Small, rural cemeteries of La Plata County have played an important role in the lives of early settlers.
These burial places have allowed people to honor their families and friends while fulfilling burial practices that often reflected their ethnic origins and customs. The cemeteries provided a mechanism to record their testaments to a loved one, giving future generations an intimate glimpse into their lives, personalities and pasts. These monuments are chroniclers of past lives; the witnesses for cherished souls now gone.
For historians and genealogists, carved inscriptions and images provide valuable clues about family histories and past lives. Inscriptions give information about family relationships; religious beliefs; occupations; countries of origin; and health, mortality and disease. Images give us additional information about their lives through artistic expression. Marker materials and fabrication speak to family and community economics and technology.
On the Kansas plains, an elaborate Victorian tombstone tells of a family’s heartfelt loss by depicting a young girl eternally asleep in an open shell of marble. Along Colorado’s isolated Purgatory River, at a lonely windswept cemetery, the love and loss of Hispano families is carved on sandstone tombstones with folk art images of stars, flowers, diamonds and moons mixed with handcrafted Spanish inscriptions. In rural La Plata County, hardy early pioneers are remembered with markers of wood, sandstone and metal in small, hidden cemeteries. In some cemeteries, loved ones were buried with a boulder or fieldstone as the only indication of their passing.
For the past three years, the San Juan Mountains Association has conducted a project to document the small county cemeteries. Our work builds on previous recording efforts and existing burial records. Our project goals are to work with existing cemetery associations to assemble cemetery records to help preserve historical information, and to develop a searchable online database. This information will help family researchers and historians locate the final resting place of individuals who migrated into La Plata County in the past; these burial records may provide the important missing piece in the family story.
As we have recorded the graves of loved ones, we have been touched by the realization that early life in the county was hard. Fairly consistently, about one third of the graves are for children under 10 years of age, many from the same families. Loving tributes to mothers are found at all the cemeteries over all the years. And in small lonesome cemeteries, small American flags flutter at the graves of veterans, reminding us of the lives lost on our behalf. One of the most poignant markers was a marker in loving memory of a young 19-year-old sailor lost on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. These inscriptions remind us of the lives of real people that have passed on.
Ruth Lambert is cultural program director with San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education. Email her at Ruth@sjma.org. An earlier version of this column misstated the year of attack on Pearl Harbor.