BILLINGS — At Mountain View Cemetery in Billings, a mystery awaits to be solved. Dozens of people were buried there without headstones. With the help of professors from Michigan State University Billings, the city is working to determine the exact location of the graves.
In the largest and oldest working cemetery in the region, there is a lot of history waiting to be discovered.
“These people are literally invisible. At this point, they were forgotten for almost a hundred years. Their names should be recorded,” said Lauren Hunley, community historian at the Western Heritage Center. said Wednesday.
That’s where MSUB history professor Dr. Thomas Rust comes in. He was contacted by City Parks and Recreation last year with an unusual request.
“They have a lot of places they want to explore here and see how many people and where they’re going to be buried,” Rust said Tuesday.
Her Spring Semester 2022 class rose to the challenge. They spent weeks searching the cemetery with ground-penetrating radar and found dozens of unmarked graves.
“The device here is a 500 megahertz ground penetrating radar that sends radio waves to the ground, and when it encounters a solid object, it sends an image back to the receiving part of the device, which then passes through the wire.computer, then give me a graphical display and let me know what’s on there,” Rust said.
Rust compares it to pruning your garden: you simply walk back and forth until radio waves tell you there’s something on the ground. The sharpness of the image largely depends on the topography of the area.
“It’s fun to do, and when something pops up on screen, it kinda kicks you,” Rust said.
The first burial at Mountview Cemetery may have taken place in 1882, when a farmer named Daniel Larson set aside several acres for the community cemetery.
Hunley said many of those buried there could not afford a proper burial. Their graves are called Potter’s Graves.
“The city or county will take over your cemetery, and it will be as bare as possible. Wooden crates, dig a hole, bury yourself, no services, no flowers, generally no marks,” Hunley said.
There have been at least three other mass graves in the cemetery since the flu pandemic hit Montana in 1918.
“We want to be able to locate the graves because once we can pinpoint that location, we can start to understand and name those people,” Hunley said.
It’s a task that Rust is determined to do because he thinks the marking of these graves is important not only from a historical standpoint, but also from a moral standpoint.
“While we can’t give individuals a specific name and know where they are, it gives those people a certain level of dignity and respect, at least we know there are individuals there,” Rust said.