Lucy Kramer has driven past Boothill Cemetery countless times going to and from the Heights. But before this spring the Billings native had never made the short walk up to the historic site nestled against the eastern half of the Rims near Swords Park.
The cemetery was the final resting place of Coulson townsfolk. Today it serves as the last vestige of the pioneer town that predated Billings’ foundation in 1882 by five years. Not much else is known about the cemetery. How many people rest there, who those people are and where exactly they're buried remains a mystery.
It's the town that wasn't, or maybe almost was, Billings.
Kramer is working to answer some of those questions. Along with four other history students at Montana State University Billings, she is mapping the graves, adding to the limited knowledge of the pre-railroad town’s burial ground.
“Who else lives here and has never once thought about Coulson?” Kramer said of current Billings residents. “It’s fun to be able to get out as part of a class to share what we learn with our family and friends.”
The semester-long project began as the brainchild of Shelli Mann almost a year ago. Mann, manager of the Boothill Inn across from the cemetery, wanted to mark and honor the grave sites accurately and learn the cemetery's story.
“I’ve wandered the cemetery many times and I was dismayed that so much was lost to history,” Mann said.
She first approached the Western Heritage Center and the Yellowstone County Museum. They pointed her to Tom Rust, a history professor at MSUB.
Rust thought the project perfectly coincided with a class he teaches every two years, Historical Archaeology in the Americas. Two years ago the class worked on a Lewis and Clark campsite found near Park City.
This year’s location was much more convenient and allowed the students to engage in their community, fitting with MSUB’s "service-learning" initiative, which emphasizes learning and teaching through community projects, Rust said.
“Doing this history stuff you can feel a part of the community,” Jeffery Flechsing said, a sophomore in history at MSUB. “People are welcoming — like, talking about it around town, and people will say, 'Wow, that’s really cool.’”
All five students agreed: learning the history of Billings helped them feel closer to the town.
“Finding out about your city and where you live, and understanding the roots is a pretty amazing thing,” Levi Mattson said.
Arielle Gorder, a senior at MSUB, appreciated being able to contribute to the town in a meaningful way.
"By doing this site surveying and getting this information out there, it allows us to bring a piece of history back from Coulson to Billings," she said.
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Seeing the project unearth Coulson citizens' history has been deeply moving for Mann.
“For instance, a lady of the evening walked into the river and killed herself,” Mann said. “That story really made me sad because you know she was a victim of her circumstances at the least, and sex trafficked at the worst. She was one of our earliest victims.”
That woman was Louisa “LuLu” Carter, 25, and is one of the few known women to rest at Boothill, at least according to a Billings Gazette article on the cemetery from 1927.
Arguably the most well-known Coulson history is the story of city pioneer H.M. “Muggins” Taylor.
Taylor, deputy sheriff of Coulson, was shot and killed in 1882. Locally, he was famous for bringing the news of the Battle of the Little Bighorn to Bozeman in 1876.
He was gunned down in Coulson's laundry as he tried to stop the laundress' husband from beating her.
Other folks laid to rest there aren't known as well, such as Frank Redman, who was shot and killed after a gambling saloon patron badly lost and said he'd "shoot the next person who speaks to me." Redman had the misfortune of entering the room and greeting the gamblers.
How many people rest in Boothill cemetery is unknown, too. Records show one mass grave of 13 U.S. soldiers. There are records for about 30 people, including the soldiers, according to the national historic registry for the site. But the records vary, and it's estimated there could be more than 100 bodies buried in the small bluff.
On Sunday the group of five students and Rust surveyed the land to find where the actual grave sites are, and perhaps get a better idea of the correct count. To identify the graves the students conducted three surveys: a pedestrian survey, magnetometer and ground-mapping radar. They’ll cross-reference those three data sets to find the most accurate locations for the graves.
The pedestrian survey included finding and marking places where a grave appeared to be, including mounds or ground depressions in the field. The magnetometer and radar show what’s underneath. Despite the rain, on Sunday the group of five students had already found five or more possible grave sites before lunch.
“We ran over this big mound that we have at the cemetery (with radar) and it looked to us like we could see five pretty solid graves, but there could be up to seven or eight,” MSUB student Ben McMaster said. “It’s kind of cool that we saw the big mound, had a prediction and ran the radar.”
Once surveying is complete and they have their data sets, the students will finish compiling their data and add it to their semester-long archival research of the history of the cemetery.
Mann is hoping the data and definitive grave sites will lead to more recognition for the site.
She's planning on working with the Western Heritage Center and the Yellowstone County Museum to write a grant and get funding to mark the graves. She worked on the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site and would like to see something more like that at Boothill, she said.
"I felt like it was time we took care of the final resting place for those Coulson city pioneers, adventurers and heroes that were here before Billings even existed," she said.