Mackie Duncan has maintained the Spence grave since 1949.
Mackie Duncan has maintained the Spence grave since 1949.
She lived just five years, ten months and fifteen days. For years Mary Ann Alice Spence’s short life was shrouded in mystery. Maybe she drowned in the Humboldt River. Or succumbed to smallpox or cholera. The location of her grave, on the Emigrant Trail, suggested she was a pioneer.

While she lived, her parents, James and Matilda Spence, dressed her in polka dots and had her photographed. In the nineteenth century having your picture recorded for posterity was serious business. The little girl’s mouth is set in a straight line, her hands rest in her lap and she stares directly at the camera. She was probably buried in that polka dot dress not long after the picture was taken.

James and Matilda chose a white marble headstone to mark their daughter’s grave. Beneath a resting lamb, an engraver recorded the number of years, months and weeks she lived.

The Spences buried their child on a hilltop overlooking the valley. There are several places on the hill where the ground sank in ways that suggest the size and shape of graves. The site could have been a cemetery. But any other graves have disappeared.

In the 1860s this was Oreana, home to the Montezuma Smelting Works. Newspaper records from the time indicate that James and Matilda Spence lived there. In 1867, the year Mary Ann Alice Spence died, the town site had a post office, hotel, general store, boarding houses, restaurant, blacksmith shop, livery stable, and several saloons.

By 1949, the year the Duncans launched their ranch, all that was left was one lone grave of white marble. And it was in bad shape.

The headstone had been shot at. The white marble cracked. Cows hastened the destruction by rubbing up against the headstone until its top broke off. The Duncans took it down and had it repaired in Fallon. They installed a picket fence around the grave to keep the cows out. And they’ve maintained it ever since. Today the gravesite looks much like it did on that September day in 1867, when James and Matilda Spence buried the little girl in the polka dot dress.

In 1997 the Duncans told the story to the Review Miner. A descendant of the Spence family saw the article and was excited to discover the gravesite of his mother’s youngest sister, Mary Ann Alice Spence. He explained that she died from a cholera in 1867. Sometime after her death the surviving members of the family headed for Oregon. Sadly, they planted another tombstone there. It marked his mother’s grave. He was able to visit her grave as an adult. Now he planned a visit to the Duncan ranch.