About five years ago, a vision came to Karen Stuart Brown in a dream.
She was at the old Stuart family home, which still stands in Belgrade. In her dream, an old peddler pulled up to the house in a huge, 1930s-era “rattle-trap wagon,” which was piled high with tombstones and vases.
Brown says she instantly knew what the dream meant.
“I know of cemeteries that are gone,” Brown says “That’s when I said to (husband) Marvin, ‘We’ve got to go up there and do something.’ ”
“Up there” is the East Gallatin Cemetery, located off Hamilton Road near Reese Creek, atop a picturesque bluff. (Due to its location, the site is also known as the East Gallatin-Hamilton Cemetery.) Many of Brown’s ancestors, who were among the early settlers of the valley, are buried there.
After her dream, Brown decided she would tend first to the graves of her own forebears, the Stuarts and the Meltons. Brown had grown up hearing first- and second-hand stories about Belgrade’s early days from her father Harry C. Stuart, who was born in the 1890s, as well as from numerous other relatives.
Karen and Marvin soon discovered that cleaning up the family graves was no easy task, but they persisted.
“You could not walk along here – the grass was too tall,” Brown explained while touring the cemetery grounds on a recent calm, August morning. She tells how sagebrush, weeds and yellow clover had grown up everywhere, obscuring hazards such as gopher holes and grave markers, which made the arduous task of clearing the overgrowth somewhat treacherous.
Karen and Marvin started to clear the brush, and over several summers, recruited help to keep going.
“Once we got it opened up, people started coming,” Karen Brown says, describing the tireless energy of volunteers who donated hours to the clean-up effort. “It was a wonderful, sacred place to them.”
Once the initial cleanup was completed, the Browns organized a community tour of
the cemetery in October 2015. Archaeologist Terri Wolfgram of Belgrade took the tour, then attended a meeting afterward for anyone interested in talking about the future of the cemetery.
Struck by the beauty and historical significance of the site, Wolfgram and another retired Belgrade archaeologist, Elaine Skinner-Hale, developed a professional interest in helping to document and preserve the monument that was in danger of succumbing to the same fate as numerous other pioneer cemeteries in the West.
“(Cemetery) boards dissolve, descendants move away,” Wolfgram says, adding that when family members don’t have an intimate connection with long-dead relatives they have never met, it doesn’t occur to them to tend their graves.
When Wolfgram and Skinner-Hale got involved, it had been years since the East Gallatin Cemetery board had been active, but they say that was just one of many factors that had led to the neglect of the cemetery. The problem began nearly 100 years earlier, when the droughts of 1917, 1918 and 1919 forced many with family members buried in the cemetery to leave the area. Still more moved away during the Depression in the 1930s. With no family members left to tend individual graves, “the cemetery fell into a state of neglect,” Skinner-Hale says.
Even if descendants had attempted to find an ancestor’s grave, in the majority of cases that would have been impossible at the East Gallatin Cemetery. Unlike the graves of Karen Stuart Brown’s family, hundreds of others on the hill were unmarked, and the identities of those interred within unknown. Many early families did not have the resources to procure or afford any kind of stone monuments, so wooden grave markers were placed instead. In the 1950s, a cemetery caretaker – evidently as part of a clean-up effort – removed those wooden markers and burned them.
Wolfgram and Skinner-Hale say the wooden markers were old enough then that identification information may have worn off, but they at least they could have pointed them to specific grave locations. Instead, they had to turn to other physical clues, copious research and advanced science to begin to map the East Gallatin Cemetery.
The women applied for and received a grant in 2016 from the Montana Archaeological Society to locate unmarked burials through ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry, which can be useful in locating graves by detecting magnetic anomalies below ground. Neither had ever worked at a cemetery before, but they found the project compelling.
“We started to put together the pieces of the puzzle,” Wolfgram says.
Today, the area surrounding the East Gallatin Cemetery is sparsely populated compared to many other areas of Gallatin County, but that wasn’t the case in the late 19th century. In 1870, 250 residents lived in the East Gallatin precinct in the vicinity of the cemetery, while in the same year, only 100 people called Bozeman home.
“This location was very centrally located,” Wolfgram says.
