Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Holiday Diaries: Vulture City, Arizona

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I’ve just returned from a family trip to Arizona, USA! My in-laws recently retired and built a house down there, and this was our first trip down to see the new place, as well as the rest of the family for American Thanksgiving. It was super fun to explore a new spot, and see a load of cacti and interesting animals that we definitely don’t have in Newfoundland (although I still haven’t seen any javelinas…), and of course see all of my husband’s family who we haven’t see since at least 2019 or earlier!

One of the most exciting non-family-visiting parts of the trip was the opportunity to visit the famous Vulture City, tucked in the shadow of the looming Vulture Peak. There is a hiking trail to the top of the mountain, but unfortunately it was closed for maintenance while we were there, so hopefully on a future visit we’ll get a really good view of the site! Vulture City was founded in 1863, after Henry Wickenburg, a Germany immigrant, found gold in a nearby quartz outcrop. Soon after the Vulture Mine was established and the settlement soon followed. You can find out a little more about the history of the community at the link HERE, as well as some amazing historic photos. The mine was in operation from 1863 to 1942, when it closed due to WWII (and actually it’s back in operation today, but that property is not open to the public). There is something deathy in this holiday diary too, so read on!

The restored Assay office building, Vulture City, AZ (photo by author 2022).

Vulture City is a really amazing site, and I totally recommend visiting them (and donating to its restoration if you can)! We first heard of the site through Buzzfeed Unsolved, who visited in 2017 prior to the restoration of a number of the buildings. They visited before the modern mine spread over a large area of the property, and they were able to visit the unfortunately named ‘Glory Hole’, where a number of miners and donkeys died after a portion of the underground mining operation collapsed. Allegedly, they were sneaking in at night to mine out extra ore from the support pillars that…held up the mine…which seems like a very silly thing to do. Unfortunately because of the continued mining next door, we weren’t able to visit that portion of the site! We also saw two episodes of the infamous ‘Ghost Adventures’ where Zach Bagelbites..er..Baggins, and team visit the site and pick through the ruins of the Assay office and other buildings, yelling about bumps in the night and nearly getting washed away by a flash flood. Those episodes can be found in Season 3, Episode 1: Vulture Mine, and Season 21, Episode 8: Disturbed in Wickenburg. They were all very interested in the ‘hanging tree’ which stands just outside the home of Wickenburg himself.

The property came under new ownership in 2017 and money has been raised to undertake major restorations on the property. This involved collaborating with historians and adobe architecture specialists from Mexico in order to restore 15 buildings across the site, and even move several structures which would have otherwise been impacted negatively by the expanding modern mining operation next door. If you watch any of those episodes above you can see what the structures looked like prior to this amazing work, and there are some before and after photos on their website HERE as well. It’s wonderful to see such care for such an interesting site!

One aspect of the site that I was really interested in seeing, was whether or not I would be able to identify through aerial photos available online where some of the structures came from, and there was a lot of success here! Luckily there isn’t too much in the desert to obscure mine shaft openings from the air besides the shadows of giant saguaro cactus all over the place. In the screenshots from Google Earth below, you can see the stark difference between early 2017 and 2022! It is clear that along with several buildings that are still in situ in the town centre, additional structures were moved to the site in order to preserve them. You can also see how close the modern mine has gotten to the edges of the historic site, with fences to the north and west sides to protect visitors from the active operation. Unfortunately, that is also where portions of the historic mine were also located, making them inaccessible today.

The heritage site managed to relocate and reconstruct one of the most important aspects of a mining operation like Vulture Mine, the headframe. A headframe for a mine is a large structural component which would be used to haul mine carts, materials, and sometimes personnel out of the mine. As you can see in the 2013 image below, it was previously located to the south of one of the depressions that was once a mine, with a structure to the west that once housed a forge for machinery parts and repairs. By 2017 the encroaching modern mine and the push to restore the site meant that the headframe and forge would have to be moved, and were relocated to near the town centre by late 2017. This was clear through the aerial images available publicly through Google Earth! It’s so cool that you can use these tools available to everyone to trace the restoration efforts of historic sites. It’s a little bit of historic and industrial archaeology for you, too!

