By Dr. Alysia L. Abbott
In an ancient city brimming with monuments to her last 400 years, most of the people who lived and died here between 1610 and the turn of the twentieth century—and some even later—have no monuments. Where once the graves of La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis were marked with wooden crosses or stone tablets, flowers or ivy, most are now covered by parking lots. They are often cross-cut by utilities and building foundations, but they are there. They lie in churchyards and cemeteries that are no longer designated as sacred spaces in the modern world.
Burial grounds are unique pieces of the Historic landscape (in this case, Historic refers to events occurring between 1610 and 1950), but they are not permanent memorials. Gravestones crumble. Wooden crosses rot. Adobe walls surrounding graveyards melt into the earth. Iron gates or wooden picket fences that delineated the spaces of the dead are repurposed. The dead become invisible.
It is because they are invisible that the Historic dead of Santa Fe are imperiled every day by forces the dead are ill-equipped to counter. Lost, in some cases now for centuries, they are at the mercy of encroaching development. They are often not planned for, very often not looked for, and too often afforded little protection.
The Historic lost dead of Santa Fe were men, women, and children. They were of many faiths and none. They were born in Spain and in Santa Fe. They were from Mescalero and Mexico. They are the famous, the infamous, the anonymous. The dead, their stories and their burial grounds, are essentially a record of the city itself. So how is it that they could be lost? How does a place that was once a landmark dissolve from the collective consciousness of a community as ancient as Santa Fe’s?
More important than how we lose our dead is how we find them again. They can teach us about our history and we can protect them from ourselves. In Santa Fe, to find the lost dead of the last 400 years, all you have to do is look.
THE MISSING DEAD OF SANTA FE
Pedro de Peralta formally established the Villa in 1610. For hundreds of years after, if you were important enough in the community—a priest, a soldier, a wealthy benefactor—you could claim a place under the floor of a church or chapel. Most everyone else could find a place in a camposanto, as close as possible to the church door.
If you visit the churchyards or any of Santa Fe’s oldest standing churches now, you will not encounter a single headstone or cross to mark the graves of Santa Fe’s earliest Catholic faithful. Wander among the graves in Santa Fe’s active Historic cemeteries and you will see monuments to a cross-section of late nineteenth- through twenty first-century Santa Fe. You will see the graves of governors, prominent business women, Sisters of Charity, Odd Fellows, clergy, outlaws, and ordinary people.
What you will not see is any grave monument memorializing a death older than 1857.
In photographs, historic descriptions, plats, maps, and oral histories lie clues to where many of the missing dead of Santa Fe reside. Peruse the plats and maps maintained in the records of the Santa Fe County Clerk and one will encounter parcels designated simply as “Cemetery,” where no surface evidence of the burial ground remains. Nineteenth-century photographs of Santa Fe’s chapels and churches show marked graves in their camposantos that, sometime between then and now, simply disappeared.
“But the graves were all moved … weren’t they?” is often heard with regard to Historic burial grounds in Santa Fe. People are largely incredulous to hear that for thousands of Santa Fe’s dead, only their monuments were moved. The reasons why graves were left is largely practical; it is difficult and expensive work to excavate a grave. Coffins and their occupants deteriorate. Many of the Historic dead in Santa Fe likely would not have been coffined, wood being in very limited supply. In the rare cases that graves were moved, often graves were not completely emptied of their contents during the process. Only skulls or longbones were collected, with all else left behind.
People were frequently disinterred for a variety of reasons. However, there is no archaeological or historical evidence to date from Santa Fe’s Historic graveyards that suggests that there was ever any systematic or thorough removal of graves. The proof is that Historic graves are encountered several times a year across the city, exposed when trenches are dug for utilities and building foundations.
When human remains are encountered unexpectedly in New Mexico, state law requires that law enforcement be contacted. Investigators from the Office of the Medical Investigator and the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division then determine if the remains are part of an archaeological context. If a grave is encountered during construction or development, work in the vicinity of the grave must stop until a plan is in place to preserve the grave or to move it out of the path of development.