Many of the settlers of the East Gallatin community had come west on Jim Bridger’s 1864 wagon trains that were bound for Virginia City. Among the passengers were farmers, who noticed the fertile-looking valley through which they passed on the way to the mining camps. When they arrived in Virginia City and found the camps already full of miners, many turned back to put their farming experience to use in the Gallatin Valley.
The silty loam hill upon which the East Gallatin Cemetery rests rises 26 feet above the surrounding area. Early settlers in the area undoubtedly chose the 2.63-acre site for a cemetery because of its peacefulness and the beautiful and breathtaking views of the surrounding valley from the hill. As is customary, the graves face the east toward the sunrise, which occurs at the East Gallatin Cemetery over the Bridger Mountains.
The original deed for the cemetery was granted by the Hamilton family to the East Gallatin Cemetery Board in April 1890, but burials had been happening there for many years prior. Wolfgram says the first documented burial was that of Emily Street in 1868, though there may have been others before then that cannot be documented.
It is impossible for a visitor not to imagine the hardships and heartbreaks of the families who were able to provide lasting monuments for their dead in the East Gallatin Cemetery – the names and dates for many babies, children and young adults are inscribed on headstones. Karen Brown, who is able to recite the causes of death of many as she passes their monuments, says she would like to record some personal histories that tell the stories of the individuals and families buried in the cemetery for the benefit of visitors.
“There is a lot of tragedy here,” she says.
Even in the face of heartbreak, the hardy settlers of the region took pains to memorialize their loved ones, planting what Skinner-Hale calls “good living memorials” – tulips, lilacs, iris and grape hyacinth. Those have survived more than a century and still bloom every spring. In many cases, those helped the archaeologists with their site-mapping.
“In some places there’s no tombstone, but here’s a group of iris,” which must have marked a grave, Wolfgram explains.
In a few instances, investigators found rocks that had been carried by family members from the valley floor below to mark the location of graves. But Wolfgram and Skinner-Hale had to turn to technology to pinpoint the location of many, many others.
The pair created a grid, then carefully mapped the results of the magnetometry tests conducted at the cemetery in the fall of 2016. They followed up with ground penetrating radar tests in July 2017, and mapped those results, too. They then began the work of combining the data from the field tests, and this year completed the accurate and comprehensive map of the cemetery grounds, including precise locations of approximately 395 previously unmarked graves, and about 200 marked graves.
Wolfgram and Skinner-Hale also have worked hard to identify the people buried in the unmarked graves, which are now denoted with plastic, yellow markers. They turned to numerous sources, including archives kept by Dokken-Nelson funeral home.
In many cases now, Wolfgram says, they can say about a particular grave that “this is probably the burial of” a certain person, though definitive identification is impossible.
Throughout the archaeological survey, improvements have continued at the cemetery. Karen Stuart Brown designed the artwork for the cemetery’s metal sign that now sits atop the hill, funded by a grant from the Montana Historical Society. Wolfgram has helped families who so desired to safely remove destructive lichen from the marble tombstones marking their relatives’ graves. Marvin Brown continues to do the mowing, and the East Gallatin Cemetery Board is active once again. A few recent burials have occurred at the cemetery in the past couple of years.
Wolfgram and Skinner-Hale have given talks about the project and the historic significance of the site. The stories of the many of the early settlers buried there are memorialized in books, online histories and the archives at the Gallatin History Museum. (Some are particularly notable, including Henry Davis, the stepson of John Thomas, who brought the first wheat to the Gallatin Valley from Utah.) Due to its historic import, the cemetery has been and will continue to be a featured stop on local history tours.
The East Gallatin is but one of many old cemeteries that are just as historically valuable, including those at Springhill, Morgan, Dry Creek and Logan, according to Wolfgram and Skinner-Hale.
They credit Karen Stuart Brown for mobilizing the effort to clean up and restore the historical jewel that is the East Gallatin Cemetery. And Brown – while fully appreciative of its significance to the valley’s history – adds that her motivation to preserve the cemetery is not just to preserve the past, but to honor the memory of the earliest settlers buried there.
“The West never would have been settled without these people. Death was always staring them in the face,” she says, though she is comforted by her belief that they are in a better place and that they approve of her efforts to preserve their stories.
“I still feel these people, and they kind of smile and look down,” she says.