Santa Fe’s Dennis O’Leary: Who Was He?

Wife Lila and I visited the Santa Fe (NM) National Cemetery in June to find the graves of her father and her uncle. I’ll get around to posting that story some other time.

Virtual friend John Gorentz, AKA Spokesrider, combines cycling and historical research. He recently posted about searching for the tombstone of a farmer who knew enough of a local Indian dialect to intervene in a dispute over apple trees in the 1800s.

Indian Graves at Santa Fe National Cemetery

Mrs. Butt, Apache Woman, Santa Fe National Cemetery

That got me thinking about some photos I took of some tombstones at the Santa Fe National Cemetery. Some of them didn’t have names; some just said “Civilian” or “Navajo” or “Scout.”

This one had a name – Mrs. Butt – and the qualifier, “Apache Woman.”

I did some quick searches and found that a lot of graves had been relocated to the national cemetery from far-flung forts over the years because of neglect and vandalism.

I don’t know if that’s where these came from.

Who was Dennis O’Leary?

Mystery soldier Dennis O'Leary tombstone in Santa Fe National Cemetery While looking for those pictures, I was drawn to some shots of a statue that was near the Indian graves.

It was a very detailed sandstone carving of a young soldier leaning against a log. It is the only statue in the whole cemetery.

Inscribed on the stone

  • Mystery soldier Dennis O'Leary tombstone in Santa Fe National CemeteryHis name: Dennis O’Leary
  • His rank and unit: Private, Company I, 23rd Infantry
  • His date of death: April 1, 1901
  • His age at death: 23 years, 9 (?) months

Eyes staring into nothing for 107 years

When I took the picture, I was haunted by the idea that this very lifelike stone soldier  had been staring with lifeless eyes for 107 years.

I wasn’t sure what conflict he was engaged in when he died, but I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to find out. It turns out that there are more questions than answers about Pvt. O’Leary.

Was O’Leary a suicide or a TB victim?

Charles Hillinger of The LA Times wrote a very good piece on the tombstone in 1985.

Legend has it he was an unhappy soldier stationed at the remote outpost. He is supposed to have carved the statue in his free time out of sandstone in the mountains not too far from the fort, even engraving the date of his death on the tombstone.

According to the story, he wrote a suicide note describing his carving and its location and asked it be placed over his grave. Then he reportedly shot himself.

Military records, however, show a Pvt. Dennis O’Leary died of tuberculosis at Ft. Wingate on April 1, 1901.

Yet, the legend has persisted ever since the remains of O’Leary and the statue were moved from Ft. Wingate to the Santa Fe National Cemetery in 1911, when the fort was disbanded and all its graves moved here.

Mystery tombstone of Dennis O'Leary in Santa Fe National Cemetery

If anyone knows the REAL story behind Pvt. O’Leary, the folks at the national cemetery would like to hear it. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask them about the statue.

Santa Fe National Cemetery prohibitionsBike Content: because we had a lot of ground to cover, I didn’t bring my bike. Santa Fe, with lots of congestion, had lots of cyclists on the streets. They could make as good or better time than the gridlocked cars. Santa Fe was the first place I had ever seen Sharrows in the wild. They seemed to work well.

Interestingly enough, the cemetery has a signboard of prohibitions, which includes “No Sports Activities in Cemetery,” with pictographs of a runner and a bicycle with the “prohibited” slash through them. If you’re using the bike as transportation, not as a “sports activity,” I wonder if they’d bust you?

Approximate grave site

14 Replies to “Santa Fe’s Dennis O’Leary: Who Was He?”

  1. Sounds interesting, Ken. I did a quick look using’s indexes, but didn’t find any possible matches listed in the 1901 federal census or in any of the military records databases they have. I used the spelling of the name exactly as you gave it, and didn’t try any variations.

    I am not familiar with how to research the types of military records that might yield more information, so am not quite sure where to look next. But if the cemetery gets questions about it every day, I’d guess some genealogist who DOES know his/her way around these records would have looked. You never know what questions have gone unanswered because people just haven’t taken the time to look, though.

  2. Spokesrider,

    Thanks for checking. All of the Google searches I came up with pretty much quoted the info in the LA Times story.

    Still, it’s kind of cool how you can stumble onto something really interesting and not even know it.

  3. Actually, I did see one bicycle in the cemetery the Sunday we were there.

    A 60-ish guy, in fairly scraggly clothes and a beat up baseball cap, rode his bicycle to the section just south of where we were.

    He parked his bike, walked down the grass aisle to one of the white headstones and stood looking at it for quite some time. We left before he did.

  4. Hmm. Cemetery, bicycle, 60-ish, beat up baseball cap, scraggly clothes. I suppose it could have been me.

    But not in Santa Fe.

    Bicycles do mix well with most cemeteries, though. If there is a pioneer section I often stop just to see who’s there. And nobody questions whether I belong there myself.

  5. Spokesrider,

    I have to agree. I make it a point not to intrude on anyone who is visiting a gravesite or any funeral ceremonies, but other than that, I don’t think I’m disturbing the residents.

    At least, I’ve never HEARD them complain.

  6. You won’t hear them complain. Just keep your TV set turned off for a few weeks afterward if you don’t want to end up getting your house sucked up into a vacuum :)

  7. The cemetery director told me that he was a deserter, he turned himself in and was to be hung, but he hung himself instead….on the date that he had inscribed on his sculpture that he carved while as a deserter!

  8. Hi, Ken. I’m writing a post about Dennis O’Leary for my blog, Futility Closet. May I have your permission to reproduce the second photo above (just below the subhead “Who was Dennis O’Leary?”) if I credit you and link back to your site? Many thanks for your consideration.

  9. i find it impossible for one person to carve his own statue in two weeks (as the article stated he had been missing) and then have the army actually follow the request of a suicide.. but whatever nimble minds wish to believe i guess makes for a good story

  10. There is a Dennis O’Leary listed in the 1850 Federal Census stationed at the Military Base at Santa Fe New Mexico. His birth place is listed as Ireland and his age at 31. The article states he was 23 in 1901 which puts his birth at 1878. The census says lts’ Dennis was 31 in 1850 which puts the birth at 1819.
    My bet is he committed suicide. Lt. John Pershing stationed there:“this post is a … and no question – tumbled down, old quarters, though Stots is repairing it as fast as he can. The winters are severe…it is always bleak and the surrounding country is barren absolutely.”

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