THE PRE-1610 DEAD OF SANTA FE
Though not part of this study, it is important to mention that people occupied O’gha Po’oge—what is now Santa Fe—for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. The graves of Pueblo people have been encountered in the hundreds across the city for decades. Certainly many hundreds more women, men, and children, the original settlers of Santa Fe, still remain where they were buried. Their graves are also imperiled. We know even less about Pueblo burial locations and find their locations harder to predict.
FINDING THE MISSING DEAD
Research by dozens of archaeologists and historians of Santa Fe history suggests that for every existing known burial ground, there are many burial grounds that are poorly documented or unaccounted for. Many locations where the dead still reside have no obvious clue to their whereabouts in records that mention their existence, often referred to locationally in only the vaguest terms. Some are known about only colloquially. Copies of early plats do not exist for every cemetery, and descriptions of boundaries are often contradictory and inaccurate in the archived records. Burial grounds frequently were given multiple names through time. Fortunately, Santa Fe’s largest missing Historic burial grounds, though no longer marked from above, have excellent, well-established boundaries in historic plats and maps.
To give scale to the issue, a map showing the location of known and hidden burial grounds in Santa Fe (see the next page) shows the locations scattered across Santa Fe. It is by no means conclusive. The burial grounds marked on the map, with the exception of the National Cemetery (No. 1), Rosario Cemetery (No. 4), and Fairview Cemetery (No. 17 ), are lacking in some measure with regard to what is known about their exact or even their inexact boundaries, their establishment dates, how long the were in use, and who is or was buried there.
OTHER POSSIBLE BURIAL GROUNDS
In addition to the burial places with established graves, there are many places in Santa Fe where there is a reasonable expectation of burial grounds associated with one of several institutions. Some people who died in at Santa Fe’s hospitals or while incarcerated in Santa Fe’s Territorial Penitentiary or in the Japanese American Internment Camp may lie in associated graveyards no longer or perhaps never marked. Some people from these institutions are known to have been buried in Fairview and Buena Vista. There are many that must be. However, some in-depth research may shed more light on these suspected cemeteries.
The Bruns Hospital was a WWII-era facility located near the south end of what was the Christian Brothers’ College of Santa Fe campus (later the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and currently referred to as the Midtown Campus), between St. Michael’s Drive and Siringo Road. The Sunmount Sanatorium property on the east side of Santa Fe is also an obvious location for a burial set aside.
In addition, research suggests that there is the possibility of graves extant on any property ever owned by the Catholic Church, particularly property associated with chapels and convents, such as the Old Convent associated with the Parish Church that was near Water Street and Cathedral Place.
Santa Fe has been home to boarding schools for Indigenous children and for the hearing impaired. The earliest and initially the most controversial boarding school was the Ramona Indian School, founded circa 1884. Originally for boys from local pueblos, and later for girls from Mescalero and the Navajo Nation, the school was opposed initially from all sides. Indigenous families were reluctant to part with their children, the Protestant school ran afoul of the Catholic churches’ monopoly on education in Santa Fe, and there was the popular belief among the population of Territorial era Santa Fe that tribal children were not deserving of or capable of being educated.
The school moved from an adobe residence on San Francisco Street to land donated to the University of New Mexico, close to the intersection of Coronado Road and Don Gaspar Avenue. The school closed at the end of the nineteenth century. If there was a burial ground associated with this school, it could exist anywhere underneath the houses and streets of the Ramona Subdivision east and west of Don Gaspar between Coronado Road and Valencia Street. In an era when families were very far away with little or few resources, Indigenous families often could not retrieve their childrens’ remains.
Burial grounds associated with boarding schools for Indigenous children are particularly poignant and tragic, given that the young they enclose often died of disease, neglect, and worse, far from family and community. The recent discoveries in Canada of hundreds of graves at the sites of residential schools are horrifying—but unfortunately not surprising, and certainly not isolated. As awareness grows and research is focused on finding them, more lost children’s graves are certain to be found.
SO HOW DID WE LOSE OUR DEAD?
