Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Santa Fe cemetery tour unearths buried history

october 30—Many people in Santa Fe walk its winding streets and look up at its adobe buildings with little knowledge of the vast history deep beneath its surface.

Alysia Abbott travels the same paths every day but with a deep understanding of the dead who rest below our feet.

Abbott, an archaeologist, has been fascinated with Santa Fe’s lost dead for about a decade. In a city with an almost endless history, long-forgotten cemeteries continually popped up as she worked on other projects throughout the city.

Eventually, these places drew her in. Abbott said she started making a list of cemeteries that were not a part of the general, more modern knowledge of Santa Fe. And over time, her list grew to nearly 30 resting spots for generations, who otherwise would be lost to time.

Abbot said she gave a cemetery talk to the Historic Santa Fe Foundation a couple of years ago and was approached by the nonprofit to develop the Lost but Not Forgotten Cemetery Tour.

“Everyone can relate to a cemetery, I think as a historic place because … we will all be archeology someday,” Abbott said. “I think that that is really an amazing draw for people because it’s a connection across time.”

Abbott was right about people’s interest in the topic. While she said she would have been happy if just two people had shown up to her first walking tour earlier this month, a group of about 15 people met with the eager archaeologist at Fort Marcy park to learn about the dead.

“I will talk to anybody who will listen about this stuff,” Abbott said. “To have young people on the tour — the young adults and the couple of kids — was really great, and that was a surprise to me. I was really thrilled.”

Abbott said the Oct. 18 excursion was the first walking tour on cemeteries she has given in Santa Fe. Due to the onset of winter and cold weather, she added it may be next spring before she can give another tour.

But the interest is there.

Story continues

While the tour would go on to feature that which lies beneath city streets and parking lots, it kicked off beside the Cross of the Martyrs. The views of Santa Fe from Fort Marcy Hill are impressive in their own right, but Abbott provided an extra wrinkle to the experience by talking about the site’s origins as a pre-Columbian pueblo.

The bodies in the area, which Abbott said date to the early 1800s, were partially discovered when Brigadier Gen. Stephen Kearny chose to build a fortification overlooking Santa Fe in the midst of the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s.

“They were digging for those entrenched positions, and the blockhouse, they encountered graves … mostly of people, as far as we know, who were non-Catholic who had died in or around Santa Fe,” Abbott said.

She added others were buried on Fort Marcy Hill once the Americans arrived. Some of the bodies have been excavated and removed, Abbott said. Many of them, however, are still there.

“If you have seen Poltergeist, I’ve just got to let you know that the famous line ‘They didn’t move all the graves’ … is essentially the story of every historic cemetery,” Abbott said.

She then led her group down to Kearny Avenue in search of the fabled La Garita, a Spanish colonial-era guardhouse whose exact location has been lost to time.

However, on a bifurcated section of Kearny Avenue with nearly nonexistent sidewalks, Abbott stopped the group and pointed to a home separating the street into two.

“The streets follow, for the most part, what were roads around the cemetery wall,” Abbott says. “It’s the shape, the outline, of what was the old cemetery.”

Abbott said La Garita likely was built along with a chapel and an adjacent cemetery; that may account for the layers of bodies excavated underneath Kearny Street in 1997, 2003 and 2005.

“As the military use deteriorated, it continued to be used as a cemetery until it was demolished for … residential development — I believe [in] the early 20th century,” Abbott said. “They keep hitting people, and they have to keep going back up there.”

The story of historic sites, and bodies, being lost to the ravages of modern development extended to the tour’s final stop on Montezuma Street near the distinctive pink and red hues of the Scottish Rite Temple.

All roads on Abbott’s tour led to a parking lot. Owned by Montezuma Lodge No. 1, the nondescript lot seemed inconsequential at first glance. But beneath the mundane are the remains of the old Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Abbott and a team of archaeologists excavated and removed more than 100 graves from the site last year that were discovered during the construction of a retirement home, and even more bodies remain below. She recounted finding bodies struck by metal arrows and hatchets and infants in their coffins where their families last said goodbye.

The old Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery was established in 1853 as a lodge cemetery, according to the Historic Santa Fe Foundation’s website. It was widely used to inter those who could not be buried in a Catholic cemetery, until about 1884 when the new Masons and Odd Fellows Cemetery was commissioned.

All the while, a young boy who had stuck through the entirety of the tour with his parents zoomed around the parking lot with a bright red “ghost meter.” Holly and Jens Butler bought their son, Charles, the device — it’s actually an item that looks like a walkie-talkie and is supposed to detect supernatural activity — in the summer of 2019 before a trip to France.

“We wanted a way to make touring historic properties more interesting to an 8-year-old,” Holly Butler said. She added the family having seen Poltergeist helped together.

“He immediately got the connection of: ‘They … never … moved … the … bodies,’ ” she said.

Abbott told the family she has been to a number of cemeteries where such devices vibrate more than others. She added that in spite of being a person of science, she acknowledges there is possibly some merit to cemeteries housing the supernatural.

“I definitely support the idea that there’s a spiritual world out there, and we connect with it in our cemeteries,” Abbott said after the tour. “But I’d like to place it sort of as a secondary emphasis because of the more concrete conservation issues.”

Abbott said the tour was a success, and she hopes she can conduct more tours in other locations — including the Palace of the Governors, San Miguel Chapel and a lost cemetery under the Public Employee Retirement Association parking lot in the near future.

“Our own monuments, we hope that they will always be there and people will be able to come for centuries and learn about us,” Abbott said. “It’s not true. There’s a limited amount of time that we can connect to these folks, and it’s always being imperiled by … advancement of modern cities.”

Comments are closed.