Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery
by Jim Willett
The Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery is located about a mile southeast of the Walls Unit on Bowers Boulevard. It covers twenty-two acres between Sycamore and Sixteenth Streets. The land was donated to Governor John Ireland in 1855 by Sanford Gibbs and George W. Grant. The deed describes the land as “the same upon which convicts from the State Penitentiary have been buried since the establishment of said institution, said Burial Ground having been located there-on by mistake.”
From early on, the cemetery was known as “Peckerwood Hill.” From all accounts this term was given to the cemetery by inmates. The term "perkerwood" refers to those inmates who were poor. The state buried inmates in this cemetery whenever no one claimed the bodies of those who died while incarcerated. Prior to 1974, no written records were kept of the inmates buried here. In 1962 Captain Joe Byrd, long time assistant warden at the Walls Unit, personally oversaw the maintenance of the cemetery. Over the first hundred years, the cemetery had become overgrown with brush and weeds. By the time of the cleanup, it was a struggle just to identify the locations of graves. Early graves had been marked with only a wooden cross. Those graves that could not be identified were marked with a simple white concrete cross. There are 312 such graves. Some graves were identified with the inmate’s prison number engraved on the cross while others had a tablet style headstone that was discontinued in the 1940’s. Captain Joe Byrd and his crew located over 900 graves. Only a handful of 19th century graves were identifed, though many inmates were buried here between 1853 and 1900. A photo taken in 1899 shows many graves in the cemetery.
Two graves are different from the others. A Kiowa Indian chief named Satanta was buried in the cemetery in 1878 after committing suicide at the Walls Unit. He was imprisoned in 1874 for leading raids on Texas settlers. Satanta’s remains were removed from the cemetery in 1963 and reburied at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, following the traditional Kiowa burial rites. A large monument to Satanta still sits in the prison cemetery. Another large monument sits at the head of the grave of cowboy Lee Smith, purchased through donations by other inmate cowboys.
As the prison system has grown in size over the recent past, so has the number of burials at the cemetery. In 1975 there were 43 burials. There were 99 burials in 1999. As of January 1, 2001 there are 1,970 known graves in the Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery. One hundred and seven inmates were buried in 2000. Inmates who die in the Texas prison system are buried there for one reason - no one claims the body. In some cases there is no one who wants to claim the body, however, many of the families now choose to allow the state to absorb the burial costs. Recent years have seen approximately 25% of the deceased inmates buried at the cemetery. Today inmates are buried in a simple casket which is placed inside a two piece hard plastic shell. Current funeral costs run about $2,000 each.
Burials usually occur at 8:30AM Monday through Thursday. The Huntsville Funeral Home is in charge of the arrangements. Sometimes family and friends of the deceased attend the funeral and sometimes no one comes. Either way, the chaplain of the Walls Unit leads the graveside services. If no family attends, the services are held in the presence of the Walls Unit warden or designee and the officer and inmates whose job it is to care for the cemetery. It is not unusual to have multiple burials in a single day. At times, there are up to four funerals in a morning. With the turn of the millennium, Perkerwood Hill has existed in three centuries.
The Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery is open to the public and is one of the most well maintained cemeteries that you'll find anywhere. The cemetery is located on a peaceful hill on Bowers Boulevard just east of Sycamore Drive in historic Huntsville.