Raising the dead

Discovery of human remains at old cemetery could mark beginning of end of a local man’s long quest to honor his ancestors

“I’ve got a lot of family history up here,” said Bob Johnson as he walked around Mountain View Cemetery in Dillon on a seasonably chilly, snowy afternoon last week.

“This one here,” said Johnson, pointing to the grave of Albert Sidney Johnson, the man who dropped the “t” from the family’s original last name of Johnston, “that’s my grandfather.

“He fought in the Spanish-American War,” continued Johnson, a descendant of some of the earliest and most prominent families in Beaverhead County history, including the Poindexters, Barnetts and Johnson/Johnstons.

“And then, that’s where Poindexters are buried. One was governor of Hawaii,” added Johnson, referring to Joseph Boyd Poindexter, the husband of Margaret Conger who made the long, unlikely journey from Beaverhead County (where he served as county attorney 1897–1903) to Hawaii (where he became territorial governor in 1934).

“You wouldn’t think a Montanan could do that,” smiled Johnson. “I had to look him up online just to be sure I knew what I was talking about.”

Johnson has spent much of the past 16 years convincing people he knew what he was talking about in reference to the resting place of some of his other area ancestors.

The retiree has done that to try to help those ancestors make a much shorter, but perhaps more unlikely journey—to family plots at Mountain View Cemetery from what had essentially become unmarked graves at a local cemetery established in the 19th century but later abandoned and enveloped by a ranch just south of Dillon by Poindexter Slough.

“It’s just because I didn’t like seeing them buried out there—water lines going through them, cows out there bedding down on top of them, the grass couldn’t be cut,” commented Johnson of the motivation behind his drive to identify and move the remains of relatives from the old Poindexter Cemetery (also known as Cottonwood Cemetery).

Some bodies that had been buried at the old cemetery had been exhumed and transferred to Mountain View Cemetery long ago. But more human remains remained at the old graveyard, Johnson contended for over the past decade and a half.

“It got to where anybody I could corner for a few minutes, I would tell them all about it,” smiled Johnson.

A few weeks ago, he found out he was indeed right.

With permission from the current landowner and other legal hurdles cleared, a crew of city workers along with Dillon Mayor Mike Klakken and Beaverhead County Coroner Ron Briggs visited the old Poindexter Cemetery Oct. 16–17, with a variety of tools and began digging.

“We dug up ten different sites, of those we found about four open caskets with no remains,” Dillon Council Cemetery Committee Chair Don Hand reported at the Oct. 18 city council meeting.

Those sites had been noted as potential locations of human remains in the spring by ground-penetrating radar, and Piper and Berkeley—a pair of specially trained border collies and their handlers, Lynne Engelbert and Lynne Angeloro, from the Institute for Canine Forensics (ICF).

“We did find the remains in three caskets. Those remains have been exhumed,” Hand told the council.

The souls of those remains were blessed that day by Pascal Kasanziki, of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church.

“That was very special that he would take the time and come out to do that,” said Johnson.

The remains first went to the county coroner, according to Hand and Klakken, then to state crime lab in Missoula, and then on a long trip south to a lab in Texas.

“The University of Texas,” Hand advised the council, “has expressed a strong interest in a review of the exhumed remains for educational purposes, and then they will be re-interred in Mountain View Cemetery.

“Texas said, ‘Hey, send it down, we’ll do it for you,’” added Klakken. “So, it’s going to be no cost to the city.”

“They are going to attempt to decide who they are, if they can, by pictures and possibly even some DNA, if that’s extractable. said Hand.

Last week, Johnson surveyed a row of orphaned headstones positioned by a fence at Mountain View Cemetery.

“That’s my great-great-grandmother’s,” said Johnson, pointing to a tombstone for Virginia Elizabeth Reynolds (1834–1885). It features a large flower Johnson placed in the crack through its midsecton, but no body lying beneath it.

“This is one I’m hoping they’ve found,” added Johnson of the city’s expedition last week that uncovered human remains at Poindexter Cemetery.

Johnson said he first suspected Poindexter Cemetery might hold the bodies of Reynolds and some of his other ancestors after reading a 2001 Dillon Tribune article about Jennie Johnston, who died of tuberculosis in 1881 at the age of 20 and had been buried at Poindexter Cemetery before being moved to Mountain View.

In 2003, he was able to locate the headstone of Reynolds, who was Jennie Johnston’s mother and his great-great-grandmother, during a trip by himself and some local government officials to Poindexter Cemetery that also uncovered parts of 13 other headstones.

Johnson believed the headstones found at Poindexter Cemetery provided compelling evidence that a number of bodies were still buried there.

“I kept hearing there was nobody out there. I could never find any records that they had been moved, so they had to be out there,” said Johnson.

But the matter had remained unresolved for more than a decade and a half, though not for lack of trying by Johnson.

“I truly have been through every corner of Montana trying to get it taken care of,” recalled Johnson, who said he even asked the governor’s office years ago for help with the matter.

“It got to the point where everywhere I went, it was like banging my head against a wall. And my wife got so tired of hearing about it,” added Johnson of his wife, Joanne.

“I’d said, I’d be dead before this gets done. And it’s close,” laughed Johnson.

“I gotta hand it to Mike Klakken, he got it done,” said Johnson of Dillon’s current mayor, who advocated that the city take measures to resolve the matter, including the hiring the ICF dogs and their handlers to inspect the Poindexter Cemetery for human remains in the spring.

“It’s nice to get somewhat of a closure.”