The Forgotten Hero: Ben Milam

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Tony Maples Photography


Ben was buried where he fell, in the back yard of the de Veramendi house. There his bones lay for many years. Eventually he was disinterred and his remains removed, with appropriate Masonic ritual, to a corner of a Protestant cemetery on the site of what is now San Antonio’s Milam Park. The gravesite was marked with a limestone monument inscribed, simply, MILAM. It was assumed that no further identification would ever be needed.

When the cemetery was dedicated as Milam Park, it was decided that, instead of being relegated to a corner, Ben should rest in the middle of the park. He was again disinterred–once more with appropriate Masonic ritual–and re-interred precisely in the center of the park that bore his name.

The Forgotten Hero Ben Milam
Photo: Dees Stribling

In 1936, the by-then-badly-weathered limestone marker was replaced with the granite monument you’ve seen if you’ve ever visited Milam Park. Over the years, Milam Park’s neighborhood changed to one you wouldn’t care to enter after dark. San Antonio has been trying to revive the area and arrest its decay for a long time, and just a few years ago San Antonio’s Mexican sister city, Cuernavaca, offered to donate a gazebo-like band-shell to be erected in the middle of Milam Park as part of the rejuvenation. Immediately objections were voiced–“You can’t put a band-shell there– it’ll be right on top of Ben Milam’s grave!”

We seem to treat our Texas heroes, even our nearly-forgotten ones, with greater respect than some Europeans treat theirs. The grave of the founder of the Scottish Presbyterian Church is rumored–though no one knows for sure–to be under the blacktop of a Glasgow parking lot. In fact, old Ben had been so thoroughly ignored or forgotten in San Antonio that, officially, San Antonio had no idea where his bones lay.

The late Dr. I. Waynne Cox, together with Dr. Anne Fox, both of the UTSA anthropology/archaeology department, began researching Ben’s posthumous perambulations. Sure enough, they found long-forgotten newspaper accounts of the removal and second reburial of the forgotten hero “in the middle of Milam Park.” Those who objected to the band-shell said “See–we told you so! Ben’s right under the monument.” Still, nobody knew for sure. Even if there was a grave there, nobody really knew if it was Ben Milam’s.

A dig was organized to discover if there really was a grave under the monument, and if there was, to determine–if possible–who’s grave it was. Nobody really expected much success in the latter. There was a grave, exactly where the objectors said it would be. In the ground the archaeologists found the outline of an old wooden ‘toepincher’ coffin, by then so deteriorated that the only trace of it was a discoloration in the soil. Inside the outline were the considerably deteriorated remains of a Caucasian male between the ages of 45 and 50, who stood about 5’7″ in life. Could this be Ben? All descriptions of Ben put him “six feet tall or a little better.” In fact most such descriptions were exaggerations. We have ‘eyewitness’ accounts describing Daniel Boone as ‘over six feet’ when he stood only about 5’6″ David Crockett as ‘a giant of a man’ when he stood only about 5’7″, and Sam Houston as ‘six feet six’ when he actually stood 6’2″.

Other evidence was needed to say yea or nay. The skull was badly shattered and much of the facial structure was gone, but enough remained for the cranium to be reconstructed. In the left rear aspect of the skull was a large hole, which a forensic anatomist identified as an exit wound caused by a bullet of approximately .65 caliber. According to eyewitness accounts, Ben was shot in the front of the head from the right, with a Mexican rifle—which, remember, was .64 caliber– and “the ball went plumb through his head.” There is little doubt that the remains found in the middle of Milam Park are those of Texas’ great–but almost-forgotten–hero, Ben Milam.