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BOOK REVIEW | What Lies Beneath Texas: Pioneer Cemeteries and Graveyards by Cynthia Leal Massey



Cynthia Leal Massey  

Genre: Regional History/ 19th Century/ Landmarks & Monuments/ Travel Pictorial 

Publisher: TwoDot 

Date of Publication: August 1, 2021 

Number of Pages: 400 pages w/77 B&W photos  

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Texas, the second largest state, both in land mass and population, has more than 50,000 burial grounds. As the final resting places of those whose earthly journey has ended, they are also repositories of valuable cultural history. Pioneer cemeteries provide a wealth of information on the people who settled Texas during its years as a Republic (1836-1845), and after it became the 28th state in 1845. In What Lies Beneath: Texas Pioneer Cemeteries and Graveyards, Cynthia Leal Massey exhumes the stories of these pioneers, revealing the fascinating truth behind the earliest graveyards in the Lone Star State, including some of its most ancient. This guide also provides descriptions of headstone features and symbols and demystifies the burial traditions of early Texas pioneers and settlers.

Purchase Links 

Rowman & Littlefield│ Amazon│ Barnes and Noble │TwigBooksBookshop.org

Though this is the season of graveyards, cemeteries and the spooky tales that surround them, final resting places represent so much more than a spot to be feared. This book focuses on the historical aspects of cemeteries and graveyards rather than from a slant of paranormal fascination. And while that type of perspective definitely has its place, this book seeks to show how humanity memorializes the deceased, and in turn, how those buried in these pioneer cemeteries can tell the story of the founding of Texas from its early days to the nineteenth century.

Organized using the ten scenic driving trails, Texas Heritage Trail Regions, designated by the Texas Historical Commission, the book lists each in alphabetical order and profiles more than one hundred cemeteries. Within those regions, the terrain, culture, and historical context all differ, providing a unique and absolutely fascinating perspective for the author to tell the story of Texas. The book respectfully examines these burial sites as an homage to not only an individual’s own history, but to the historical period as well. Special attention is also paid to challenges facing people of the time and how those events and specific experience helped shaped Texas culture.

The book’s arrangement makes this a quick reference should you find yourself in or headed to any of these locations. Additional information and websites are provided in the bibliography for you to research further any of the mentioned sites. Select photographs of individuals and headstones are included, which provides such a personal touch that makes you feel as though you are traveling from location to location, learning so much history and paying your respects along the way.

This is a book that will not only educate but entertain. Spanning the entire state, there are so many places to get out and explore. As a resident of the Brazos Trail Region, I have visited the sites mentioned in the Round Rock area: the famous grave site for the most infamous individual in my city’s history, the outlaw Sam Bass, buried in the Round Rock Cemetery! 

Sam Bass was a 19th-century American Old West train robber, who notoriously with his gang, robbed a train of $60,000. Arriving in Round Rock with the intention of robbing a bank, he ultimately died as a result of wounds sustained in a gun battle with Texas Rangers. You can find out more from the city’s website by clicking HERE. The original headstone is currently housed in the Round Rock Public Library, as it was chipped away by time and memorabilia seekers.

The cemetery itself is located along the road that bears his name. Additionally, each year, the city hosts a Frontier Days during the July Fourth celebration, which includes a shootout reenactment. On the other side of the cemetery is the grave site of Williamson County Deputy Sheriff A.W. Grimes, who was killed as he attempted to disarm the gang members. A street in Round Rock also bears his name as well.

Another somber site is a half-acre area, enclosed by cedar posts and barbed wire that was set aside for slave burials. Each are marked at the head and foot with large limestone rocks that are hand-grooved with names and dates. The first marked grave of a freed slave is dated 1880. Although there are 40 to 50 known burial sites of freedmen and the burial ground is still in use, no interments of former slaves occurred after the turn of the century. 

The author’s depth of research presents not just a scholarly work, but a masterful storytelling encounter that will truly captivate. It was difficult to put this book down and I completed it in a matter of days. I look forward to adding many more of these historic spots to my family’s travels across the state.

A truly apropos book for a seasonal read that is highly recommended!

5 stars.

Many thanks to the author and Lone Star Book Blog Tours for providing me with a free copy of the book. This is my honest and thoughtful opinion.

Award-winning author Cynthia Leal Massey is a former corporate editor, college instructor, and magazine editor. She has published hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles and eight books. A full-time writer who publishes history columns for community publications, Cynthia was raised on the south side of San Antonio. She has resided in Helotes since 1994, and has served on the Helotes City Council since 2008, serving twice as Mayor Pro Tem. She is also president of the Historical Society of Helotes.   

Cynthia, a former president of Women Writing the West, is a recipient of the Will Rogers Silver Medallion Award for her nonfiction book, Death of a Texas RangerA True Story of Murder and Vengeance on the Texas Frontier, which also won the San Antonio Conservation Society Publication Award. She is the recipient of several literary awards, including the WILLA Literary Finalist Award for Best Original Softcover Fiction for her novel, The Caballeros of Ruby, Texas, called by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry, “a vivid picture of the Rio Grande Valley as it was fifty years ago and a very good read.” 

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2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW | What Lies Beneath Texas: Pioneer Cemeteries and Graveyards by Cynthia Leal Massey”

  1. LOVE how the book inspired you to re-visit your own cemetery visits and history. Fascinating stuff, and it sounds like the author nailed creating not only a travel guide but a respectful nod to our Texas settlers. Thanks for a fab review.


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