Cynthia Leal Massey
Softcover, 978-1-49304-860-1, 400 pages, $22.95
August 1, 2021
Old cemeteries and church graveyards are seldom well-organized places to learn new things about a state’s or region’s history and cultural diversity. When visiting historic burial sites, it’s always helpful to know where to look and which graves, tombs, or mausoleums display the most enlightening or intriguing information.
Texas now has more than 50,000 cemeteries and graveyards, Cynthia Leal Massey points out in her engaging new book What Lies Beneath: Texas Pioneer Cemeteries and Graveyards. But “pioneer” burial sites can provide the best historical focus. “The pioneer cemeteries—those from the nineteenth century—provide a wealth of information on the people who settled in Texas during its years as a Republic (1836-1845), and after it became the twenty-eighth state in 1845,” she writes. Their grave markers, she adds, also display “the importance, beauty, and meaning of funerary symbols and objects from the nineteenth century.”
What Lies Beneath is organized into ten well-crafted chapters that reflect the state’s ten Texas Heritage Trail Regions. “Each region differs in terrain, culture, and historical context,” the author points out. “The cemeteries within each tell the story of Texas.”
A prizewinning author of several books, including Death of a Texas Ranger (nonfiction) and Fire Lilies (fiction), Massey researched more than a hundred pioneer burial sites, many of which have received special designations from the Texas Historical Commission. To visit them all, she drove several thousand miles around the state from her home in Helotes, near San Antonio. Along the way, she also found and explored several additional burial sites “of significance or intrigue,” including graves of slaves and Civil War soldiers.
The markers, monuments, statuary, and mausoleums highlighted in her book range from a simple headstone honoring an “Unknown Stage-Coach Driver” to elaborate family plots marked by large granite pillars and expensive carved or bronze statues. Some burial sites bear simple inscriptions such as dates of birth and death; others include more detailed, and often poignant, descriptions, including causes of demise, such as gunshot or arrow wounds, suicide, or specific illnesses.
Massey adds engaging and often quirky historical details about some of the more prominent Texian pioneers and infamous renegades. For example, today’s English word “maverick,” meaning “an individual with an independent streak,” can be traced back to Samuel Augustus Maverick (1803-1870), a cattle rancher who fought in the Texas Revolution and served both in Texas Republic and state government. Maverick and family members are interred in San Antonio’s historic City Cemetery #1.
Numerous tombstone and monument markings found in pioneer burial sites are in foreign languages, reflecting the early settlers who came to Texas from Germany, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Mexico, and other parts of the world.
Not all of the burial grounds examined in this informative book have held up well against time and Texas weather. But even the smallest can be full of history, the author points out. For example, in tiny Mobeetie (population 100), founded in 1876 in the Texas Panhandle, “[s]ome of the grave markers have been destroyed by tornadoes and natural decay. Burials include outlaws, accused horse thieves, those killed by an 1898 cyclone, ladies of the evening, and the infant granddaughter of General Sam Houston. In addition, it is the final resting place of the famed Texas Ranger, Captain G.W. Arrington.”
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