Cemeteries, particularly old ones, are rarely going concerns; their only value exists as real estate when no one is left to visit the dead. Follow the ownership histories of parcels that were designated as burial grounds through time, and one can often track the timeline of when those spaces ceased to be designated as burial grounds in the record. Camposantos shrink as churches sell parcels. We see the process ongoing even today.
In Santa Fe, as the population expanded over time, once-rural cemeteries became urban nuisances. In Santa Fe, the decommissioning of the three largest Historic cemeteries were followed by periods of decay where graves and monuments fell and deteriorated or were moved. An article in The Santa Fe New Mexican dated July 12, 1899, documents the state of the Old Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery:
“Attention is being called to the dilapidated and disgraceful condition of the old cemetery in the rear of the federal building. The adobe wall is crumbling, several gravestones have been dragged around, and burros browse among the weeds that cover the ground. The cemetery might be turned into a beautiful park or else cultivated to advantage.”
One might assume that the lost graves and missing cemeteries most likely to disappear were those of or for people who had no family or influence to advocate for their memorial. But rank or status does not seem to provide any added measure that one’s resting place would be remembered. Santa Fe’s most famous missing grave is likely that of Don Diego de Vargas. Long before his statue disappeared from public view, the grave of the conquistador himself was lost. His final resting place has long been a subject of conjecture among historians; his most likely place is underneath what was the military chapel in the Palace of the Governors, now underneath Palace Avenue at Washington Avenue.
For all of their perceived permanence, burial grounds can become lost regardless of the importance of their occupants or their history. In Santa Fe, for too long, finding the unmarked graves underneath us has been a practice of discovery by sheer blind chance. It is better that the possible locations be identified through research and educated archaeological guesswork. We have Historic resources and burial protection laws that can help us, but we must find our missing dead first. The reestablishment of the original boundaries of cemeteries and camposantos is critical for the management and preservation of our long-lost dead.
Burial grounds, like the people they entomb, have a lifespan. The life histories of those interred at Santa Fe’s burial grounds and the grounds themselves so often are mirrors of each other. They were established, flourished for years or decades, and then succumbed to an array of forces over time. Though they are hidden, they are not really lost. But we must look for them, study them and, when possible, protect them for all of us.
KNOWN AND HIDDEN BURIAL GROUNDS IN SANTA FE
1 National Cemetery
2 Valley Drive: Construction for housing in 1985 exposed a row of graves, possible victims of epidemic disease, buried at the same time. A handful of graves were removed, but the extent of the graves remains undetermined. There are no markers.
3 Saint Catherine’s Indian School: The school operated from 1887 to 2006. Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who apparently died in service at the school, lie in a small plot marked with simple tablet stones on the grounds. Read more about Indian Schools later in this article.
4 Rosario Cemetery
5 Old Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery: This cemetery, established in 1853 north of the federal oval, was the creation of a group of fraternal order members for themeselves, their families and non-Catholics in the community. The location of the cemetery exists in multiple plats and maps. At the decommissioning of the Old Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery (circa 1890), some burials were exhumed and re-interred in the Santa Fe National Cemetery, Fairview, or in what was then the new Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery. Corinne Sze notes in her History of Fairview Cemetery, “The process [of moving bodies] was declared over at the beginning of 1903 but was apparently never completed, as bodies have been unearthed in later excavations at the site.” The vast majority of this major community cemetery is still likely to be intact beneath a parking lot. There are hundreds of graves to be accounted for here.
6 La Garita (Kearney Road) Camposanto: This large cemetery, generally believed to have been in use since 1840 (though probably much earlier), grew up around the chapel and camposanto associated with a Spanish Colonial-era guardhouse known as La Garita. Excavations performed by the Office of Archaeological Studies begun in 1995 after utilities trenching exposed dozens of graves. There are likely hundreds of people still buried underneath the homes and asphalt of Kearney Avenue and Magdalena Street.
7 Fort Marcy on the Hill: Home of as many as 300 reported unmarked graves of Mexican War-era soldiers who died in or near Santa Fe. Some graves were removed to the Old Masons and Odd Fellows and the National Cemetery. No markers indicate the extent of the original cemetery. Graves continue to be exposed whenever there is construction in the area.
