October 8, 2020 — In October of 1872, the pioneers of Bismarck established the frontier town’s first cemetery on the present day capitol grounds, where the Governor’s mansion and Fourth Street now lay. However, this graveyard was never viewed as permanent, and so Bismarck’s first cemetery was never properly named.

It is now referred to as Fourth Street Cemetery or Boot Hill Cemetery, due mainly to early Bismarck’s wild west image. Boot Hill was a common name in the 19th century American West for burial grounds used by those who “died with their boots on,” or in violent acts. The term was also used to describe a pauper’s cemetery, which are graves set aside for those who could not afford burials.

Burials continued at Boot Hill until 1877 when the Catholic Church of Bismarck purchased about 46 acres of land to be used as a final resting place for Bismarck’s citizens. In 1880 a group of Bismarck Protestants followed suit and purchased land for a cemetery they called Fairview.

It was decided that those buried in Boot Hill Cemetery should be moved to either the St. Mary’s or Fairview cemeteries, and in the early 1880’s more than fifty bodies were exhumed and moved.

It was thought that every grave at the Fourth Street cemetery had been empty, but on this date in 1903 the Bismarck Tribune reported a horrifying tale: while excavating fourth street for a trolley line that would run to the capitol, workers made the gruesome discovery of thirteen bodies on the abandoned site of Boot Hill.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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