It’s a full-on detective mission at three historic Southwest Colorado cemeteries.
Ruth Lambert with the San Juan Mountains Association said that around 2008, a large-scale project sought to document about 100 historic sites in the region, many of which included cemeteries that dated to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
So, around 2016, when preservation efforts began to focus on three of the cemeteries, Lambert jumped in.
“I thought it was important to document,” she said. “The history should be known and acknowledged.”
The cemeteries are in Pagosa Junction, Juanita and Trujillo, all former railroad towns in Archuleta County. The mostly Hispanic communities thrived with the arrival of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad in 1881 and dispersed in the 1920s, when a new highway was built.
The land for the Pagosa Cemetery was donated by the Gomez family around 1908, but there were clear signs settlers had been buried there since the late 1880s, Lambert said. An estimated 75 people are buried there now, she said, and funerals still occur from time to time.
The first church was built in Juanita in 1908, and a cemetery was established next to it. The earliest marked grave, Lambert said, is from 1909. The original church burned down, and a new one was built in 1924. About 65 graves are located there, and the cemetery is still in use.
Trujillo’s earliest known burial was in 1908. The cemetery was donated to the Catholic Church in the 1930s, Lambert said. Now, about 120 people are buried there.
For the past few years, Lambert and a multitude of volunteers, working with the support of grant money, have attempted to document each cemetery and record every person buried there.
But identifying each burial can be difficult in a century-old graveyard that’s had little upkeep over the years.
“One of the big uses in rural cemeteries is the unmarked graves,” Lambert said. “As many as 50% of the gravesites can be unmarked.”
It takes a keen eye to find an unmarked grave, looking for tip-offs like the orientation of a row of graves or looking for fieldstones, which were used instead of headstones in the early days.
On top of field surveys, Lambert and others used church and mortuary records and even interviewed descendants to determine who was buried at the cemeteries.
After Lambert recently gave a presentation about the three cemeteries, an audience member said they had a family member buried at the Pagosa Junction site – a person who was not on Lambert’s original list.
“Now, I have that information,” she said.
In her career, Lambert has researched about 20 historic cemeteries, and one tragic detail is abundantly clear: About one-third of the gravesites are for children 10 and younger, a sign of the high child mortality rate from disease and birth.
“When children die, sometimes their grave is the only public recognition they ever lived,” Lambert said.
The Juanita cemetery has an organization that oversees and maintains the site, Lambert said. But at Pagosa Junction and Trujillo, that work is typically left up to the family members and descendants who have an ancestor buried there.
When the project is complete, a database will be housed at Fort Lewis College’s Center of Southwest Studies so the public can search for family members if they believe they are buried at one of the three cemeteries.
There will also be links to photographs of each of the headstones, and a research report will be published and available locally.
“These sites tend to just be forgotten,” Lambert said. “And this will help people know something about them.”