Boot HillOgallala, Nebraska, is the state's Cowboy Capital. Once called the "Gomorrah of the Cattle Trail," its Boot Hill Cemetery has a rich history of outlaws, drovers, lawmakers, and more...
You’ll find a number of cemeteries named Boot Hill across the American West. History.net claims the first was in Tombstone, Arizona, which was laid out in plots in 1878. Dodge City, however, had an earlier version where those with no means of support–or friends–were buried between 1872 and 1878.
And why was Boot Hill such a common name for a cemetery? Well, its usual residents died with their boots on, often as a result of an altercation or run-in with lawmen.
The Boot Hill Cemetery in Ogallala has no definite record of its first inhabitants. Rather, it served as the final stop for those who lost their lives in the town reputed to be the most violent on the Texas (Western) Cattle Trail between 1870 and 1885.
At least a million cattle tramped up the trail from Texas, along with hundreds of trail drovers, to the trail’s end at Ogalalla. Why? To be fattened up by local ranchers, then shipped east on the newly arrived Union Pacific railroad cars to meet the growing demand for beef.
For a decade or so, from 1874, the cattle industry and cowboys ruled the economy of Ogallala.
Trail bosses, like the one forever immortalized on Ogallala’s Boot Hill, tried to keep a tight rein on their stock — and their drovers. This sculpture of The Trail Boss, a replica of one in Dallas, Texas, replaced an earlier statue of a cowboy that was moved to the Ogallala Livestock Auction Market in 2007.
Boot Hill Graves
About forty-eight bodies are buried on Boot Hill in Ogallala, although there may have been more. Some were children, some women, but most who ended up on Boot Hill truly did die with their boots on — and a weapon in their hands.
William Shook’s grave could be one of the ones The Trail Boss shook his head over. Shook, a 20 year-old drover, galloped into town in July, 1879. Like others at the end of the trail, he was ready to party — and for many old west drovers that meant whooping and hollering and shooting up the streets.
The local lawman, Sheriff Hughes, arrested Shook and his two drunk companions and threw them all in jail. If the story had ended there, Boot Hill wouldn’t have been Shook’s final resting place. Instead, Shook and his buddies escaped custody to continue their wild celebrations at the local saloon. There, Sheriff Hughes eventually ended up shooting him when he refused to surrender.
Saloon shootings in Ogallala, like other old west towns, happened more often than lawmen liked. Sometimes the cause was as simple as too much whiskey, such as in Shook’s case, but other times gunfights were the result of deep-seated differences.
William Campbell, a drover with lots of miles behind him, died in Ogallala’s most notorious gunfight. After an encounter with the Moy brothers, two Yankees enjoying a home-cooked meal a the Gast Hotel, he couldn’t leave well enough alone. Memories of the Civil War drove him forward. He followed the brothers to the Cowboy Saloon. Hurling a frenzy of insults, he drew on the brothers — and ended up dead on the floor. Ironically, Boot Hill, his last resting place, was home to Northern and Southern supporters.
In addition to philosophical differences and too much whiskey, gambling also caused a lot of saloon gunfights.
Fellow gamblers, Rattlesnake Ed Worley and Lank Keyes, disagreed over a $9 bet on August 17 or 18, 1884. While the exact circumstances vary, the story goes that Worled pulled a knife on Keyes — who brought out his gun and fired. So, Rattlesnake ended up as one of the last burials on Ogallala’s Boot Hill. Keyes, however, didn’t meet with justice until he was hung for a different crime in Dakota Territory.
And so, on the promotory overlooking the South Platte River Valley, the trail boss reminices about the cattle trail and the men who rode it.
Visit Boot Hill in Ogallala, NE
Boot Hill Cemetary is located in the city of Ogallala, NE.
Ogallala on the Web: http://www.ogallala-ne.gov/
I visited Boot Hill Cemetery on a trip to Nebraska hosted by the Nebraska Tourism Commission. This part of the trip was with Ogallala Keith County Chamber of Commerce. Many thanks to all of my hosts for an incredible week of adventures!
About the Photo
The photo in the header at the top of this page is the sign over Boot Hill, an old West graveyard in Ogallala, Nebraska.