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Photo by Bonnie Wurm, courtesy of the El Dorado County Photo Library
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have.”
These age-old words of wisdom resonate throughout the historic graveyards dotting the landscape of El Dorado County. Today, nearly 200 pioneer cemeteries honor the achievements of the common and extraordinary people who lived and worked to create a better place for future generations.
The Gold Rush years brought multitudes of predominately male fortune seekers to the “Golden County.” Subsequently, mining camps sprang up along its rivers and creek beds – places like Rattlesnake Bar, Pinchem Tight, and Drunkard’s Bar. Eventually, most prospectors grew frustrated with their arduous profession and returned home. Others heard of gold strikes elsewhere and moved on. Some, however, died here, only to be buried in unmarked graves in cemeteries that today, remain the only evidence of many early mining camps.
Approximately 20 percent of those who came here between 1850-1855 died within six months of their arrival at the diggings. Cholera and small pox took the lives of thousands. In Placerville alone, 700 deaths from cholera occurred from August 1 through November 12, 1850, killing around 13 percent of the population. Still, many managed to survive the epidemics that swept through the county from 1850 to 1853 and chose to settle permanently.
Besides miners, the remains of Civil War veterans, merchants, clergymen, judges, mothers and fathers, infants and children – even criminals – buried in cemeteries throughout the county, reflect the diverse nature of each community. Their granite, marble, and common markers also reveal a strong sense of and devotion to family. Private graveyards bear the names of Skinner, Bryant, Blair, Veerkamp and other pioneer settlers whose efforts helped define the county.
Additionally, St. John’s Catholic Church in Coloma and the Jewish Pioneer Cemetery in Placerville, for example, represent a diverse religious community. Pioneers of different ethnic groups also rest in peace here, including the Japanese settlers of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony. The Chinese Cemetery and Indian Diggings Cemetery also provide evidence of a rich multi-cultural history.
Unfortunately, years of vandalism, neglect, and continued residential and commercial development completely destroyed many burial sites and placed others directly in harm’s way. Cemeteries like Mormon Island and Cold Springs suffered damage and loss after their removal and relocation. Fortunately, however, many concerned citizens have dedicated themselves to the preservation, protection and restoration of these hallowed grounds. For instance, the El Dorado County Pioneer Cemeteries Commission, founded in 1996, continues to research and monitor past and present occurrences within these valuable and irreplaceable historic resources.
While several pioneer cemeteries – Coloma Pioneer, Placerville Union and Georgetown Pioneer Cemetery among them – permit public visitation, others deny access. Therefore, anyone wishing to visit El Dorado County’s Pioneer Cemeteries must map their course carefully and respectfully. Heed these words from an anonymous author and remember that, “A cemetery is a history of people – a perpetual record of yesterday and sanctuary of peace and quiet today. A cemetery exists because every life is worth loving and remembering, always.”