Words by Samantha Ford, Research Historian with the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum.
JACKSON, Wyo. — There’s something different about the cemeteries in Jackson Hole. It’s not the scenic mountain views, the adjacent ski trails or the resident wildlife. Unlike most other cemeteries across the country, in Jackson Hole, you won’t find manicured lawns, ornamental sculptures or even a parking spot.
It seems there was never an attempt to bend nature to orderly rows.
A 1963 Jackson Hole Guide article describes the Aspen Hill cemetery as “shaded by native evergreens, and quaking aspen, with beautiful native flowers blooming in season, and lovely native shrubs adding to its beauty.”
The article mentions a fund by the American Legion for the perpetual care of the cemetery. However, it was carefully noted that only the obstructive shrubs would be removed, and the “wildwood beauty” would be preserved.
In 1920, the Aspen Hill Cemetery, where 25 marked graves already existed, was formally deeded to the Town of Jackson and opened as the first public cemetery in the valley. Prior to this, several others had been created by necessity rather than city planning.
The first cemetery was made in 1891 in South Park. There was an outbreak of diphtheria that would claim the lives of two of Sylvester Wilson’s children. Sylvester had led the first families over the Teton Pass in the 1880s, cutting down trees that would create the first wagon route over the mountain.
He chose a hill behind their homestead with views of the Tetons to bury his children, and after a heart attack just four years later, he joined them. Today, there are over 300 recorded internments in the South Park Cemetery.
Two other cemeteries were founded by family loss due to another diphtheria outbreak in 1902; the Elliott Cemetery in Wilson and the Teton (now Granite Ridge) Cemetery in Teton Village.
Children were particularly susceptible to diphtheria, and the Elliott and Mangum families also chose benches offering views on their homesteads as resting places for their loved ones.
The Elliott Cemetery was later donated to the community when the Elliotts relocated to Alta. These small family cemeteries were often opened up to neighbors, and became some of the last records of those who homesteaded these areas as larger ranches purchased the smaller parcels.
In Kelly, the first cemetery was located on a hill behind the community, with sweeping views of the valley. As the Elk Refuge expanded to this area, a new cemetery was founded north of town. Some of the first internments would be in 1927 after the Kelly flood claimed six lives.
The Allen Cemetery in Moran was founded with the tragic and early deaths of two Allen sons, both resulting from falls from a horse.
This small family cemetery was sometimes opened to close family friends, but nearly all the members are related to the Allens.
In 1992 the Jackson Hole Guide article claimed, “In both design and actual appearance, cemeteries, at their best, are reflections of the communities they serve.”
This is definitely the case for Jackson Hole, where the earliest homesteaders were at the mercy of the wilderness they lived in. Jackson’s cemeteries are a result, where the natural landscape is allowed to reclaim a small part of the individuals who carved out the first town sites.
Ultimately, the cemeteries reflect their inhabitants: hardy, rugged, with a strong sense of community.