Monday, June 25, 2012

First Missoula Cemetery

In the summer of 1974, a Missoula homeowner was adding a porch to his house on Cherry Street when he got a big surprise. The backhoe digging the foundation unearthed something that should not have been there: human bones. The coroner confirmed the discovery of two sets of bones encased in the decayed wood of old-fashioned coffins. Authorities determined that no foul play was involved. These were simply historic burials, the individuals placed in the ground by loved ones hoping for their eternal rest. The pieces of metal hardware, splintered wood, and bone fragments were collected in a box that today sits on a shelf in a University of Montana laboratory. The bones serve as teaching tools for anthropology students. Those who have studied the contents of the box have solved some of the mystery. Historic maps of Missoula and newspaper clippings show that Missoula’s first cemetery was located in the area in 1865. It fell into disuse with the opening of the current city cemetery in 1884, and the last burial there occurred in 1895. When the land was subdivided in the 1940s, traces of the old cemetery disappeared, but, according to city records, most burials were not removed. This is not particularly uncommon. Other Montana communities have subdivisions located on historic burial grounds. Helena’s Robinson Park and its adjacent residential streets, built over the town’s first Catholic cemetery, is one example. But to whom did the two sets of bones belong? Students determined long ago that one was a child and the other a female adult. Coffin hardware fragments were consistent with nineteenth-century caskets styles. But whose eternal sleep was so rudely interrupted? That is a part of the mystery that will probably never be solved.

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