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Plotting a Grave Project

Trinity students work with City of San Antonio to map grave sites in historic cemetery

By Russell Guerrero '83

Heather Holzman (left) works with Stephanie Allen (right) to decipher the inscription on a tombstone. Weather and age made it sometimes difficult to collect information from the headstones.

For much of the spring semester, four sociology and anthropology majors spent several hours each week working quietly in one of San Antonio’s oldest landmarks: City Cemetery No. 1, located just miles from downtown. 

The students, Stephanie Allen, Heather Holzman, Allyson Walsh, and Sarah Warren, all seniors, documented information found on headstones and mapped grave sites using global positional system (GPS) technology as part of a course on using geographic information systems.

The class is taught by Christine Drennon, associate professor of sociology and anthropology and director of urban studies, who said the students learn a marketable skill in the course. The class also gives them the opportunity to complete a project for a client who truly needs the work done and either doesn't have the time, money, or resources and skills necessary to do it.

In this case, the client was the City of San Antonio.

 “It is part of a pilot project for the Office of Historic Preservation and the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department,” explained Ms. Walsh.

City Cemetery No. 1, located on the east side on 11 ½ acres of land, is the final resting place for families who were prominent in the business and culture of San Antonio as well as to cowboys, soldiers, and saloon keepers. Established in 1853, the graveyard has been in continual use ever since. Records for the 157-year-old cemetery are incomplete at best with burial plots arranged in no particular order – graves from the late 1800s are next to graves from the 1990s.

Allyson Walsh (left) writes down the coordinates for a grave site as Sarah Warren retrieves the information for a hand-held GPS device. The information would later be entered into a searchable database that included photos of every cemetery plot.

Working in two teams, the students used hand-held GPS devices to collect coordinates for each grave site and attempted to gather as much information as possible from each headstone in an L-shaped section in the southeast corner of the cemetery.  Sometimes the headstones included a wealth of information, such as the grave of a British-born soldier who was a colonel in both the Austrian and American Army. At other sites, the inscription would just read “Baby” and a death date.  The students also encountered grave stones written in German, Spanish, and Chinese.

By the end of the semester the students managed to record information on 487 plots, which they entered into a searchable database they developed. Ms. Holzman said the database was organized so that others will be able to add more information in the future.

“The city loved the work and hopes we can continue it next year,” said Professor Drennon. “There is so much energy focused on the east side right now, and this project goes along with that, especially if we can attract tourists to check out the cemeteries.”


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