“In the midst of life we are in death.”
From “The Book of Common Prayer”
by Sheryl Rambeau
Although most of the early gold seekers to the California Gold Country thought of the California experience as merely an adventure, planning to return to their respective homes within a year or so, death was still a regular fact of life for them. Illness and accident claimed lives. Those dead were buried in a site chosen for that purpose.
In nearly every case, a cemetery site in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was chosen overlooking the main town region. [There are a variety of thoughts about the reasoning behind the hilltop choice, ranging from arranging for the departed to ‘watch over’ those left behind, to the more prosaic option of choosing a spot that was likely to remain above the water level and drain well.] Georgetown’s first cemetery overlooked the original townsite, George’s Town, a mining camp established at the headwaters of Empire Creek, just beyond (and running parallel to) the current Lower Main Street. A disastrous fire in 1852 wiped out the entire village, prompting the town fathers to lay out a new official townsite using extra wide streets to slow further depredation by flames.
Already established as a burial site, lot number 3 of block 15 was set aside as a cemetery dedicated to public use on March 30, 1868, as part of an official township survey. Nearly twenty years later, a public meeting on May 9, 1887 appointed an official cemetery committee of three – Justice of the Peace E. L. Crawford, Frederick Schmeder, and C. M. Fitzgerald – to “take charge” of the cemetery business. They were to oversee proper road lay-out, attend to having fences repaired, superintend burials, and keep track of all the records. The resolutions were formally adopted by the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors on June 1, 1887.
Thomas Warner died July 1, 1848 and is believed to be the first person buried in the Georgetown Cemetery. There is no longer a marker on his grave. The oldest existing headstone still standing in the cemetery belongs to Isaac Green, a native of Illinois who died August 4, 1850.
The earliest markers were often simple wooden stakes, with names and dates carved on them. Age, weather, fire and vandals have destroyed most of them. Occasionally, simple aluminum stake markers put in place by cemetery managers, intended as markers waiting for more elaborate headstones, have remained in place.
Some of the marble used in headstones may have been shipped in by wagon, from Penryn, Omo Ranch quarries or the Cedar Ravine Quarry near Placerville. The “Sierra White” marble from Penryn is used extensively as coping material in Georgetown’s Pioneer Cemetery. Several of the older, simple white marble headstones were carved from marble slabs carried in ships as ballast, then abandoned near the San Francisco piers during the Gold Rush.
Georgetown has several elegant monuments made of rose quartz, a very expensive stone imported for that purpose.
There are also a number of “pot metal” markers. Imported from Midwestern foundries before the turn of the century, these are poured metal markers. The foundries simply dumped scraps and slag into a large foundry kettle, heated the contents, then poured the molten result in brass molds. The resultant fumes were often deadly, and the practice was discontinued after less than two decades.
In 1888, a full burial lot cost $10. A half lot sold for $5 and a single grave was a mere $1. All expenses were to be paid “before occupying the lot”. It was understood the plots would be maintained forever.
If a member of a local fraternal organization died, there were often complicated rituals for his/her burial. Masons or Oddfellows in good standing were likely to be found with large, clear markers, as those organizations took it upon themselves to maintain given portions of the cemetery and to assist with burial costs if necessary. The organization’s symbol is usually inscribed on the headstone. The more modern stones in the New Masonic section are far simpler in design. And, far more likely to accommodate lawn mower usage.
Scattered throughout the cemetery are many historical rose plants, many of them over 100 years old. The Divide Garden Club has made lists of the type and location of many of the plants. Some of the roses were named for the person they were planted to commemorate, such as the Little Fanny Shepherd rose, near the main gate. The historic rose bushes have small metal tags attached, identifying the plant variety and the name.
In late January 1984, vandals upset tombstones, breaking some, tearing out copings, displacing some headstones, defacing others. Some of the damage is irreparable.
Maintenance within the cemetery itself is primarily volunteer labor. Some families endeavor to keep their family plots tidy and repairs done. Bill and Chris Butts did much of the maintenance for years, aided by work crews from Growlersburg Conservation Camp. Larry Anderson currently supervises repair and maintenance, assisted by interested community members.
There is no room left in Georgetown Pioneer Cemetery. Although some plots are still vacant, they have been purchased by persons still living. Voters approved a new cemetery site in 1984, 15 acres of land on Georgia Slide Road. Burials are now done in that cemetery, currently called the Georgia Slide Cemetery.
Copies of burial records are available at the El Dorado County Museum in Placerville. The museum has copies of burial ledgers, probate papers and sometimes, of wills.
- Dawson City Cemeteries (walkaboutreport.wordpress.com)