“In the early days of Laramie City, people were buried pretty much where they dropped after the rope was cut…”
So begins the story of Greenhill Cemetery in a free booklet distributed by current city cemetery sexton, Julie McGee. Tongue-in-cheek though it be, that statement isn’t far from the fact. It was written by then-UW history graduate student Peg Tremper around 1995 as part of a class project. The booklet is still in print, and is an excellent guide to some of the more notable local burials.
Excavations for buildings in the oldest sections of Laramie occasionally turned up human bones. These, sadly, are forgotten individuals whose names and circumstances are lost to anyone’s memory. Many were probably children and infants, whose deaths represented about 30 percent of all deaths in 1900—a number closer to 2 percent now.
However, most of the adult newcomers to Laramie when the town was founded in 1868 were in the prime of life, eager for a new adventure in Wyoming Territory. Some took advantage of the lawlessness of the early town, where disputes were settled with a pistol.
Death by hanging
Others were hanged in Laramie by infamous vigilance “committees” who took the law into their own hands and meted out justice without benefit of inquest or trial. At least four individuals met their demise that way in 1868, and one can suppose that no one took much trouble with their burials.
On outlying ranches, when someone died, burial took place wherever it was convenient, and family cemeteries were probably as common here as they were in rural communities all over the country. Typical in Laramie were the burials by James M. Ingersoll of his three young daughters on high ground northeast of Laramie’s center in 1872 and 1874, starting just four years after the founding of Laramie.
Ellen Crago Mueller of Cheyenne privately published an inventory of Albany County burial sites in 1996. It lists 28 different organized cemeteries in the county, and hundreds of rural burials—most with the name, age and circumstances of that person’s death. She gathered this data from oral communication with landowners, coroner’s records, newspapers or other sources. There is a copy in the Wyoming Room at the Albany County Public Library.
The Catholic Church founded one of the first organized cemeteries in Laramie, though the exact date is unknown. It was located on what became the Schrader ranch just west of town on the south side of highway 130, just past the stone house stable building.
Local resident Elnora Frye has learned that supposedly all the remains and their tombstones from the Catholic Cemetery were moved to Greenhill Cemetery. However, Alan “Corky” Corthell (born in 1929), who grew up near the Schrader ranch, has recalled recently that he and his siblings would play among the tombstones that were still there in the 1930s. Frye suspects that because next of kin couldn’t be located, refused or were unable to pay for the removal of the remains, there may still be some burials on that property. At the time Frye did her research, the land was owned by UW.
Fraternal organizations, particularly the International Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.), also wanted to establish a burial place for members and their families. It was a practice of some organizations to provide burial expenses for dues-paying members. The I.O.O.F. entered into an agreement with James M. Ingersoll to use the land that he had already started as a burial ground.
Ingersoll wanted the land to become a city cemetery, in 1881 he turned over 40 acres of his homesteaded land to the city of Laramie. He had filed a homestead application for 80 acres in the vicinity in 1874, but after he recorded that homestead in Cheyenne around 1876, he didn’t record it in Albany County as required, until 1882. Therefore he did not legally have title to the land when he deeded an acre to the I.O.O.F. and 40 acres to the city.
Eventually the city received clear title to the land and awarded 1.36 acres of land within their 40 acres to the I.O.O.F. That land is the oldest portion of the cemetery, along 15th St. and to the north of the main road into the property. James M. Ingersoll himself was buried in this section in 1926, with family members who predeceased him, including wife May and their three daughters.
Sometimes churches including Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian, as well as groups like the Knights of Pythias and the Masons purchased or were granted a group of lots.
Beginning of Greenhill
Although there are a few tombstones in Greenhill Cemetery showing the date of death to be before 1882, that reflects bodies that were moved or families that commemorated them on tombstones years after their deaths, though the remains may be elsewhere.
