The Indy's Halloween Issue



Where the bodies are buried

Digging up the past at Missoula's lost cemeteries

by Kate Whittle

In August, construction workers digging a trench for a water line near Rattlesnake Elementary unearthed something unexpected: a human skull. Authorities eventually called in Ashley Kendell, a visiting anthropology professor of at the University of Montana, to oversee the site while workers continued to dig. The case came about rather suddenly for Kendell, who'd just moved to Montana from Michigan.

"Yeah, it was really high profile," Kendell says. "It started about two weeks after I arrived in Montana."


For an anthropologist, skulls and bones aren't just macabre Halloween symbols, but a way to understand how humans lived in the past. Kendell and a team of UM anthropology students took the skull and other bones and artifacts uncovered in the excavation back to campus for further study. She says she isn't yet ready to release the results of what they found, but it's not a mystery where the skull came from—Rattlesnake Elementary sits on top of the former Missoula County Poor Farm and over 1,000 pauper's graves.

In the early 1880s, when Missoula's population was growing, county commissioners established the Poor Farm and Pest House on 40 acres in the Rattlesnake to provide housing and health care, according to historic documents provided by the Missoula City Cemetery. The Pest House served as a primitive public health service, and typically housed people with contagious diseases like smallpox. Sick people were placed alone in quarantine while their families left meals and supplies outside their doors.

The Poor Farm, meanwhile, served as a catchall for people with a wide variety of needs, from addiction to mental illness to physical disability. When residents died, they were interred under what's now the elementary school baseball field. The farm ceased operation after a fire burned it down in 1936.

Kendell notes that it might seem disconcerting to find out that a known burial site has been developed over, but it's not uncommon in more densely populated regions.

"It depends, but I've heard of it happening," Kendell says.

Nor is the Poor Farm the only known burial site in the valley. According to historic documents from the Missoula City Cemetery, it's easy to find several historic burial sites around the valley. Many rest under places where people live and work today.

Native American relics and remains periodically turn up on the University of Montana campus and Grant Creek neighborhood, both of which were active camping grounds for tribes for centuries. In the 1950s, workers excavating a site on West Broadway that's now the Missoula Fresh Market found a wooden box containing a skeleton wearing moccasins and tiny white beads. Anthropologists determined the moccasin style belonged to tribes of interior and eastern Canada, and the skeleton likely predated the founding of Missoula by several decades.

Missoula City Cemetery - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula City Cemetery

In the early 1800s, as white settlers arrived in the Missoula Valley, they often interred their dead on family homesteads or along wagon trails and railroads. As the valley became more populated, settlers established more well-documented gravesites. The Missoula International School, formerly the Prescott School, sits at the base of Mount Jumbo on top of a known cemetery established by Chinese immigrants as early as 1883. The Chinese people likely chose the scenic site as a way to honor their ancestors. In 1937, construction work on Cherry Street unearthed a silver-handled casket that contained silk trousers, a robe and a brick inscribed with Chinese letters that translate to "Foo Lim is Buried Here."

Today, Missoula families can choose from a few different public and private active cemeteries, including Missoula City Cemetery, St. Mary's Cemetery, and Sunset Memorial Gardens. More than 21,000 burials and memorials reside at Missoula City Cemetery alone.

As for the remains found recently near Rattlesnake Elementary, Kendell says she and other scientists at UM are examining the bones to figure out how many individuals they might belong to and their age, sex and ancestry. Just examining a skull can tell Kendell things like whether the person was male, Caucasian and an adult between 35 and 50. Anthropologists and archaeologists can also turn to DNA analysis for more clues.

Eventually, the county coroner will oversee the bones' interment at a local cemetery.

"You can learn quite a bit from skulls," Kendell says. "We're trying to get as much information as we can, and treat the remains with as much respect as we can."

Jumping off the page

Ellen Baumler brings Montana ghost stories to life

by Erika Fredrickson

In Ghosts of the Last Best Place, author Ellen Baumler explores hauntings across the state with the suspenseful voice of a campfire storyteller. Baumler is no stranger to these spooky narratives—she's written five books on the topic. The historian's latest collection features everything from how Sleeping Child Hot Springs got its name (from a cannibalistic child ghost) to the mystery surrounding the "Yellowstone whispers." We spoke with Baumler about some of these stories, as well as how she tries to balance straightforward history with the precariousness of the unknown.

>Give an example of a haunted place you didn't know about before.

Ellen Baumler: Brush Lake. I had been up to Plentywood, but I had never been quite that far afield for any length of time. [Sheridan County planner] Doug Smith had approached me some years ago about this experience he had at the lake with these noises—these "acoustic anomalies." Brush Lake has a very different type of history with some real mysteries associated with it, plus deaths that were really interesting to research.


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