During the 19th century, it was common for towns in the Old West to have a cemetery called Boot Hill. Pioche, Nevada did, and it can still be seen. It is located on Comstock Road, past the IOOF and Masonic cemetery, then past the public cemetery to the remains of Boot Hill.
Local historian Leo Schafer, quotes in his book Boot Hill – The Pioche Cemetery, fellow author Charles Sasser as writing, “No town in the old West boasted a more disgraceful reputation for trouble. The only reason Pioche did not become as infamous as Deadwood, Tombstone, or Dodge City was because of its isolation. Reports of events there rarely reached the outside.”
Still, the New York Herald once noted, “Law enforcement was only a mockery, her merchants robbed their patrons by day and their competitors by night…bandit gangs surged through her streets unmolested…retired robbers had become the town leaders.”
Boot Hill was a name often associated with gunfighters who “died with their boots on,” either by shooting or hanging, or in other words, violently, and not by natural causes.
First use of the term Boot Hill is credited to Dodge City, Kansas. But Pioche had its own, even if not given that name right yet. The first recorded murder in Pioche was March 29, 1868, when saloonkeeper Frank Pitt was shot by Jacob Colburn.
Mining is what brought these men to Pioche. Many were Civil War veterans. Gunfire was no new experience to them, and some still maintained their North-South tensions.
Much of the land that was being mined was not private, and a good portion of it is still considered as public in Nevada. So, trespassing on private property for mining claims was not very much of an issue.
Shafer writes, “The initial step is to stake a mining claim using boundary makers. The makers could be a pile of rocks, posts, pipes or anything that denotes the limits of the claim. A monument is placed, containing a written notice of the location, with the boundary post often doubling as a location monument. When a mining district was established, a recorder was elected and he listed all of the claims, owners, and dates. A fee was often collected to offset costs.”
Claim jumping was a common occurrence, too. It was simply “stealing”, and those who were either tough enough by themselves, or had the muscle and firepower behind them, had an easier time of it.
Soon the gunslingers began to arrive, either hired to protect a claim or help with the jumping of one. Violence was brewing, just waiting to happen. But it didn’t have to wait long.
Schafer notes, “Preventing claim jumping was in itself a problem. However, extracting claim jumpers was a bigger problem and those activities provided a foundation for early Pioche, which included tough characters.”
Local law enforcement didn’t, or wouldn’t do much about the murders that took place in the early days. Besides, murder was not considered a serious offense, and records indicate because of the lenient attitude toward such crimes, time spent in jail for committing a murder was usually less than one month.
Schafer quotes from an early Pioche Daily Record story. “There has been but one man hanged in this county, though scores of murders were committed, and that one man was not hung according to law. The law in this county does not hang a man for so slight an offense as murder.”
Therefore, Boot Hill in Pioche began to get its permanent residents rather quickly.
But not every early occupant of Boot Hill was by shooting or hanging. In July of 1870, Rufus Long committed suicide by cutting his own throat. It took him a week to die.