Buried history: What Oregon’s 1,500+ pioneer cemeteries can teach us

Special Reports

Additional historic cemeteries are still being registered with the state

OREGON CITY, Ore. (KOIN) — Some stand prominently in cities. Others are tucked away behind peoples’ homes, barely visible. A few require a hike to reach the gates. But all of Oregon’s historic cemeteries can teach us about the state’s past, according to Kuri Gill with Oregon Heritage, a division of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

“They document these communities in a different way,” Gill said. “You can get stories from these places that are often lost. Sometimes they’re stories of people who weren’t documented in history because it’s not the person who has the street or building named after them. … Those stories are critical to what those places have become.”

The headstones of three children buried in Salem’s Lee Mission Cemetery (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Often referred to as “pioneer cemeteries,” the state changed the name to “historic cemeteries” about 20 years ago. That way, it also includes the cemeteries of indigenous people who were already in Oregon, Gill said.

More than 1,500 historic cemeteries are registered with the state of Oregon. Registering a cemetery allows the owners to apply for grants for upkeep, and can make it easier to force vandals to pay restitution, Gill said.

In order to be considered historic, it must have at least one burial of a person who died before February 14, 1909 – 50 years after Oregon became a state.

“Some of the founding people of the Canemah area are buried in here,” Don Ramsey said, leaves crunching as he walked through the pioneer cemetery in Oregon City. It is only accessible by walking on a private road. The fences around it are topped with barbed wire to deter vandals from breaking in.

Gill said the owners of historic cemeteries have to allow for “reasonable” amounts of access, though there are no strict guidelines for what that means. The Canemah Cemetery Association formally opens the gate twice a year, on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends. The rest of the year, it’s more difficult to get inside.

Clint Hargis (front) and Don Ramsey (back) are co-chairs of the Canemah Cemetery Association (Hannah Ray Lambert)

As co-chairs of the association, Ramsey and Clint Hargis are the primary caretakers, entering every so often to cut the grass and clean up. Once the gate is unlocked, people start to wander in.

“I’d say about 50% of them … have family that are buried here,” Ramsey said. “Many generations past or something like that. The other 50% are people that like history, like old cemeteries and just want to come in and see what it’s about.”

Seeing what it’s about is what drew Gill to working in the field.

“… as a kid when we were driving around the state, going camping or whatever and we passed a little cemetery, I always made my family stop and walk through it,” she said. “I was always fascinated by the stories that are there.”

Kuri Gill is the grants and outreach coordinator at Oregon Heritage, a division of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (Hannah Ray Lambert)

Visitors can look for those stories in the art and inscriptions on monuments and the groupings of graves – if one person with a certain last name is buried in a different section than the rest of their family, that could be a sign of drama, Gill said.

The cemeteries can also reveal a lot about social history. Like Mount Union Cemetery in Corvallis, which was established in 1861 when Reuben Shipley, a former slave, donated two acres of his farm on the condition that black people could be buried there.

“It kind of sparks the imagination.”

Hargis finds himself wondering about the lives of those buried in the Canemah cemetery, especially when he sees the tombstones of people who lived well into their 60s.

“You’re amazed,” he said. “Back in that day, life expectancy wasn’t that long. So you wonder what they went through to stay on this planet for so long. It kind of sparks the imagination.”

Building the network of people who care about historic cemeteries is critical to their survival, according to Gill.

“Generally we see the care of these historic cemeteries go in waves,” she said. Someone may care for a cemetery for years, but then when they move or pass away, no one else steps up to the plate. “Working on that succession is, I think, a big challenge,” Gill added.

Ramsey, who took over care of the Canemah cemetery about five years ago, understands the challenge, and the responsibility.

“For us it’s just preservation,” he said. “This is history, this is part of the Canemah and it’s just preserving it to keep it for people to see, people to enjoy.”

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