History lives on in region’s graveyards
Three-year study sheds light on heritage and tradition
A recent study of four cemeteries in La Plata and Montezuma counties reveals ethnic, cultural and religious characteristics of communities that contributed to the overall society, the director of the study says.
“The contributions of small groups often isn’t recognized,” said Ruth Lambert. “Examining cemeteries reveals expressions of history, heritage and tradition.”
Lambert is coordinator of cultural programs at the San Juan Mountains Association, which received a three-year, $50,000 grant from the Colorado Historical Society for the study.
Lambert led volunteers who documented La Boca Cemetery near Arboles on the New Mexico state line, the nearby Tiffany Cemetery (the Allison-Tiffany Cemetery is different), Thompson Park off County Road 105 (Cherry Creek Road) about 22 miles west of Durango and the Old Mormon Cemetery south of Mancos.
Before graveyards were established, people buried family members on their own land, Lambert said. The Old Mancos Cemetery started as a family plot, and La Boca Cemetery contains remains of individuals transferred there when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began to fill Navajo Lake.
Cemetery documentation involves historical archaeology, Lambert said.
“Archaeology is the study of material remains,” she said. “Historical archaeology is the study of the material remains of society.”
Graveyards contain information left by contemporaries of the dead, she said.
In documenting the contents of a cemetery, Lambert’s team sketches a map showing location of graves and adjoining graves, condition and inscriptions on gravestones, existence of artifacts such as vases or urns, deliberately planted vegetation and photographs of everything.
“One of the best ways to learn about history and heritage is to look at the inscriptions and the images, the inconography, on headstones,” Lambert said.
One example is a stone in Thompson Park created by German immigrants. The image of heaven on the stone is portrayed as a Bavarian village, Lambert said. Many inscriptions are in German.
Thompson Park cemetery was established adjacent to the Evangelical Zion Lutheran Church at Dix, a siding on the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. The congregation disbanded in 1939 to merge with St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Durango. The church building was moved as a single piece to Mancos, where it was put to secular use. Today it houses the Head Start program.
The last surviving member of the Zion congregation donated the Thompson Park cemetery to the St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, which maintains it today.
In the Old Mormon Cemetery, the Hole in the Rock is a recurring theme. It refers to the widening of what probably was a natural fissure in a rock wall that Mormons encountered when they left Utah, Lambert said.
The pioneers, under orders to disperse and propagate, were headed for Bluff in search of fertile land, Lambert said. They worked their way through the wall and floated their wagons and drove their livestock across the Colorado River.
But when Bluff didn’t meet their needs, the Mormons moved on, settling in the Montezuma Valley and finally the Mancos Valley, Lambert said.
La Boca Cemetery, established in 1899, is still in use. Tiffany Cemetery received its first burial in 1925 and still is used. The Old Mormon Cemetery was used mainly from 1882 to 1928, when a new cemetery opened, but the last burial was in 2004. Thompson Park Cemetery opened in 1896 and was closed in the late 1980s.
One trend noted was the rate of child mortality, defined as death from birth through 5 years, Lambert said. The rate, based on number of child burials compared with total burials, ranged from 9 to 33 percent, she said.
Lambert’s 120-page report will be available in a couple of months at libraries in Ignacio, Durango, Bayfield and Mancos. La Plata County government, the La Plata County Historical Society and the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College also will receive copies.
Among Lambert’s recommendations are that maintenance of the cemeteries continue because lichen can deteriorate headstones; that photos be taken periodically to document changes in conditions; and that La Boca, Tiffany and Thompson Park cemeteries be entered in the La Plata County Register of Historic Places. Montezuma County, where Old Mormon Cemetery is located, doesn’t have such an archive.