The most famous cemetery in Dodge City history didn’t exist – at least not officially.
From its founding in 1872 to 1878, the town had no established cemetery. People with money, friends or family were buried at nearby Fort Dodge.
When the first victim, without money or friends was killed, it was evident there was a problem of burying people who died without means of support.
That first victim laid in the street until men carted him off to a nearby hill on the outskirts of town and buried him. The people of Dodge City discovered that this hill made an ideal burying ground.
Not only was it a good burial ground, but the Hill offered a great vantage point of the river’s lowlands, for observing wild game and detecting enemies.
Often being only known by their given name, many victims were dug up by coyotes soon after burial. No one famous was interred there, and money was never paid for burial on the hill. Most of the people buried there died suddenly – with their boots on – so it became known as Boot Hill.
Not all were victims of violence. Five buffalo hunters headed out on an unseasonably warm winter’s day only to be caught in a blizzard. And some died of disease.
By 1878, the hill was too valuable for use as a pauper’s cemetery. Private owners built Prairie Grove, and in January 1879, when subfreezing temperatures made the task more agreeable, most of the bodies were moved to this new cemetery. The last known person buried on Boot Hill was a women, Alice Chambers, who died of natural causes.
Around 1890, Prairie Grove closed and the bodies were re interred at Dodge City’s current cemetery, Maple Grove.
The city soon built a school on the site of Boot Hill Cemetery. Officially named the Third Ward School, it and a replacement, were known as Boot Hill School. Some rumors say children often found bones during recess.
In the late 1920’s the City placed City Hall on Boot Hill. About that time, interest in Boot Hill Cemetery reemerged. Entrepreneurs set up wagons to sell curios.
In 1932, the state Rotary Convention came to Dodge City. As a practical joke, local dentist, Dr. O.H. Simpson made cement boots and faces to adorn the old cemetery.
In 1947, the Dodge City Junior Chamber of Commerce built a museum at the site. Boot Hill Museum started as this single structure. That building still stands as the People of the Plains exhibit building.
At Boot Hill Museum is a small relatively undisturbed corner of the cemetery where you can walk among recreated markers that tell about those buried at the Hill. The names and stories are taken from newspaper accounts.