In 1848 James Marshall found a few flakes of gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills and by 1849 word had spread around the world, sparking a stampede of people to California. A few lucky miners became wealthy, but most worked very hard for very little - and all found themselves in a rough and tumble place where life was difficult and frequently cut short by violence or disease.

I visited a number of gold rush era cemeteries in the winter of 2010-2011, shooting on black and white film with a 35 mm camera. Often referred to as "pioneer cemeteries", these old graveyards are located in or near foothill towns that started out as mining camps.

Headstones in 19th century cemeteries often feature recurring symbols that people of the Victorian era associated with mourning, such as stylized weeping willows. Sometimes the tombstones have the figure of a hand holding a book, presumably a bible. Child mortality rates were high, and children's graves were often marked with a small sculpture of a lamb. I saw a couple of tombstones for the graves of children who lived only a few hours or days, where the stone is inscribed with the parents' names, but for the child is marked only "Baby" or "Infant".

Many pioneer women died in childbirth, and sometimes one sees the headstones of adult women graced by the image of a female hand pointing to up to heaven. Occasionally the hand holds a rose, which for Victorians symbolized many attributes, among them eternal love, silence or innocence, virtue, purity, and reverence or humility.

The camera used to take these photos was my 1980's Minolta x-700 35 mm, which is my go-to workhorse camera when I'm tromping around out in the field. I used Ilford black and white film, mostly 100 ISO, however some of the photos were shot with 400 speed film.

Click here to see the second page of old cemetery photos.

The inscription on this marker reads, "Sacred to the Memory of Little Worrallo, Son of C.B. & Lydia Holmes, Born Nov. 22, 1865, Died March 4, 1867. Suffer Little Children to come unto me."

Many of the pioneer cemeteries were sited on hilltops.

Marker reads, "I. B. Vernon, Born in Rockingham Co., N.H., Feb. 8, 1819. DIED in Placerville Cal. April 18, 1856." Cast iron fences, some simple, and some with fancy designs were placed around graves - if the family had the financial means.

This is the only marker I've seen with the top carved to resemble fabric draped over the tombstone. It reads, "Metta Mahler, Wife of Henry Mahler Sr., Native of of Germany. Died Nov. 14, 1888 Aged 67 Yrs., 18 Days. A Loving Wife and Affectionate Mother. Erected by Her Children."

One often sees broken tombstones that were left lying flat and placed in concrete to save them from further damage. This marker reads, "Thomas Lambert, Born Dec. 25, 1813, Died July 27, 1873. Good and gentle was thy lifetime, Christ has died to set thee free, Wait a little, Dearest Father, And we shoon shall follow thee."


The woman's tombstone at right features a female hand holding a bible. She lived longer than most women in that era; the marker reads, "Mother", and below that, "Deliah, Wife of Wm. N. Penter, Died June 24, 1882, Aged 76 Years" and "Gone but not forgotten".

Obelisk-type markers were used for family plots, each side inscribed with names. The information engraved on this monument presents a puzzle; the top part indicates that Fred W. Lohry died at the age of 19 in 1876, and the bottom is marked, "Baby, Died Sept. 13, 1859, aged 5 Months". However, there is no indication of the relationship between the two; perhaps they were siblings, as they were born two years apart.

This is one of my favorite images. The late afternoon light was fading away - perfect for the shot, and one can feel the solitude of this old cemetery. The headstone is so worn, the information is no longer decipherable. Many of the graves in these old cemeteries have no markers at all, so one has to tread carefully. Often the presence of a grave is indicated only by a rectangular area of earth that is ever so slightly sunken down.

I would not have photographed this rather plain marker had it not been for the extraordinary note placed at the bottom. I was wandering around the cemetery and noticed a small, live pine tree in a bright red container next to the marker. Upon closer inspection I realized there was a small piece of paper lying at the bottom of one side of the marker (just as you see it here in the photo). One of the persons buried here is Jane Pedler, and when I read the note, I was intrigued to see it had been placed there by one of Jane's descendants. The note was so interesting I have placed an enlarged image of it into the original photo, to create the composite image you see here.

Very little information about Jane is Inscribed in the granite marker - only her name, the month and year of her birth, Aug. 1776, and the date she died, May 18, 1854. The little paper note reads, "Here lies Jane Sowden Pedlar, my GGGGGGrandmother. She was born in Cornwall, England. She lived in Potosi, WI, until she and three sons journey brought them to Calif. May she rest in peace. Shelly Clare Stovall".

I am so grateful that the note was still there the day I visited this cemetery. Just think what an incredible life Jane Pedler (Pedlar?) had - she was born in England in 1776, the year the American colonies declared their independence from England, then traveled to America, and later made the arduous journey to the gold fields of California...what an amazing 76 years she spent on this earth.


Click here to see the second page of old cemetery photos.

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