Texas backroads have no shortage of interesting sights. As far as I’m concerned, windshield time on winding two-lane farm to market roads is about the best way to get from here to there — even though it takes a bit longer than traveling by way of our busy interstates.
I recently traveled from my home in Katy to a speaking engagement in Belton. Of course, I left early because I wanted to take the backroads. And I am so glad I did. The roadway was flanked by stunning Indian Blanket wildflowers swaying in the wind. Texas, I thought to myself, is absolutely beautiful.
As I traveled north of Rockdale toward the San Gabriel River I noticed the old Murray Cemetery and hit the brakes. Old cemeteries are among the most interesting stops on Texas backroads — and, the older the better.
Named after Madison Murray (1821-1897), the Murray Cemetery dates back to 1856 — a mere one-hundred years before I was born and twenty-two years before the town of Rockdale was incorporated. The earliest grave in the cemetery is that of Nancy Phillips and dates back to 1856. Nancy was forty-three years old when she died.
Situated on the gently rolling terrain of central Texas, the location of the cemetery is absolutely idyllic. Many of the beautiful trees at the sight were saplings in the days of the earliest burials. The once beautiful tombstones placed in memory of loved ones remain in place, but with their names and epithets slowly being erased by the passage of time.
My curiosity is always stirred when I stroll through old cemeteries. I wonder about the person who died. How did they face death? What unfinished work did they leave behind? Who attended their funeral? Who returned to place flowers on their grave? The questions just keep coming but with no one to answer them.
The reality is that one day many of us will end up in a cemetery, with a tombstone offering the world the briefest of information about us — the dates of our birth and death but nothing about what happened in-between those dates. Perhaps a line carved in stone to tell the world something about what we meant to our loved ones. Or perhaps a word about our profession or our belief about what lies beyond the grave.
As you travel Texas backroads, don’t be in a hurry. Instead take the time to stop and walk through old cemeteries. Reflect on the brevity of life and the passing of time. And then resolve to invest most in those who will cry at your funeral.
Cemeteries seldom make the list of must-see places on road trip adventures, and understandably so. After all, there are many more inviting and cheerful options to visit than final resting places. But, don’t let that stop you from considering a visit to some of the most fascinating and historical spots in the Lone Star State — old cemeteries.
One of Texas’ most interesting old cemeteries also bears the distinction of having one of the creepiest names on record for a cemetery — Baby Head Cemetery. Located about 9 miles north of Llano along Highway 16, this place is definitely worth visiting.
As the story goes, sometime between 1850 and 1875 a small child in the area was kidnapped and killed by Indians in an effort to discourage settlers to the area. Some oral traditions claim that the baby’s head was placed on a spike as a warning to encroaching settlers. Consequently, the mountain (or better yet, hill) where this incident allegedly happened was named Babyhead Mountain.
In the 1870s, a pioneer community was founded near the mountain and became known as Baby Head. A post office was established there in 1879 and remained in operation until 1918. The small rural community which once had numerous farms, homes, and business eventually dwindled to only a handful of folks. The cemetery is the last physical reminder of the Baby Head community.
Baby Head Cemetery is the final resting place for a few dozen folks, many of whom died in the 19th century and some as recently as the past few years. Many of the old headstones are so weathered that they are hard to read. But, in spite of their deteriorating condition, you can still make out the epitaphs on many of the old tombstones.
The epitaph on the headstone of two-year old Texas Calvin, the daughter of W.T. and M.A. Mc Coy expresses the hope of these parents who suffered the loss of their little girl. The inscription is a silent reminder that they grieved with hope:
Farewell sweet little Texas
Farewell on earth to thee
Sleep sweetly sleep beneath the tomb
The angels o’er thee watch
And when we meet in heaven above
We will part no more
Perhaps the most poignant epitaph was the one I read on the broken headstone marking the grave of Susan McCoy who died in 1893.
Remember friends as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me
There is a lot of Texas history in our old cemeteries. Walking slowly among the graves always makes me wonder about the stories of those at rest beneath old and broken headstones. Reading the fading epitaphs also makes me think about what final message I will leave on my headstone for those who will stroll through cemeteries long after I am gone.
Situated on a bluff in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the tiny community of Lajitas silently overlooks the lumbering Rio Grande River. Lajitas is Spanish for “little flat rocks” — a reference to the Boquillas flagstone of the area. Long before Anglo-Americans arrived on the scene, this arid territory was inhabited first by Mexican Indians and later by the Apache and Comanche.
The discovery of mercury in nearby Terlingua changed everything. Starting in the late 1800s, the populations of Lajitas and Terlingua surged as a steady stream of miners moved in to the area to work the mercury mines. Conditions in the mine were dangerous. Life in Lajitas was not for the fainthearted. Only the rugged survived.
During the days of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing established a large cavalry post at Lajitas in 1916. Pershing spent several years unsuccessfully pursuing Poncho Villa, the famous Mexican Revolutionary general, around northern Mexico. Pursuing anyone in the vast and unforgiving Chihuahuan Desert was a huge undertaking.