In the Ghost Adventures, they tried to make connections with the folks that were hung for various offences on the hanging tree, as well as Henry Wickenburg himself, who they said died penniless of a gunshot to the head. While that part may be true, Wickenburg either died by suicide or murder, by that point he had moved to the town of modern-day Wickenburg, and was buried in a cemetery there. You can see a photo of his home and grave site on the town’s website HERE. Vulture City, however, did have its own cemetery, so lets talk about that!

Known as the Verde Flat Cemetery, this burial site was established in 1870. Vulture City was an extremely prosperous gold mine that had around 5000 people, including families, at its largest, and it makes sense that they’d have needed their own burial space to service the population. The site is located off the modern main road, approximately 820m southwest of the town centre. It is located on the other side of the mine from the living / everyday area, suggesting that the miners and their families did not want the reminder of mortality in their day-to-day lives. You cannot see the cemetery from the historic town as it stands today, but there may have been more houses closer in that direction in the 19th century. However, by the 19th century it was common for burial grounds to be established on the outskirts of communities, rather than the more integrated burial traditions in North American settler towns that we are used to in the 17th or early 18th centuries.

Grave marked by rocks and a white wood cross (photo by author 2022).

Another very interesting feature of this western cemetery (western here used to mean western settler American culture) is that the graves are marked by linear piles of rocks. In sites with more top soil, we are used to seeing flat graves, or even a slight or pronounced indent into the ground indicating where the grave is, but out here in the desert where there is very little top soil, graves were covered by piles of rocks. This could be duel purpose; the rocks could be to prohibit livestock and wild animals from rooting around the ground where people have been buried, and also to add some extra covering to what is otherwise likely a shallow grave. While ‘6 feet under’ historically was not a thing that people followed, and many earlier colonial graves were around 3 feet deep, based on the outcrops of bedrock nearby, miners may have struggled to dig even that deep out here.

The wood crosses appear to have been added during a contemporary preservation effort at the cemetery to mark the graves, and many of them had American pennies and small toys sitting on or around the crosses. If the graves had historically been marked with wood markers of any kind, they either fell apart or were replaced, so it is impossible to know if any of them had inscriptions or carvings on them. We did not see any stone grave markers. at this site either, which is unfortunate as I’d have loved to know the names of some of the people buried here!

There is very little information about this site available online. One website has some documentation on apparent names of some individuals buried there, but considering a number are listed as ‘Jane/John Doe’, and does not cite sources of where these names came from, I am not including that website in this post. If anyone knows where to look for more information about who is buried at the site, definitely let me know! It was very interesting to visit this site in person, and to see a burial practice so different from what we are used to in the northeast, although I do appreciate that the plants we typically see up here are less pointy.

And that’s the post! I really enjoyed my visit to the Vulture City site and cemetery, and I can’t wait to see what the owners do in terms of restoration in the future! It is definitely a historic site worth visiting while you’re in Arizona. I’m hoping on our next trip down, I can visit a few more burial sites! (Oh, and in case you were wondering, we didn’t see any ghosts lurking in the assay office or around the hanging tree)

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

2 thoughts on “Holiday Diaries: Vulture City, Arizona

  1. I had a question about the location of cemeteries in relation to mining settlements. Do you think that there would have been planning involved in locating cemeteries away from the mining area, in order to avoid having to disturb graves when a mining area would inevatibly expand in its lifecourse?

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    • Hi Erik, thanks for reading! Yes, I believe that they would have purposefully placed the burial place far away from the mining operations with the goal of not having them impacted by the mine. The mine at Vulture City was pretty well between the city and the cemetery, so that definitely makes sense!

      Liked by 1 person

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