 1922


Tombstone, Arizona Boot Hill

Tombstone, Arizona Boot Hill

Back in the wild old days, you found one on the new town’s outskirts and one where the cattle trail came down to the ford, and one was at the summit of the pass. There was another on the mesa overlooking the water-hole where the wagon outfits halted after the long dry drive. The cowboys read the faded writing on the wooden headboards and from the stories made long ballads which they sang to the herds on the bedding grounds. The herds have long since vanished, the cowboys have ridden away over the skyline, the plaintive songs are slipping from the memories of a few old men, and we go riding by the places where those headboards stood, oblivious.

Of the frontier cemeteries whose dead came to their ends, shod in accordance with the grim phrase of their times, there remains one just outside the town of Tombstone to the north. Here, straggling mesquite bushes grow on the summit of the ridge; cacti and ocatilla sprawl over the sun-baked earth hiding between their thorny stems the headboards and the long narrow heaps of stones which no man could mistake. Some of these headboards still bear traces of black-lettered epitaphs which tell how death came to strong men in the full flush of youth. But the vast majority of the boulder heaps are marked by cedar slabs whose penciled legends the elements have long since washed away.

The sun shines hot here on the summit of the ridge. Across the wide mesquite flat the granite ramparts of the Dragoons frown all the long day, and the bleak hill graveyard frowns back at them. Thus the men who came to this last resting-place frowned back at Death.

There was a day when every mining camp and cowtown from the Rio Grande to the Yellowstone River owned its boot-hill; a day when lone graves marked the trails and solitary headboards rotted slowly in the unpeopled wilderness. Many of these isolated wooden monuments fell before the long assaults of the elements; the low mounds vanished and the grass billowed in the wind hiding the last vestiges of the leveled sepulchers. Sometimes the spot was favorable; outfits rested there; new headboards rose about the first one; for the road was long and weary, the fords were perilous from quicksands; thirst lurked in the desert, and the Indians were always waiting. The camp became a settlement, and in the days of its infancy, when there was no law save that of might, the graveyard spread over a larger area. There came an era when a member of that stern straight shooting breed who blazed the trails for the coming of the statutes wielded the powers of high justice, the middle, and the low. Outlaw and rustler opposed the dominion of this peace officer. Then the cemetery boomed like the young town. Finally, things settled down to jury trials and men let lawyers do most of the fighting with forensics instead of forty-fives. Churches were built and school-houses; a new graveyard was established; brush and weeds hid the old one’s leaning headboards. Time passed; a city grew, and the boot-hill was forgotten.

This is a chronicle of men whose bones lie in some of those vanished boot-hills. If one could stand aside on the day of judgment and watch them pass when the brazen notes of the last trump are growing fainter, he would witness a brave procession. But we at least can marshal the shadowy host from fast waning memories and, looking upon some of their number, recall the deeds they did, the manner of their dying.

Here then they come through the curtain of time’s mists, Indian fighter, town marshal, faro-dealer, and cowboy. There are a few among them upon whom it is not worthwhile to gaze, those whose lives and deaths were unfit for recording; there are a vast multitude whose heroic stories were never told and never will be; and there are some whose deeds as they have come down from the lips of the old-timers should never die.

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas

Thus in the forefront pass lean forms clad for the most part in garments fringed with buckskin. You can see where some have torn off portions of the fringes to clean their rifles.

Old-fashioned long-barreled muzzle-loaders, these rifles; and powder-horns hang by the sides of the bearers. They are long-haired men; and their faces are deeply burned by sun and wind, 183 of them; and where they died, fighting to the last against 4,000 of Santa Ana’s soldiers, rose the first boot-hill. That was in San Antonio, Texas, at the building called the Alamo; and in this day, when schoolboys who can describe Thermopylae in detail know nothing of that far finer stand, it will do no harm to dwell on a proud episode ignored by many textbook histories.

On the 5th day of March 1836, San Antonio’s streets were resonant with the heavy tread of marching troops, the clank of arms and the rumble of moving artillery. Four thousand Mexican soldiers were being concentrated on one point, a little mission chapel and two long adobe buildings which formed a portion of a walled enclosure, the Alamo.

Mexican General Santa Anna

Mexican General Santa Anna

For nearly two weeks General Santa Ana had been tightening the cordon of cavalry, infantry, and artillery about the place. It housed 183 lank-haired frontiersmen, a portion of General Sam Houston’s band who had declared for Texan independence. The Mexicans had cut them off from water; their food was running low. On this day the dark-skinned commander planned to take the square. His men had managed to plant a cannon 200 yards away. When they blew down the walls the infantry would charge. It only remained for them to load the field-piece. Bugles sounded; officers galloped through the sheltered streets where the foot soldiers were held in waiting. There came from the direction of the Alamo the steady rat-tat-tat of rifles. The hours went by but the cannon remained silent.

A little group of lean-faced men were crouching on the flat roof of the large out-building. Though most of them were clad in fringed garments of buckskin; here and there was one in a hickory shirt and home-spun jeans. Six of them, some bareheaded and some with hats whose wide rims dropped low over their foreheads, were clustered about old Davy Crockett, frontiersman and in his day a member of Congress. Always the six were busy, with ramrods, powder-horns, and bullets, loading the long-barreled eight-square Kentucky rifles. The grizzled marksman took the cocked weapons from their hands; one after another, he pressed each walnut stock to his shoulder, lined the sights, pulled the trigger, and laid the discharged piece down, to pick up its successor.

He crouched there on the flat roof facing the Mexican cannon. As fast as men came to load it, he fired. Sometimes a dozen soldiers rushed upon the muzzle of the field-piece surrounding it. At such moments Davy Crockett’s arms swept back and forth with smooth unhurried swiftness and his sinewy fingers relaxed from one walnut stock only to clutch another; his hands were never empty. Always a little red flame licked the smoke fog before him like the tongue of an angered snake. He was getting on in years but in all his full life his technique had never been so perfect, his artistry of death so flawless, as on this day which prefaced the closing of his chapter. The bodies of his enemies clogged the space about their cannon; the rivulets of red trickled from the heap across the roadway. The long hours passed. Darkness came. The field-piece remained silent.