A committee was appointed by the Laramie City Council to survey the land and take charge of cemetery matters. In 1891 it announced an improvement: the purchase of a book costing $23.10 for the sexton to record the lot purchases. That was also the year that the name of the cemetery was officially adopted as “Green Hill Cemetery.” Later it got changed to one word, “Greenhill,” though the newspaper was still referring to it as Green Hill as late as 1954.
Initially, the alleys or gravel paths that separate the rows of lots were given the names of trees, such as “spruce, maple”, etc., but although those names remain on the books, they are not posted. Instead, each of the rows is given a letter of the alphabet, and the rows are marked with their letters along the main road. Outside the main cemetery office is a sign that lists all of the cemetery sections and rows by letter, and the lots in each row by number
In the early days the sexton’s position was a coveted municipal job at $35 per month. The sexton collected fees for the city from the sale of burial plots. The sexton could pocket whatever fees he could collect for preparing the lot for the burial. Not all sextons lived at the cemetery, but in 1897 that began to be a city requirement, though that is no longer the case. The sexton’s residence on site was probably built in the 1920s—that building is now used as the cemetery office.
Some of the individuals who are mentioned in newspapers before 1930 as sextons were:
Mr. Gaddis, 1887; Charles Oakley, 1890 and 1891; Peter Nagel, 1893; Thomas Trewartha, 1896 again in 1901; Herman Otterson, 1897; Charlie Hegewald, 1899; B.G. Sewell, 1910; and W.P. Wright, 1929.
The cemetery committee hired the sexton, and in 1905 by action of City Council, the Cemetery Committee was merged with the Park Committee. That arrangement continues today, with the City Parks and Recreation Director and staff responsible for oversight and maintenance of the cemetery.
There is a clearly marked section of Greenhill Cemetery for burial of the indigent. The city pays for the burials there. Records are kept of exactly where the person is buried in this area, but there are very few tombstones because either there were no known next of kin to purchase one or they could not afford one.
The name “potters field” might be Biblical, from a story that the Pharisees used the money that Judas Iscariot returned to them when the latter was distraught over the act of betraying his master, Jesus. The Pharisees did not want to bring the tainted money into the temple, but they did use it to buy an area with clay reserves that potters used as a place to bury paupers—thus the name “potters field.” Whatever the source, it is a nearly universally-used term world-wide to designate a burial spot for people who die without burial funds or next of kin.
Names are known for many of those buried at Greenhill’s Potters Field, though buried there are three “John Does” and about 40 “unknowns.”
Finding a grave
Individuals looking for a particular grave must first know the name of the deceased and then the row and lot number. The information is on the website: cityoflaramie.org. From there, go to the “Department--Parks & Recreation,” then choose “Cemetery” and the subhead “Cemetery listings.” All burials are given alphabetically including date of death, date of burial, location and even the age of the individual at the time of death, if it was known. The information can also be obtained in person by inquiring at the cemetery office, which is open from 8 a.m. to 12 noon weekdays.
The cemetery has a dedicated volunteer who researches the gravesites and information about the deceased. Often people, especially from those out of town, request a photo of the tombstone or other information about the person they are researching. The volunteer usually will post these tombstone photos on the website findagrave.com, which boasts millions of cemetery records from all over the world.
Upcoming Cemetery tour
On Friday, July 19, at 5:30 p.m. I will lead another of the cemetery tours at Greenhill Cemetery. Volunteers will be in costume, depicting over 20 notable individuals who are buried there. This will be a repeat of a popular tour that was given last year as part of Laramie’s sesquicentennial.
Graves to be visited include a few new ones from last year. Members of The Unexpected Company (TUC), a theatrical group sponsored by the Laramie Plains Museum, are among those playing the “characters.” They have been researching the individual they were assigned and depicting that person for a number of events at the museum this summer.
Those interested in attending are reminded to bring water, a sunhat, possibly mosquito dope, and good walking shoes, as the tour will last until 7 p.m. It will involve about a half mile of walking on slightly uneven ground.
Editor’s Note: Judy Knight is collection manager at the Laramie Plains Museum.