“The legacy of heroes is the memory of a great name and the inheritance of a great example.” ~ Benjamin Disraeli
Somewhere out on that big blue horizon, under a Rocky Mountains moon, there is a soldier’s grave – or at least so my family thinks. His name was John E. Lee, and he was attached to Company G in Michigan’s Fighting Fifth” during America’s Civil War. He enlisted in 1861, and served for the war’s duration. He fought at Chancellorsville and was awarded the Kearny Cross for bravery.[i] Wounded at Gettysburg, he was a prisoner of war in the overflow camps of Andersonville – from which he escaped.[ii]
After the war, he went home to Michigan, married his sweetheart, sold everything, and along with his parents and his children, went west – to Colorado. He settled near the Wyoming territory living as a trapper and as a rancher.[iii] He was a large and powerful man who from all accounts lived a respectable life, but passed away from a suspicious poisoning at the age of 42.[iv]
The Lee family lore has always been that he was “buried out on the ranch.” No one can say where this legend came from; it just did, you know, as one of those “passed on down” stories that we tend to inherit from our elders – stories that they inherited themselves – and based on, well, not much at all.
So, lately, it has seemed time to look for the John E. Lee grave before the old legends disappear from my family’s collective consciousness. Is his grave marked or unmarked? Did they bury John under an old wooden cross that has long since faded into the Colorado landscape? And for that matter, what ranch? Or is it now necessary to accept that we don’t know where John is – and simply acknowledge his remarkable life for what it was?
Researching land records has never been my forte. However, information from the Bureau of Land Management’s web site allowed me to locate the “land patent” from the 1880s and the location of John Lee’s Colorado ranch:
CO 6th PM Township 9.0N Range 79.0W Section 8 and Section 5
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t speak that language. However, a kind stranger ‘translated’ it – and now it looks like this:
For me this isn’t a whole lot better – but it is getting closer. It’s like translating cave paintings showing where the Buffalo roamed into, say, everyday modern Spanish or French. However, this second description of latitude and longitude helped me to better understand the location of John’s ranch.
And Eureka! I was able to take a look at John’s ranch through the all seeing eyes of Google. This was the first time any family member has looked at the ranch of John E. Lee in any format in over 100 years. I was so close to knowing more about John! Yet even Google could only tell me that the location of John’s ranch is:
“Unnamed Road, Walden, Colorado”
Well, I knew I must be getting closer, but what wouldn’t I give for a good old fashioned mailing address!
I must mention that there have been a lot of good souls helping me to find John’s final resting place. My hat is off to the folks in Jackson County, Colorado who have tried, and to the readers on Vita Brevis who have reached out to help. I even spoke to a descendant of the family that took over the ranch after John Lee’s death who had lived there for many years. Unfortunately, she could not recall any graves there from her time growing up. The only thing she could recall was a peculiar land formation near the ranch property, one that is still today called “Lee Draw.” I have to wonder if my great-great-grandfather is buried there at Lee Draw.
Yes, I realize that John’s grave does not need to be remembered with a granite marker on an unnamed road in a remote section of northern Colorado – a marker that even if successfully placed very few will probably ever see or know of. However, there is one thing that John does need – and that is to be found and not forgotten. He deserves this – because he did not rest for me, or for this nation, or for any of us who value the freedoms we hold so dearly today.
[i] Elihu Root, “The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies” (Series 1, Volume 51: 1, 1275–81). The medal was awarded to enlisted men by way of General Order #48 on 16 May 1863; information courtesy of Bob Velke.
[ii] Prisoner of War Records for John E. Lee, 5th Michigan, Company G, National Archives and Records Administration.
[iii] “Early Days in North Park, Colorado – as told by T. John Payne to James R. Harvey,” Colorado magazine, November 1937, Volume 14, Number 6, 230–31, for a brief biography of John E. Lee.
[iv] “Was he poisoned?,”Fort Collins Courier, 23 July 1885, an article concerning the suspicious circumstances of John Lee’s death.
12 thoughts on “Lost but not forgotten”
I loved this story and hope you find him! I know how those “missing” ancestors can tug at your heart. My great-great-grandfather (1842-1881…so a very near contemporary to your ancestor at both ends of life) was buried next to his wife in Anaheim, California, at the time of his death. However, an undated note in the cemetery records indicates that he was “sent to Los Angeles,” but who knows where (exactly), why, or by whom. His only surviving son wrote in the 1950s that he was buried at the Anaheim Cemetery, and the note seems to be decades older than that…so apparently the deed was not done by him. Considering that the deceased’s mother and sister lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s very hard to imagine why his remains would have been moved to another resting place…but I sure wish I knew where it was!
May I offer a piece of advice given to me about Deeds by an Archivist who said
“study Deeds in exchange of the land involved
My parternal Grandmother was buried on Homestead Land according to family in Washington State. She died in 1911, the land does not belong in our family now. But when my Uncle sold it he had the words in that first Deed: Which includes, “Reserving thereon the grave……100 Square feet of the surface thereon and the right of way for ingress.” It has never been seen on any Deed since. When I inquired who owns the land now, I wrote to the man who gracefully said feel free to go on the land. No one lives on it presently, We had a fmily gathering and with a friend who knew the land, we did just that in 1996. No one in the area ever knew of that gravesite.
A very touching story. You have accomplished a great deal in this difficult task and I hope somehow you can take those final steps towards finding his grave. I so agree with you. Our ancestors were heroes in so many ways and deserve to be remembered.
I have also been trying to place facts with family oral history, so appreciate the difficulties and all the help of others!
Hi Jeff, interesting story. Have you tried using the awesome “First Landowner’s Project” database at http://www.HistoryGeo.com? Wyoming is in their land database, just a thought. I have reached out to the programmer-owner for that tool, Greg Boyd, so you may possibly hear back from him. He and his wife Vicki are truly awesome, helpful people. If you do happen to hear from him directly, that was me, trying to hook you two up. If he replies back to me, I will try and re-find this blog post, and send you any info that he provides. Greg’s email is email@example.com, if you want to contact him directly. Best of luck with your search!
I got a quick response from Greg and Vicki, and now have some info on the original Land Patent for your ancestor, which is currently located in Jackson County, CO. If you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I will forward you Greg’s email with an image and link to the patent, along with info for locating it in Google Maps. Greg also has an awesome online collection of indexed Antique maps which I checked, but alas, Jackson County, CO is not among them. Hope that info helps.
An FYI on the county and Jeff knows this. The town of Walden at the time of John E Lee’s death was Larimer county. The 2 split sometime afterwards.
Yep, there were a lot of takeouts from Counties as populations grew, happened in every state, during formation.
Steve – Many thanks for your help!
Info is on the way to you, courtesy of Greg Boyd.
I still haven’t heard back from my source here in Colorado I did run across all the information I had gathered for John E Lee but haven’t had the chance to call her again. Sorry. This story is so awesome and hopefully you can locate something tangible soon.
Joyce you have already done so much on behalf of John Lee’s memory – it is folks like you that inspire me to keep on looking.