Today, the small Lajitas Cemetery is one of the must-see points of interest in the area. Like the nearby Terlingua Cemetery, this burial ground is filled with many fascinating old graves. Sadly, most of the names carved into handcrafted wooden crosses are no longer readable. Only the remaining descendants of the deceased know for certain who is buried beneath the rocky cairns.
In 1991, a woman named Elie Webb initiated a restoration project at the cemetery. Under her supervision, a fence was built around the cemetery and a gate and arch added. Webb also added iron crosses to many of the graves. Today, however, even these improvements are losing the battle against the harsh desert environment.
Old cemeteries like the one in Lajitas are worth visiting. These old burial grounds are like dusty history books that can give us a little insight into what life was like in the days of cowboys, indians, and mercury miners. As you travel down Texas highways and byways, make it a point to stop at old cemeteries. These old burial grounds have their own interesting stories to tell.
Terlingua is one of the most fascinating places to visit in the Lone Star State. If you want to see this old mining town, then you have to adjust your compass settings to off-the-beaten-path. What remains of Terlingua is nestled between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park in far southwest Texas.
The name Terlingua is derived from the Spanish words “tres” and “lenguas,” meaning “three tongues.” Some folks say three tongues refers to Native American, Spanish, and English — the three languages spoken in the early days of the region. Others insist that the name refers to the three forks of Terlingua Creek. Either way, Terlingua is a cool name that somehow fits this rugged and hard place.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Terlingua became a flourishing mining town that yielded copious amounts of mercury, called quicksilver at the time. Today, Terlingua is a ghost town — the most visited ghost town in Texas. The town still has a few residents who live among abandoned ruins slowly being reclaimed by wind and weather. Visitors will find unique lodging options, a few places to eat, art galleries, a trading company, and a whole lot of vast open spaces and endless skies.
One of the most interesting places in Terlingua is the old cemetery that dates back to the 1900s. Workers who lost their lives in the mines, victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918, gunfighters who were seconds too slow on the draw, and early residents are all buried there. Every year in November, folks gather at the cemetery to celebrate Day of the Dead and to offer their respect to the departed.
Walking slowly among the old graves is a sobering experience — the kind that makes you reflect on just how hard life is in this remote and rugged land. Names of the departed etched on weathered wooden crosses are no longer legible. Creosote, ocotillo, and cactus cling to life among the rocks that cover the graves. Plastic flowers and miscellaneous mementos placed on graves are the only indications that some of the dead are not yet forgotten.
The Terlingua Cemetery is a time-capsule. Every grave holds secrets and stories that will never be told. Visitors can only speculate about the deceased and what their daily lives must have been like in days when quicksilver turned this region from a sleepy little village into a community of a couple of thousand — and eventually into a ghost town.
Even though Terlingua is out of the way and far from just about any place in the Lone Star State, it’s definitely worth visiting. And, when in Terlingua, take a quiet and meditative stroll through the historic Terlingua Cemetery. You’ll be reminded that we are only here for a season and then we too will be laid to rest somewhere, maybe even in an old cemetery like the one in Terlingua. As for me, it doesn’t matter where you bury me as long as it’s in Texas.
Cemeteries, with few exceptions, do not rank high on lists of places to visit. But, perhaps they should. Cemeteries, after all, are the resting places of those who, to whatever degree, have influenced the course of our own lives. If we look back and connect the dots, then the dots in our respective stories will eventually lead us back to a cemetery — perhaps to the grave of a family member or a friend or some historical figure whose life had a far-reaching impact.
The Founders Memorial Cemetery is the oldest burial ground in Houston and certainly one of the most interesting. Dedicated by the city as a memorial park in 1836, this tranquil two-acre cemetery is the final resting place of several figures important to the history of Houston and the Lone Star State. A marker at the cemetery notes: “This park is dedicated to the men and women — many of whom sleep here — who founded and defended the Republic of Texas. May they rest in peace”
The land for the cemetery was donated by the Allen Brothers in 1836, the same year these brothers founded the city of Houston. In those years the cemetery was located at the outskirts of town. Today, it is surrounded by skyscrapers and adjacent to Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church in Houston’s Fourth Ward — once known as Freedman’s Town, a community originally settled by freed slaves.
No one knows for sure how many people are buried in this old cemetery. The city did not maintain the best of burial records in its very early days. According to a conservative estimate, there may be as many as 850 graves at the site. During the yellow fever and cholera epidemics of the 1850s, many people died and were quickly interred, some in mass graves. What we do know is that there are approximately eighty headstones at the cemetery, many so weather-beaten that their epitaphs are indecipherable.
There are 28 Texas Centennial Monuments at the cemetery, more than in any other cemetery in Texas except the State Cemetery in Austin. These mark the graves of veterans of the Battle of San Jacinto, dignitaries who served the Republic of Texas, prominent pioneer families and Houston citizens, John Kirby Allen who co-founded Houston, the mother of Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar, and a signer a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence.
Founders Memorial Cemetery is located just west of downtown Houston at 1217 West Dallas. The entrance is located at the intersection of West Dallas and Valentine Street. The memorial park is maintained by the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and is open from dawn to dusk. If you are planning to visit the San Jacinto Monument or other historical sites in the greater Houston area, then add this cemetery to your list. Walk slowly and respectfully among the graves of those who helped shape the history of the Lone Star State.