GOLD RUSH ERA CEMETERIES IN THE SIERRA NEVADA FOOTHILLS
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.