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Borderlands: Pioneer Ranch became Concordia Cemetery 19 (2000)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Pioneer Ranch became Concordia Cemetery

Article first published in Vol. 19, 2000.

By Rudy Sepulveda, Susan Mettlen and Lucia Shope

On Sunday, April 9, of this year, approximately 1,000 people assembled to get into Concordia Cemetery. No, they weren't dying to get in, but they did pay to enter. The event was the sixth annual "Walk Through History," sponsored by the Concordia Heritage Association. The purpose was to raise money to help improve the appearance of the cemetery located at Interstate 10 and U.S. 54 and to bring El Paso's history alive.

Various groups and individuals took on the roles of gunfighters, shady ladies, buffalo soldiers and other early characters. Tours of the various parts of the cemetery revealed the different ethnic and religious groups who settled this part of the Southwest. For over 100 years, Concordia Cemetery has played an important role in El Paso. The rich, the poor, the famous, the notorious: all have a resting place here. 

""Image caption:  An unkempt section of Concordia Cemetery with the Franklin Mountains in the background.  (Photo courtesy of Sylvia Hernandez and Susan Mettlen)

The cemetery had its beginnings as a ranch settled by pioneer Hugh Stephenson and his wife, Juana Maria Ascarate. Between 1930 and 1940, the settlement came to be known as Concordia, after the Missouri town in which Stephenson was raised. Born in Kentucky, Stephenson arrived in the area around 1824, one of the first Anglo-American settlers. A hunter and trapper, he later became a trader with mining interests in Mexico. There he met his wife, the daughter of wealthy landowners.

 In 1854, a chapel and cemetery were built at the Stephensons' ranch. The chapel was named "San Jose de Concordia el Alto." On February 6, 1856, a pet deer gored Juana Ascarate Stephenson, and she became the first person to be buried in the Concordia Cemetery. Stephenson lost his land after the Civil War, but his son-in-law, Albert H. French, purchased the Concordia property at a federal marshal's sale in 1867. French sold each of the Stephenson's heirs an equal portion of the property for a dollar. By the 1880s, various groups interested in establishing cemeteries were contacting the heirs. The city of El Paso bought its first part of the cemetery in 1882 as a burial ground for paupers.

By the 1890s, sections had been purchased by different groups and were designated Jesuit, Catholic, Masonic, Jewish, Black, Chinese, military, city, county and other ethnic and social groups. Today, Concordia has about 65,000 individual graves. Historian Dena Hirsch refers to Concordia Cemetery as "a collection of privately owned, publicly owned, and non-owned burial lands" consisting of 54 acres. Thus, no one organization or person accepts responsibility for maintaining Concordia.

The history of El Paso can be found in the various sections of the cemetery. Various religious leaders are buried in Concordia. Reverend Joseph Tays, an Episcopal missionary who founded El Paso's first Protestant church, arrived in El Paso in 1870, a widower with two boys. C. L. Sonnichsen records the story that a month after he began his mission in El Paso, Tays sent word to Austin that he was "doing his best."

Tays was learning Spanish and at least one saloon keeper had closed his doors and found another vocation because of him. He not only preached and taught, he worked in real estate and served the county as surveyor. Tays laid the cornerstone of the first St. Clement's Episcopal Church on Christmas day in 1881.

Leon Metz writes that after having conducted the funeral of a smallpox victim, Tays contracted the dreaded disease himself and died after a week's suffering. Late in the evening of November 21, two men from the city wrapped Parson Tay's body in a sheet and delivered it quickly to Concordia. He was buried without ceremony in the middle of the night during a violent rain storm. The man who had helped so many in early El Paso was buried with only two grave diggers present.

The Chinese section includes the graves of early railroad workers who chose to stay in El Paso after helping the railroads reach the city. (See story on Chinese Immigrants in this issue.)

Older tombstones are rectangular and have only the person's name in Chinese engraved on them. More recent graves may contain more information about the deceased, but the name of the individual is engraved in Chinese.

The Jesuit section includes the grave of Carlos Pinto, S. J., founder of five Catholic churches, and other Jesuit leaders who established many of El Paso's Catholic schools, churches and social services in the 19th century.

Other prominent leaders buried at Concordia include James H. Biggs, World War I aviator for whom Biggs Field is named; Richard Caples, former mayor and builder of the Caples Building in downtown El Paso; former county judge and Mayor Joseph Sweeney, who established the first paid fire department in El Paso in 1909; and Dr. M. P. Schuster, a founder of Providence Memorial Hospital.

Mexican Revolution leader and ally to Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, was originally buried at Concordia, but his remains later were moved to Mexico. Orozco's enemy, and former President of Mexico, Victoriano Huerta also was buried at Concordia, but his body was later moved to Evergreen Cemetery. Many other civic leaders, pioneers and war veterans lie buried in Concordia.

However, it is the grave of a notorious gunfighter that gets all the attention. John Wesley Hardin gained his reputation by supposedly killing more people than Billy the Kid and Jesse James. He was killed on August 19, 1895, at the Acme Saloon downtown by John Selman, a sometime lawman who had been on both sides of the law. Selman, in turn, was killed by another gunslinger. Ironically, Wyndam Kemp, who was Selman's lawyer, and Jeff Melton, Acme Saloon owner, are buried not too far from Hardin.

In 1995, descendants of Hardin came to El Paso to remove the gunfighter's remains and reinter them in Nixon, Texas. A court injunction stopped them and a judge has since ruled that Hardin's remains will stay in El Paso. Various groups have publicized the fact that several figures of El Paso's wild and wooly days are buried in Concordia. They are attempting to get the word out that Concordia is El Paso's "Boot Hill," and encourage tourists to visit the historical site. Once in El Paso, these visitors can learn of the various cultures reflected in the city and tour other points of interest in Texas, New Mexico and Mexico.

Since 1990, the Concordia Heritage Association has been working to preserve and restore the central El Paso historic cemetery. Establishing official boundaries for the cemetery will enable the Association to try for national historic cemetery status. This designation would allow the group to apply for federal grants to help pay for improvements.

El Paso has a 400 year history it needs to capitalize on. Part of this history is recorded in Concordia Cemetery. In the background is Mount Franklin and Scenic Drive, two other historical sites in El Paso. The success of the most recent Walk Through History seems to reflect a renewed interest in the cemetery, perhaps encouraging others to join the Concordia Heritage Association in cleaning and maintaining the historical site.

Concordia Sources

Along the Rio Grande 50: The panel discusses the annual “Walk through History” at Concordia Cemetery.
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