8 Palace of the Governors: Graves include those buried underneath the floor of the military chapel, Nuestra Senora de La Casas Reales, and those Indigenous people buried during the occupation of the palace between 1680 and 1692 by a Pueblo Confederation.
9 Our Lady of Guadalupe Camposanto: Dedicated in 1795, the camposanto has been shrinking and graves have been lost, like so many of Santa Fe’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century chapels.
10 Our Lady of Light (La Castrense) Chapel and Camposanto: One of the early military (Castrense) chapels, La Castrense was an active chapel and camposanto between 1760 and 1859. A handful of graves were removed by archaeologists Stubbs and Ellis in 1955. Evidence suggests that the historic boundaries of the camposanto extend under asphalt and the buildings to the south, to the east and to the north, and underneath San Francisco Street.
11 Parish Church: There have been at least three iterations of the Parish Church since the founding of Santa Fe: The Church of St. Francis, founded in 1610; La Paroquia, founded in 1714; and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Asis, expanded beginning in 1869. All iterations have had camposantos, the boundaries of which have moved and retreated through time.
12 San Miguel Chapel and Camposanto: Multiple construction and destruction episodes since the chapel was first built circa 1620 leaves the exact size and the locations of associated camposantos largely unknown. This chapel had interations before and after the Pueblo Revolt. Excavations under the floor and in the unmarked camposanto to the west of the ancient chapel have encountered graves.
13 Old Saint Michael’s Cemetery (PERA): Generally assumed to have been founded in 1846, this cemetery was easily the largest nineteenth-century burial ground in Santa Fe. The location of the cemetery is well-documented in plats, drawings, and photographs. This cemetery became decrepit in the early twentieth century, and was “lost” with the transfer of the parcel from the Christian Brothers to the State of New Mexico. A majority of the cemetery remains underneath the PERA building’s eastern parking lot. Graves have been encountered repeatedly during construction and utilities work in the area since the 1960s.
14 Cristo Rey Church: Built in 1940, this church camposanto contains only two known graves; the Reverend Patrick Smith, who was the church’s first rector, is one.
15 Cristo Rey Cemetery: This small communal cemetery, used since the 1940s, has fallen into almost complete disrepair. Almost no headstones remain standing. The number of the buried here is unknown.
16 Our Lady of Guadalupe (Buena Vista) Cemetery: This Catholic burial ground, established in 1868, is all that remains of a series of burial grounds known collectively as the Buena Vista Cemeteries. Stretching for acres to the east, underneath Early Street and beyond, underneath what became the Buena Vista subdivision, were set-asides for Protestants and the indigent. How many graves exist here remains undetermined, but the density of marked graves that remain in Our Lady of Guadalupe Cemetery suggests hundreds. Graves have been exposed by construction in the area for decades.
17 Fairview Cemetery
18 The Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery: The Odd Fellows considered it their mission to provide a “Little Earth for Charity,” a place where the indigent and the outcast of Santa Fe could have dignified burial. The cemetery founders also saw the cemetery as the resting place for members of Santa Fe’s burgeoning fraternal and sororal community and their families. While there are standing monuments in this cemetery, many grave markers have been lost over time. Nearly all of the cemetery records were lost in a fire.
19 Casa Linda 1: This cemetery underneath a parking lot, named by the author, was operated by the Southern Presbyterian Church (Spanish). The cemetery is marked in plats through 1952. Nothing is known about who is buried at the location.
20 Casa Linda 2: Under a tiny space owned by the City of Santa Fe and called Casa Linda Park, this cemetery, which appears in plats from 1952, is considered a possible location for graves from the Territorial Penitentiary. The designation “cemetery” disappears after the area became the Casa Linda Subdivision.
Dr. Alysia L. Abbott is a professional archaeologist living in Santa Fe. She has been researching Santa Fe’s Historic burial grounds for a decade. She thanks the many archaeologists and historians, in particular Cordelia T. Snow, who have for years been piecing together the locations and histories of Santa Fe’s lost dead.