A tree recently fell on Kate Kingsbury’s headstone in Santa Fe.
Even in death, misfortunes like that continue to bedevil the poor woman.
Her life was full of hardship, melancholy, loneliness and loss. Suffering from violent coughing fits and exhaustion brought on by tuberculosis, then known as consumption, she gave birth to a son who would die before his second birthday.
She did not enjoy a long life. Kingsbury died on her second trip over the Santa Fe Trail in June 1857. She was 30.
Historians say while her story might not be unique, her burial site is. Most travelers on the trail were buried on the prairie, said Santa Fe Trail historian Leo Oliva.
“Most of them would have been buried where they died,” he said. “I don’t know any others who were not buried on the trail.”
But Kingsbury’s husband, John, wanted her buried in Santa Fe.
Kingsbury’s headstone remains nestled away in a corner of the dusty, sagebrush-swept Odd Fellows Cemetery off Cerrillos Road. A casual visitor would be hard-pressed to find it, and the fallen tree makes access even more challenging.
Kingsbury’s headstone is the oldest known one in Santa Fe, according to Alysia Abbott, an archaeological expert and investigator.
But are her remains below that headstone?
That’s where the history turns into a mystery.
“Her monument is here, but I couldn’t tell you for sure whether her remains are here,” Abbott said while visiting Kingsbury’s gravesite one recent morning.
That’s because Kingsbury’s remains were originally interred in the original Odd Fellows Cemetery in downtown Santa Fe, where the parking lot and construction project near the Santa Fe Scottish Rite Temple are today.
As that old cemetery fell into disarray, a new graveyard, commissioned in 1884 as the Aztlan Cemetery, was created south of town, according to an El Palacio article written by Abbott.
“Sometime between 1890 and 1903, Kate’s remains were exhumed and she was moved there [Aztlan] to be reburied,” Abbott wrote.
But, cautioned Abbott, when such efforts were undertaken, “Monuments and bodies didn’t always move together.”
As it is, poor Kate Kingsbury, in her lifetime, moved around a lot.
Hoping for a new life out West
Kate’s husband, John Kingsbury, was a Boston-born businessman who, in 1851, first traveled the Santa Fe Trail, arriving in Santa Fe to start a business on the south side of the Plaza with partner James Josiah Webb. During one of his trips home, he met, courted and, in 1853, married Kate Messervy, who was already suffering from tuberculosis.
He took her to Santa Fe in the spring of 1854, hoping, as many people did at the time, New Mexico’s dry climate could help quell her coughing fits. On that first trip west, Kate Kingsbury was accompanied by a friend, Webb’s wife, Florilla, and probably some female servants.
“I don’t think they knew what they were going into,” said Fran Levine,president of the Missouri Historical Society and former director of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, of the two women.
“They are hoping for the best, just like the men going west to find their fortune, to find their way. The women are working toward better lives. Whether that is going to be there for them or not is unclear.”
It is likely Kate Kingsbury became pregnant on the journey out, given she arrived in Santa Fe in June 1854 and her son was born in January of the following year. What should have been an occasion for joy was almost certainly tempered with sorrow when the child, George, was born with a physical defect.
It’s unclear what was wrong with the child, but her brother William, in a letter to John, wrote, “Should the child live there is no other way but to give it that place in your affections to which it would be entitled if it had been born perfect. We soon become to loose [sic] sight of the imperfections of our children in our strong natural love for them.”
John Kingsbury corresponded regularly with Webb when the latter left the New Mexico territory, updating Webb on the business, the weather, the doings around town — including a downtown shooting — and, on rare occasion, about Kate’s health. (You can find the letters between the two, and others, in the 1996 book Trading in Santa Fe: John M. Kingsbury’s Correspondence with James Josiah Webb, 1853-1861, edited by Jane Lenz Elder and David J. Weber.)
Elder and Weber indicate Kate Kingsbury suffered from having few friends in Santa Fe and was often “deeply depressed.” When New Mexico did not provide her with a tonic to her ills, her husband sent her and the baby back east in the spring of 1856.
Whatever joy Kate Kingsbury may have felt at once again being around family members in a familiar place was offset by the death of her son that July. Her brother again wrote to her husband, saying she was so ill “she will never be strong enough to return to Santa Fe.” But John Kingsbury was determined to bring her back west and traveled the trail east to retrieve her.
That October he wrote to Webb to say Kate was able to move around the house, but “that is all. Her cough [is] very strong and has got a hold upon her.” Her doctor, he wrote in that letter, said she was “past cure.”
At that point, he seemed determined to ensure she was buried in Santa Fe, and when he planned their return trip in the spring of 1857, he packed an unusual item he kept hidden from his wife.
On the evening of June 4, 1857, on the bank of the Arkansas River in Kansas on the Santa Fe Trail, Kate Kingsbury began suffering violent breathing fits. Despite the efforts of those around her to ease her suffering, she died at dawn the next day.
“Is it possible that I have come this far on my way and now take leave of you all?” she asked those surrounding her before she succumbed.
In the days when news reporters could get away with such hyperbole in their text, the June 20, 1857, Santa Fe Weekly Gazette obituary of her noted, “All night the Angel of Death hovered over the little encampment, and as the morning dawned on the earth, the pure Spirit of our little friend took its flight from earth to Heaven.”
About 10 days later, John Kingsbury and some companions led the coffin with her body into Santa Fe, where she was buried. That coffin was likely encased in a larger casket, Abbott said.
Kingsbury had specific details in mind when he ordered her tombstone; he wanted her “resting place to be well marked,” as Levine wrote. He ordered a white marble gravestone and an iron fence to surround her grave. He also requested what Levine calls a “poignant” inscription for her monument:
Mrs. Kate L. Kingsbury
Died June 5th, 1857 at the crossing of Arkansas River
Aged 30 Years
“Blessed are the Dead which die in the Lord”
Today, the words on the marker are difficult to make out, and the “Blessed” quote has deteriorated to such a degree that one cannot read it.
Putting the pieces together
Standing in her midtown basement laboratory, Abbott looked down at the remains of a 19th century casket recovered during a recent excavation of the construction site of the future La Secoya de El Castillo retirement community — the locale of the original Odd Fellows Cemetery downtown.
It’s possible, Abbott said, it was Kate Kingsbury’s casket.
It’s also possible pieces of Kate Kingsbury’s remains are in Abbott’s lab. Maybe some of those remains did make it to the current Odd Fellows Cemetery. Maybe some pieces got lost during the move, she said.
Thus went the process of transporting remains in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Abbott said. There is evidence that those hired to do that work sometimes put the skeletal remains in sacks, and it’s possible, for example, Mr. Smith’s remains could have been lumped in with Mr. Jones’ remains in one sack, she said.
“They probably ripped off the lid [to the casket] and took the remains,” said Abbott, the kind of person who knows where all the bodies are buried, even if she doesn’t know whose bodies they are. She said many of the excavated gravesites from the La Secoya site looked as if “marauding Huns” had torn into them.
The casket, lined with what Abbott called “cheap zinc ... would have been very similar to, if not the actual, casket” Kingsbury was in, Abbott said.
“She was resting in peace, but moved in pieces,” Abbott said of Kate Kingsbury.
Levine, who is working on a book called Crossings that tells the story of the women, including Kingsbury, who traveled the Santa Fe Trail, said the forgotten, deteriorating headstone of Kingsbury offers some “consolation” for historians interested in her life.
“Her memory is not lost because of that tombstone,” she said. “And because of that and the poignancy capturing her moment of death, she lives on in a way.”