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Boots on the hill: Billings group revamping frontier cemetery

Posted at 6:22 PM, Dec 11, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-11 20:22:46-05

BILLINGS — Hidden in plain sight, Coulson Boothill Cemetery is all that remains of the town of Coulson besides Coulson Park.

The area has incredible historic significance to Billings and the state of Montana. It’s why one group called the Friends of Coulson Boothill Cemetery is making it their mission to revitalize the cemetery.

Nestled in the Heights, you’ve probably passed by the cemetery a thousand times.

“The town of Coulson was along the banks of the Yellowstone from 1877 to 1882, primarily, that period. That represents the graveyard for the people of Coulson,” said the Western Heritage Center museum director, Kevin Kooistra, at the cemetery on Monday.

There are 35 Coulson residents buried there but it’s thought many more lie in unmarked graves.

“This place is historic in its own right, but it’s the epicenter of so many other things that make this place truly special,” said Dave Wanzenried of Friends of Coulson Boothill Cemetery.

From Luther “Yellowstone” Kelly, a frontiersman who requested to be buried in the Billings area, to the Crow tribe, many have left their mark in the area.

Dave Wanzenried and Kevin Kooistra

“The place of the skulls is just adjacent to us, which was a Crow area where bones were left on the ribbed rock up here,” Kooistra said.

Skeleton Cliff, which is behind the cemetery, is just one part of the area's rich history.

“Immel-Jones massacre. Battle of Poker Flat. William Clark and the Corps of Discovery went right by here,” said Wanzenried.

During the time that Chief Joseph evaded the U.S. Army, one of his scouting parties came across two trappers and killed them.

Those two trappers were mistaken as soldiers and buried elsewhere. When their identities were discovered, they were unearthed and buried at Boothill, two of the first to be buried there. 

Despite all that history, the cemetery has fallen off the radar. Wanzenried said it hasn’t been taken care of since 1929, but he’s trying to change that.

BootHill Cemetery in disarray in 1908

“We’re going to move this sign down and take care of opening this up and creating a more formal entrance,” he said.

Through a partnership with the city and organizations like the Western Heritage Center, the Friends of Coulson Boothill Cemetery are giving the cemetery a facelift.

“We’re going to keep it primitive but maybe provide an information kiosk maybe right here where people can come up and look at information panels and access databases with a QR code and maybe a podcast or two,” Wanzenried said.

It’s a mission that will cost the Friends about $45,000, $15,000 of which they’ve already raised. Wanzenried said they need donations and volunteers.

“Billings is just so rich with historical sites that need a lot of tender, loving, care,” said Wanzenried.

“The more you know about where you live in some ways the more, you’re at home. And what we’re doing at this point is to make sure those sites are protected, preserved, and that we all learn a little bit more about our community,” Kooistra said.

You can donate to the mission through the Billings Community Foundationor Our Montana.