MY UPDATED AND EXPANDED, WALKING TOUR OF THE ALAMO, PART 3: THE LOST CEMETERIES OF SAN ANTONIO

Doing these walking tour posts has been a wonderful journey of discovery for me. This, the third in the series, is about finding the locations of two historic sites within San Antonio that are deeply connected to the history of the city, the Texas Revolution, and the Alamo. However, they are not often talked about, and in some cases, almost forgotten. And their locations are even more hidden than those sites that I’ve presented in my last two posts. I refer to them as the two lost cemeteries of old San Antonio.

Ron Current

The Journey of Discovery Begins

Milam Park was originally the city’s first public cemetery. Photo from the City of San Antonio website.

We’ll begin back at the San Fernando Cathedral. From there we’ll walk west on W Commerce Street until we get to S Santa Rosa Street. Once there you’ll see the historic Market Square, and next to it is Milam Park, our first stop.

Milam Park was named for Texas Revolution hero Benjamin “Ben” Rush Milam, who was killed during the December 1835 Battle of Bexar. The park was established in 1884 by the City of San Antonio after they closed that area as a city cemetery. In 1938, a monument with a statue of Ben Milam (see map #1) was erected on the park’s westside. Milam is buried at the base of this monument. The history of this park, and how “Old Ben” came to be buried there, is an interesting one. 

So, find a comfortable park bench and relax, while I tell their stories.

Milam Park

Milam Park locator map: 1. Ben Milam monument and grave, 2. the center of the park with kiosk, 3. location of Milam’s original granite monument, 4. Monument Honoring Early San Antonio Burials.

In the early history of San Antonio where Milam Park is today was vacant land on the western edge of the town.  Just to the north was San Fernando church’s Campo Santo, the church cemetery. Perhaps, because it was so near to this cemetery, many non-Catholics began using this area to bury their dead. By 1848 the old Campo Santo was running out of room. To help solve this issue the parish priest of San Fernando petitioned the City Council of San Antonio to designate the eight acres around the old Campo Santo to be used as community cemeteries.

The final approved plan created two sections, each measuring 291.66 feet by 533.32 feet. The north section, including the old Campo Santo, would be used by the church for Catholic burials. This section is now occupied by the Santa Rosa Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. The south section, which is now Milam Park, was set aside for the non-Catholics, and was known as the “City Cemetery.” The dividing line between these two sections is ruffly where West Houston Street is now. This 1848 plat diagram shows the layout of these two cemeteries.

1848 diagram showing the locations of the two cemeteries. Art from the 1848 City Survey Book 1.

As the City of San Antonio continued to grow these cemeteries became boxed in, leaving little room for new graves. In 1853, the San Antonio City Council passed a resolution designating twenty acres of land on the eastern side of the city, near where the old Spanish powder house had been, to be used as public cemeteries. By the time the old cemetery was converted to Milam Park, most city burials were already taking place at the new eastern cemeteries.

When the city decided to convert the old cemetery into a park, they relocated all the graves that they could identify to the eastern cemeteries. That is except one. The city’s leaders felt that “Old” Ben Milam should remain in the park that bears his name.

However, before Ben Milam’s remains would finally find rest beneath his statue in the park, they would be well-traveled and almost lost.

“Old Ben” Milam

Ben Milam Calling for Volunteers by Henry McArdle. Art from the Bullock Museum website.

On December 4, 1835, Benjamin Rush Milam became a legend of the Texas Revolution when at the Siege and Battle of Bexar he declared, “Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?’ He then led 300 Texian volunteers into attacking the Mexican forces inside the town of San Antonio, thus ending a stalemated siege of the city. There is also an interesting historical paradox to this event. In the Battle of Bexar, it was the Texian forces on the outside attacking the Mexican soldiers inside the Alamo.

Benjamin “Old Ben” Rush Milam, 1788-1835. Art from Find-a-Grave.

During the battle, Ben Milam met a tragic end, when he was shot in the head by a Mexican soldier just outside the Veramendi House. There, in the house’s east yard, he was hastily buried. Milam’s body would remain there for several years before being exhumed and reburied in a corner of what would eventually become the city cemetery (Milam Park). From what I’ve been able to assess, this grave was either not marked or poorly marked at the time. I say this because in 1878, then San Antonio Mayor V. O. King, stated that he had found Milam’s grave in the cemetery, and placed on it a flat stone marker that simply read, “Milam.”

When the old city cemetery was converted into Milam Park, Ben’s body was once again moved, this time to the more proper place for a hero, the park’s center (See map #2). Eventually, the city and the De Zavala Chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas placed a granite monument on his grave, with Milam’s famous call to action inscribed on it,

“WHO WILL FOLLOW

OLD BEN MILAM

INTO SAN ANTONIO.”

An interesting piece of history about this monument, it was originally to have a statue of Milam on top of it (as the 1938 monument has) but it was never completed.

