Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cemetery Sunday: Elkhorn Cemetery, Montana (plus a bonus)

The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was signed into law last week by President Obama. This large bill includes over 160 individual proposals affecting federal land in 9 states. Out of curiosity I pulled up the PDF version and scanned for a few keywords. "Grave" returned nothing of interest other than noting that protection of paleontological resources does not extend to those at Native American burial grounds and cemeteries in general (they're already protected under other legislation). A search for "cemetery" turned up something interesting:

(1) CONVEYANCE.—Not later than 180 days after the date
of enactment of this Act and subject to valid existing rights,
the Secretary (acting through the Regional Forester, Northern
Region, Missoula, Montana) shall convey by quitclaim deed
H. R. 146—141
to the County for no consideration, all right, title, and interest
of the United States, except as provided in paragraph (5),
in and to the parcel of land described in paragraph (2).

(2) DESCRIPTION OF LAND.—The parcel of land referred
to in paragraph (1) is the parcel of approximately 9.67 acres
of National Forest System land (including any improvements
to the land) in the County that is known as the ‘‘Elkhorn
Cemetery’’, as generally depicted on the map.
(3) USE OF LAND.—As a condition of the conveyance under
paragraph (1), the County shall—
(A) use the land described in paragraph (2) as a County
cemetery; and
(B) agree to manage the cemetery with due consideration
and protection for the historic and cultural values
of the cemetery, under such terms and conditions as are
agreed to by the Secretary and the County.

This is an unusual provision in a bill, and I wondered what the backstory was. A quick Google search later I had my answer: apparently, due to "limited information and surveying errors in the early 1900's" the cemetery was included as part of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. This was unfortunate for local residents who continue to bury family members there, as the National Park Service discourages burials on its lands.

A local newspaper, The Helena Independent Record, has a couple of stories on the local cemetery and the residents' fight to regain the legal ownership of the cemetery. One local resident, John Bell, began a letter-writing campaign in 1992 so that his family would no longer have to go through the troubles he had in burying his father and son in the cemetery.
The cemetery is small, containing 38 known burials, although up to 150 individuals may be buried there, dates back to the early days of American settlement in the area, and is still used by many local families - clandestinely. Officially the Park Service forbids burials, fortunately, the local rangers seem to have been taking an "if we don't see it then it didn't happen" attitude towards families burying their dead there. At long last, once the paperwork goes through for the title transfer, the county will legally own the cemetery. The plan seems to be to turn control of the cemetery over to a 3 person cemetery board, which is planning on limiting burials in the old section of the cemetery to avoid disturbing burials and limiting burials to those who are related to individuals already interred in the cemetery as it has very limited space. Hand-dug graves continue to be the norm as mechanical digging is too likely to disturb any unmarked graves before they are recognized. Also, lest anybody be upset that the land was passed over by the federal government without the county paying for it: the county has spent over $10,000 for surveying and other services related to reclaiming the cemetery, all to get back land that was supposed to belong to the county in the first place.

The only other reference to a cemetery I came across in this tome of legislation relates to protections for the Baltimore City Heritage Area, which includes Mount Auburn. Mount Auburn's historic significance is tied in with the subject of my oft-promised and still delayed piece on the Rural Cemetery Movement in America.

This Cemetery Sunday has deviated from the norm a bit, as I haven't been able to visit the Elkhorn Cemetery, but it seemed a worthy topic and a truly fascinating tale! If you'd like to see pictures, there is an album at which has photos, has a good article and a few pictures, and has a good text-only article. Unfortunately, if you want to see the town you'd better hurry as it has been discovered by looters "timber salvors".

It's taken over a hundred years for these people to finally get control of their own cemetery back, but they finally have it. I wish them best of luck in their plans for this historic and locally-important cemetery. Sphere: Related Content

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