A boot hill is defined as a burial ground, especially for men killed in gunfights, owing to the fact that they died with their boots on. The definition belies the truth; not everyone who died with their boots on was a gunfighter, or in any case, a very good one. Nonetheless, we’ve all seen the Hollywood westerns with the “boot hill” depicted. They almost universally appear as crude, hurriedly erected wooden crosses set upon a freshly covered grave. They are unlovely to look at. The word “they” is correct. In the United States, there are forty cemeteries named or referred to as boot hill. Perhaps the one cemetery we most associate with boot hill is located in Tombstone, Arizona —at least, it is for me.
I’ve been to Tombstone, Arizona. It is an interesting place. Assuredly, the cemetery is unattractive; it matches the town perfectly. Its residents mostly died with their boots on, but not all of them from nefarious behavior. Not all of them were men. William Alexander, George Atkins, and Jonathan Barton died while mining. Albert Bennett was slaughtered by Indians. Mrs. R. L. Brown died from natural causes. Old Man Clanton is buried there —a thoroughly nasty fellow whose internment at Tombstone is a step up from what he deserved. Simon Constantine, a miner, blew himself up when he used a fuze much shorter than needed for his task; he took two of his friends with him. Louis Hancock lies cold in the grave, shot by Johnny Ringo for an untoward remark uttered by Hancock about a lady. Billy Hickson, just a boy, died when he fell while using stilts, breaking his neck. A few of the tenants were legally hanged. Mike Killeen was shot and killed by Buckskin Frank Leslie … something to do with Killeen’s wife, whom Leslie later married. There are two John King’s buried there. One was shot to death, the other was a suicide. Six Shooter Jim is buried in Tombstone. No one knows his full name. Burt Alvord shot him dead. What Jim needed was a seven-shooter.
As mentioned, there are other “Boot Hills.” One will find them in Alma, New Mexico; Anamosa, Iowa; Bonanza, Idaho; Cripple Creek, Colorado; Deadwood, South Dakota; El Paso, Texas; Silver Leaf, Utah; Skagway, Alaska; Virginia City, Nevada; Dodge City, Kansas.
There are a few graves of gunslingers, of course —along with a few young men who thought they were gunslingers and then found out quite suddenly that they weren’t, especially when they faced someone like Johnny Ringo, Doc Holliday, James Butler Hickok, Bill Longley, Luke Short, or Kid Curry.
Most of the fellows in boot hill were probably young cowpokes who had armed themselves for the purpose of killing rattlesnakes, and then went into town and filled themselves to the brim with rot gut whiskey —which never produced enhanced decision-making. There were also a few soldiers, buffalo hunters, teamsters, and barmen who died while working in someone else’s saloon. They all died young —too young — and few ever had a chance to see their own children grow into adulthood.
My guess is that few children “back in the day” were actually raised by their parents. Most, I think, just “came up” and left home as soon as they could to find their own way in the world. This tells us that bad parenting has been somewhat of a norm in America’s short history. Some of these youngsters were twelve and thirteen years old. They found work on ranches or in towns performing unskilled labor. They likely fell under the influence of others, a bit older than themselves, who did them no favors as models of upstanding behavior. Life back then, more than now, was tough on young people (boys and girls). The margin for error was small. A stupid decision rendered in a mere instant had life-changing, often dire consequences.
Not every youngster who left home fulfilled their dreams. Many of these young people died along the trail from Missouri to Oregon, buried without a marker to record their names. Some were killed by Indians, their bodies mutilated and left to rot in the sun or as forage for coyotes.
Old west towns were dens of iniquity with plenty of opportunity for sorrow. Drinking and gambling was a dangerous pastime —along with giving sass to a bully and a cutthroat. What killed these youngsters was a well-aimed bullet or a lucky shot, aided and abetted by their immaturity, possibly exacerbated by the effects of strong liquor, and a firearm that they didn’t know how to use, or when. When the smoke cleared, the town undertaker dropped their young bodies into a deep sandy hole in the ground, and then collected a few bucks from the town mayor as recompense for his trouble. The graveside service did have the appearance of a Christian burial but at that moment it no longer mattered what their names were, or where they came from, whether they had sweethearts back home, or even if they had families that still remembered them in prayer at the dinner table.
Statistics indicate that most people who responded to the various gold rushes ended up with very little to show for their efforts. Claim jumpers were indiscriminate killers, vigilante groups spent no time examining case law, and some folks were shot and killed for whatever they had in their pockets —which wasn’t much. Most gold seekers never struck it rich. No, the only people who made a lot of money during the gold rush times were those who sold or rented goods to miners. Gamblers fared well, as did the prostitutes. A steak dinner cost about $50.00. Shoveling crap in the local livery stables wasn’t glorious work, but it paid well, and it was safer than tending bar.
Life requires some risk. People set out either with specific goals for themselves, or a few vague ideas about what they want to accomplish in their life and one of two things result: success, or failure. Life offers only one guarantee: death. It may be more likely that a youngster with a good plan will achieve success but there is no guarantee of that. It is also true that a young person could achieve some success through pure good luck — and then lose everything through pure bad luck. When luck really ran against these folks, they died and all that we know of them today is that they were an “Unknown Cowboy.”
The Old West may conger up romantic notions for some, and I’ll admit some fascination with tales of the frontier. Despite the enjoyment I obtain from the reading of history, life was a crapshoot. America’s youngsters buried on boot hill are part of that story.
 Leslie was a rowdy, a gunfighter, Indian scout, prospector, who lived his life untampered by Christian charity. His birth name was Nashville Franklyn Leslie and we remember him most as the fellow who killed Billy Claiborne. He was called “Buckskin” because he always wore a buckskin jacket. Leslie was not a big man; he stood around 5’7” and weighed around 135 pounds. He was a two-gun shootist and good at it. The one thing that stands out about Frank Leslie is the absence of a sense of humor. Some claim that Johnny Ringo was killed by Frank Leslie … but the allegation was never proved.
 Truth be told, prostitutes probably killed more cowpokes than gunslingers. Syphilis and gonorrhea were epidemic in the old west.
I’ve also been to boot hill in Tombstone. Sobering.
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It is hard to imagine growing up in a town like Tombstone. It is a fascinating place today, but given my antics when I was a young teenager, I might have found a spot on boot hill.
Ditto, I was dog nuts as a youngster.
You’re still a youngster …
Thoroughly interesting article.
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Thank you, sir …