Milam’s original granite grave marker when it was at the center of the park. Photo from UTSA Digital Collections website.

Through the years this granite marker would be the site of annual events celebrating fallen Texas heroes. But by the 1950s those events were discontinued, which led to the public forgetting the monument’s true significance. This lack of knowledge would lead to a sad turn of events in 1976.

In that year Milam Park underwent a major beautification redesign. As part of this project, Milam’s granite monument was moved to the park’s west side, near the 1938 monument, where it is today (See map #3). The designers were unaware that this monument was Milam’s grave marker. And so, again old Ben Milam’s bones would lay lost and forgotten, with all signs of its location erased beneath the new landscaping and sidewalks.

In 1992, plans were set to prepare and install a kiosk at the center of Milam Park. This kiosk was a gift from San Antonio’s sister city, Guadalajara Mexico. But before work could begin, the Bexar County Historical Commission (BCHC) voiced concerns over the location of the kiosk. Their fears were, that even though no one knew for sure, Ben Milam’s grave might be located there. The BCHC, the San Antonio Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Friends of Milam Park, agreed to explore and see if Milam’s grave was indeed at that site. Their search didn’t take long before they had an answer.

Milam’s original monument

Using records and old maps of the area they were able to determine where the center of the old cemetery had been. From this information, they were able to select the most likely location to begin digging. Using a backhoe, they soon uncovered a concrete slab, measuring 57 X 57 X 18 inches. What they had found was the foundation on which the old granite monument had stood. Thankfully, they hadn’t moved that with the monument in 1976.

When the slab was lifted, beneath it they found a grave with human remains. After an extensive archaeological and forensic study, it was determined that these remains corresponded to the known facts concerning Milam, including that this person had been shot in the head. The findings were conclusive, these were the remains of Benjamin Rush Milam.

Author at Ben Milam’s monument and grave. Photo by author.

On Sunday, December 11, 1994, a graveside service was conducted, after which the remains of Ben Milam were laid to rest at the base of the monument that bears his statue.

Our other lost cemetery is not too far from Milam Park, but its location is much more hidden, and its story much sadder. To start our search, we’ll walk over to the eastern side of the park, where you’ll find another monument.

Monument Honoring Early San Antonio Burials

Monument Honoring Early San Antonio Burials in Milam Park. Photo from Find-a-Grave.

On the park’s east side is a long and low structure with colorful tiles (See map # 4). This simple monument is often overshadowed by its tall statue topped neighbor on the park’s west side. But unlike that neighbor to the west, this memorial doesn’t honor just one person. Listed on it are over 3,000 names of those who were buried in the old San Fernando Campo Santo and Catholic cemeteries. However, this monument of remembrance and honor doesn’t sit on the site of those cemeteries, that’s in a different location. But before we go and find where that was, I’ll tell of its sadder history.

The Old Campo Santo

Old Campo Santo by artist Romon Vasquez y Sanchez.

By 1808 the small cemetery in front of San Fernando church became overcrowded, causing the need for a new parish cemetery. They selected a parcel of open land just outside the town on the west side of Pedro Creek. There they built the walled Campo Santo. This area would have been at the northwest corner of West Houston Street and North Santa Rosa Street. Besides being the sacred burial ground for the San Fernando Parish, this Campo Santa had a big connection to the Battle of the Alamo.

Famous drawing of Jose Gregorio Esparza defending the Alamo. Art from the Esparza Elementary School website.

Alamo defender Jose Gregorio Esparza had been killed while manning one of the cannons inside the Alamo’s church. Jose’s brother, Francisco Esparza, was a soldier in Santa Anna’s army. After the battle, Francisco pleated with General Santa Anna for his brother’s body. Santa Anna granted Francisco’s request, allowing Jose Gregorio to be buried in Campo Santo. The Esparza family was known to have visited Jose’s grave for years after. As for the fallen Mexican soldiers, there are no records as to where in Campo Santo their graves might have been.

The Old Catholic Cemetery

Photo of the Santa Rosa Medical Center and Children’s Hospital with the general locations of where Campo Santo and the 1848 Catholic Cemetery once existed.

As I wrote earlier, by 1848 Campo Santo was already running out of room. That’s when the parish priest of San Fernando church petitioned the City of San Antonio to create the two before mentioned city and Catholic cemeteries. This additional land also quickly filled up, again creating the need for more cemetery space. However, by then there was no land available at that location for further expansion. This forced the church to find another site elsewhere. The parish secured land further south and opened San Fernando Cemetery #1.

By 1860 all church burials had stopped at the old Campo Santo and its adjacent Catholic cemetery. Even though new burials had been discontinued, families of those already resting there would visit the graves of their loved ones. The Esparza family was likely one of them. These visits continued until a strange, unusual, and tragic event took place sometime in the 1920s.

