When Austin traffic slows to a crawl on Interstate 35, as it often does, travelers can safely catch glimpses of the Capitol and other historic landmarks. But if you really want to slow down and commune with the state’s dramatic past, take a detour off the highway onto East Seventh Street and drive six blocks east to the Texas State Cemetery. There, resting peacefully on 18 acres of landscaped hills, lie the earthly remains of thousands of the movers and shakers of the Lone Star State.
Or, in the words of the authors of the 2011 book Texas State Cemetery, these are “the people who made Texas so Texas,” from politicians to soldiers, lawmen, educators, athletes, artists, authors, and other influential residents.
The site’s history goes back to 1851, when an act of the Texas Legislature created the Texas State Cemetery. Texas Governor Andrew Jackson Hamilton (1815-1875), who at the time represented Travis County in the Texas House of Representatives, donated the land upon the death of General Edward Burleson (1798-1851), a veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto and former vice president of the Republic of Texas. Burleson was the first person to be buried here.
“The Texas State Cemetery is a museum of history unlike any other in the state,” said Harry Bradley, the cemetery superintendent since 1994.
“We teach history as visitors walk through the cemetery. Stephen F. Austin, the ‘Father of Texas,’ is here. When you start with that, it’s a pretty good history tour.”
In 1874, however, a reporter for the Austin Daily Democratic Statesman noted that the cemetery was poorly maintained, describing “a bleak and rocky hillside” bordered by a “dilapidated picket fence” with nary a tree or bush in sight. Some 120 years later in the early 1990s, the late Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock (1929-1999) attended a funeral at the cemetery and found the site similarly unappealing. In response, he helped initiate a three-year, $4.7 million restoration and renovation project to spruce up the hallowed grounds.
The cemetery planted new grass, landscaped the property with Texas roses and other plants, created a new pond, added new sidewalks, and repaired and cleaned the funereal statuary, including some 2,150 marble headstones of Confederate veterans and their widows. The cemetery also built a new limestone visitor center—designed to resemble the long barracks at the Alamo, with a Texas history gallery and an administration building inside—and erected columbarium walls made of granite along the cemetery’s northern fence.
When you visit the cemetery, you’ll find the resting places for many legendary Texans in Statesman Meadow and Republic Hill, located in the southwest quadrant. Some, like Stephen F. Austin (1793-1836), were originally buried elsewhere and reinterred here. A bronze statue of Austin by San Antonio sculptor Pompeo Coppini stands above Austin’s grave, his arm pointed forward as though taking an oath of allegiance to the newly independent land to which he devoted his life.
Another Coppini bronze immortalizes Joanna Troutman, who lived her entire life in Georgia but made an important contribution to Texas symbolism. When Georgia volunteers headed to Texas in 1835 to fight in the Texas Revolution, Troutman sewed them a flag that featured a blue five-point star and the phrase “Liberty or Death.” Troutman died in 1879, and 34 years later, then-Texas Governor and fellow Georgia native Oscar Colquitt led efforts to move her body to Texas. In 1913, the Texas Legislature honored Troutman as the creator of the first Texas flag, and her body was reinterred on Republic Hill.
The cemetery is also home to the grave of Louis Kemp (1881-1956), a state Highway Department employee who led efforts prior to the Texas Centennial to reinter many noteworthy Texans. Those included Gideon Lincecum (1793-1874), a fiddle-playing naturalist and botanic physician who corresponded with Charles Darwin and studied medicine with a Choctaw doctor.
In addition to the intriguing history stories, the unique headstone designs and their inscriptions add to the fascination of a cemetery visit. The monument at the graves of Governors James (1871-1944) and Miriam (1875-1961) Ferguson, for instance, is fashioned in the Art Deco style that was popular during their political heydays.
The white headstone of Governor Ann Richards (1933-2006) shares an uplifting quote from her inauguration in 1991, when she took office as the second female governor of Texas: “Today we have a vision of a Texas where opportunity knows no race, no gender, no color—a glimpse of what can happen in government if we simply open the door and let the people in.” The gravestone inscription of Richards’ longtime friend Edwin “Bud” Shrake (1931-2009), who is buried next to the governor, encapsulates the gusto of a writer from the “Mad Dog” school of Southwestern literature. Seeming to speak from beyond the grave, the chiseled inscription says simply, “So Far. So Bueno.”
“His Books Are His Monument,” reads the headstone of Old Yeller author Fred Gipson (1908-1973), a native of the Central Texas town of Mason. During a recent tour, Texas State Cemetery Senior Historian Will Erwin pointed out that Gipson fans leave dog biscuits at the grave on February 7th, Gipson’s birthday, in appreciation of his moving stories about man’s best friend.
Nearby, Erwin stopped at the grave of Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) and explained that many visitors come to the cemetery solely to pay respects to the teacher who rose from humble beginnings in Houston’s Fifth Ward to represent her neighbors in the U.S. Congress.
At the grave of the colorful Texas Ranger William Alexander Allison “Big Foot” Wallace (1817-1899), Erwin recounted the story of “Big Foot and the Hickory Nuts.” According to the tale, Wallace, who stood six-feet, four-inches tall, stuffed his clothes with hickory nuts as protection against arrows while trailing a band of Comanches who allegedly had stolen some horses. Seeing and hearing the crazy-acting Big Foot, the Comanches fled on foot, leaving not only the stolen horses but their own ponies as well.
In the southeast quadrant of the cemetery, a Gothic chapel over the grave of Albert Sidney Johnston (1803-1862) serves as the centerpiece of Confederate Field. A statue of Johnston, a general in the Texas Army who later became second in command of the Army of the Confederacy, rests within the chapel. Johnston’s story includes an interesting old mortuary practice. “When they temporarily buried him in New Orleans, the surgeon drained his blood and replaced it with bourbon,” Erwin said. “So when they brought him here for viewing before the burial, his body was remarkably preserved.”
Monument Hill, in the cemetery’s northeast quadrant, provides a special place for reflection and paying respects to those who made profound sacrifices to preserve the freedom enjoyed by their fellow Texans and Americans. Monuments commemorate Medal of Honor and Purple Heart recipients, the Vietnam War, and World War II. The Nine Men of Praha Monument honors an entire generation of men from the Praha area of Fayette County who died in combat in 1944 and 1945. Another monument pays tribute to “Gold Star Mothers,” women whose sons have perished in all conflicts, and another salutes African-American legislators who served Texas during Reconstruction. Especially powerful for today’s visitors, the 9/11 Memorial includes two actual beams from the World Trade Center towers that were destroyed in the 2001 terror attacks.
Monument Hill is also the resting place of U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle (1974-2013), one of the cemetery’s most recent burials. The inscription on Kyle’s grave reflects his personal creed and the sacrifice on display on Monument Hill: “It is our duty to serve those who serve us.”
In the Republic Hill section of the cemetery, you’ll find a cenotaph memorializing El Paso artist Tom Lea (1907-2001) and his wife, Sarah (1912-2008). As one of the great chroniclers and interpreters of Texas, Tom’s inscription expresses the peace of mind and ever-present sense of a better tomorrow inspired by the luminaries who now rest together at the Texas State Cemetery.
“Sarah and I live on the east side of the mountain,” the headstone reads, next to a carving of a mountain. “It is the side to see the day that is coming, not the side to see the day that is gone. The best day is the day coming.”