Spirits and stories: Inspired by an old grave marker, historian profiles the pioneers buried along Salmon River

The West is full of lonely graves surrounded by wild lands. If those graves are marked, their tale is brief — names and sometimes dates. Their isolation suggests much left untold.

It was one of these graves that inspired Kathy Deinhardt Hill to profile the people buried along the Salmon River. She was on her first trip down the river when, on a stop at Campbell’s Ferry, she stumbled upon the grave of a Rose Aiken Cook who died after giving birth in the early 1900s.

“I thought, man, somebody should tell this lady’s story,” says Hill, a retired high school English teacher.

Hill did in her 2000 book “Spirits of the Salmon River” published by Backeddy Books. With a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council she’s created a slide show presentation about the people in the book, which she will give at 7 p.m. next Thursday at the Monastery of St. Gertrude in Cottonwood. Rose was a widow and school teacher in Elk City when she married the town’s postmaster, Warren Cook, a much younger man. They moved to Campbell’s Ferry for a mining venture. Their first child was stillborn and Rose died shortly thereafter, Hill recounts.

It’s important to recognize these people were pioneers, Hill says. “Some of them were more eccentric than others but they eked out a life on the river and that’s just an amazing thing. Some of them didn’t just eke out a life on the river; they had a pretty good life.”

Hill, also the author of “Hanged: a History of Idaho’s Executions,” researched U.S. Forest Service and census records, newspapers, mining claims and history books to piece together the lives of 60 people buried along the river from North Fork to White Bird. Of those, 42 are buried in marked graves, some as primitive as rock cairns. She sought them all out along with the details of what brought them to the area, what made them stay and how they died.

Polly Bemis is probably the best known person in the book. She was one of the first settlers on the river and was buried in Grangeville when she died in 1933. In the late 1980s, Hill says, a condominium complex was being built across from the ranch where Bemis once lived. The developer found out Bemis had wanted to be buried on the river. Her remains were exhumed and reburied there.

Sylvan (Buckskin Bill) Hart, recognized as a modern-day Idaho mountain man, is another notable person in the book. Born in 1906 Hart found solace from the Great Depression in 1932 on the remote and wild Salmon. He raised his own food, built his own home and handmade tools and utensils.

In 1980, when he didn’t come out to greet the mail boat that came twice a week, the carrier checked on him. Hart said he hadn’t been feeling well.

“He said, ‘When you come back I’ll either be feeling much better or I’ll be dead,’ ” Hill says. Upon return he was found dressed in his best suit, dead. He was buried in his yard.

One of the best things about the slide presentation is the people who come with knowledge and stories about the river, Hill says. New records become available and old letters and articles are always popping up.

“I think that’s kind of cool actually. You can rewrite history to make it better.”

if you go What: “Spirits of the Salmon” slide show by Kathy Deinhardt Hill When: 7-8:30 p.m. Oct. 25 Where: The Gertrude Room at the Monastery of St. Gertrude, 465 Keuterville Road, Cottonwood Cost: Free Of note: Refreshments will be served

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