According to sources, within a single 24-hour period the bodies buried in Campo Santo and the Catholic cemeteries were hastily exhumed, move, and reburied in San Fernando Cemetery #1. Since it was done in such a hurry some of the names of those moved were lost, leaving them to be buried in unmarked graves. There are no parish records as to what happened to the remains of Alamo hero Jose Gregorio Esparza. Was he moved and then also buried in an unmarked grave? Or was he even moved at all? This brings up a much darker and sadder story of what resulted from that hurried action.

Those Left Behind

Over 70 graves were uncovered during work at the Santa Rosa Medical Center. Photo by author.

In 2016, while digging in the garden of the Santa Rosa Medical Center, workers uncovered graves with human remains. There was little doubt amongst Archaeologists from the University of Texas, that these were graves missed in the 1920s relocation. Sadly, this wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Quite often graves and human remains have been found through the years on the grounds of what is now the Santa Rosa Medical Center and Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. How many graves are still there, no one knows for sure?

Finding the Location of the Old Campo Santo

To find the site where the old Campo San use to be, walk to the northwest corner of W Houston and N Santa Rosa Streets. At that corner, you’ll be in the general location of where Campo Santo had been.

Now covered over by two hospitals, it was here where Alamo hero Jose Gregorio Esparza and Santa Anna’s soldiers who died on the morning of March 6, 1836, were once buried.

This ends the search for the lost cemeteries of San Antonio. In part 4 of this series, I’ll tackle the Alamo’s biggest lost grave mystery; “Where are the Remains of the Alamo Heroes?”

My sources:

Ayala, Elaine. “Experts looking for remain from the old cemetery in San Antonio.” Albuquerqueljournal, Albuquerque Journal/ San Antonio Express-News, 22 May 2017, http://www.abqjournal.com/1007131/experts-looking-for-remains-from-old-in-cemetery-in-san-antonio.html

Barajas, Michael. “Downtown Hospital Renovation Won’t Dig Up and Remove 200-Year-Old Human Remains After All.” San Antonio Current , San Antonio Current, 26 Jan. 2017, http://www.sacurrent.com//news/downtown-hospital-renovation-wont-dig-up-and-remove-200-year-old-human-remains-after-all-4544053.

“Bones Found in a Garden at a Texas Children’s Hospital.” Texas Hill Country News, Texas Hill Country News, 26 Sept. 2016, texashillcountry.com/bones-found-garden-hospital/.

City of San Antonio. “Miam Park History.” City of San Antonio, Center City Development & Operations Department , http://www.sanantonio.gov/CCDO/parksplazas/milampark/milamparkhistory

Eckhardt, C. F. “The Forgotten Hero, Ben Milam.” Texas Escapes, Texas Escapes , http://www.texasescapes.com/CFEckhardt/Ben-Milam.htm. Mar. 2022.

“Experts looking for remains from old cemetery in San Antonio .” Albuquerque Journal , Albuquerque Journal , 22 May 2017, www.abqjournal.com/1007131/experts-looking-for-remains-from-old-cemetery-in-san-antonio.html.

“Granite monument marking the site of Ben Milam’s grave, Milam Park, San Antonio. Texas 1927.” UTSA Libraries Special Collections DIGITAL COLLECTIONS, Digital UTSA, digital.utsa.edu/digital/p9020coll008/id/9839. Mar. 2022.

“History of San Antonio.” History of San Antonio, Wikipedia, Sept. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_San_Antonio

“Jose Maria “Gregorio” Esparza.” Find-a-Grave, Find-a-Grave, 30 Nov. 2019, www.findagrave.com/memorial/11690/jose-maria-esparza.

Lyle, Anthony S. “Exhumation and Analysis of Two Historic Burials from the Composanto at Santa Rosa Hospital. San Antonio .” Index of Texas Archaeology, Center for Archaeological Research , Mar. 2022, “Jose Maria “Gregorio” Esparza.” Find-a-Grave, Find-a-Grave, 30 Nov. 2019, http://www.findagrave.com/memorial/11690/jose-maria-esparza.

San Fernando Cathedral . “Our History.” San Fernando Cathedral, The Heart of San Antonio, San Fernando Cathedral, sfcatheral.org

“Siege of Bexar .” Siege of Bexar, Wikipedia, 19 Nov. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_B%C3%A9xar

Tennis , Cynthia L. “EXCAVATION IN A HISTORIC CEMETERY MILAM PARK PHASE ii.” Center for Archaeological Research , Center for Archaeological Research , 1995, car,utsa.edu/CARResearch/Publication/ASRFiles/201-300/ASR%2oNo.%20227.pdf.

Tennis, Cynthia L. “Exhumation of a Hero. Colonel Ben Milam, Milam Park, Phase I.” Scholarworks.sfasu, Scholarworks.sfasu, 1995, scholarworks.sfasu.edu/cgi/viewconteny.cgi?referer=htts.

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