The Keepers of History: Volunteers Care for Some of Lewis County’s Earliest Burials

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Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a two-part series focused on pioneer cemeteries. Look for the final installment in Thursday’s edition.

When Mel Canfield heard a radio spot asking for help taking care of one of Lewis County’s pioneer era cemeteries, he did not hesitate to volunteer.

It wasn’t because he has family members there or a personal connection of any kind. It was because, to him, caring for and protecting these spaces is important.

“History. It’s all history,” Canfield said of what he thinks is so important about the space.

Canfield, caretaker for the Newaukum Hill Cemetery in Chehalis, is one of a handful of people who care for the resting places of some of the pioneers of Lewis County. It is important work, noted Margaret Iverson, president of the Lewis County Genealogical Society, because of the immense amount of genealogical and historical information that can be learned from these sites. Beyond that, Iverson said it is important to preserve burial sites whenever possible because they give the living a place to pay their respects to those who came before them.

“We need that connection with these people,” Iverson said. “Whether they’re our ancestors or not, it’s the idea of this space where people can come together and express their gratitude.”

The Washington State Genealogical Society counts 66 cemeteries in Lewis County, about half of which are considered historic. Revised Code of Washington Title 68 defines a “historic cemetery” as any site containing human remains buried prior to Nov. 11, 1889.

Historic cemeteries can contain just a few graves, such as the Bunker Creek Cemetery and the Coal Creek Cemetery, which each contain only two graves. They can also include indigenous burial sites such as the Fleming Indian Cemetery of Fleming Island, which contained an unknown number of graves that were relocated at an unknown date in the past to the Dunn Cemetery of Mossyrock.

Guy Tasa, state physical anthropologist with the Washington State Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation, said even currently operating cemeteries such as Claquato in Chehalis and Mountain View in Centralia can be listed as historic because they contain pioneer-era graves.

“Any cemetery from the very old up to modern that has some sort of historic component to them,” Tasa explained of the designation.

Cemeteries and burial sites in Washington have been overseen by the Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) since 2008. The department catalogs known burials and cemeteries mapped using Graphic Information System (GIS) and shared in a buffered way with government agencies that work in permitting to ensure the sites are not destroyed by development.

In Washington state, knowingly removing, defacing or otherwise harming a historic cemetery, grave or burial is punishable as a Class C felony.

“It’s a way for us to make sure there is no impact to those sites,” Tasa said. “Historically, they are a huge source of genealogy and historical information all in one site.”

Tasa said there are almost certainly historic cemeteries and burial plots out there that have yet to be placed on their registry. When the law put cemeteries under the purview of DAHP in 2008, there were about 100 cemeteries registered statewide. Today, Tasa said his department catalogs about 3,000 cemeteries and burial sites statewide from modern resting places to prehistoric burials. Some burials predate the creation of formal cemetery districts and older burials might have been located on private property that did not develop into larger cemeteries later.

“They’re out there and in a lot of cases we don’t know about them and I think homeowners might not know about them,” Tasa said.

According to a report by Lewis County Historical Society from 1966, the 1-acre Newaukum Hill Cemetery property was formerly designated for that use by John Bower in 1902, though no formal deed for the land use appears to ever have been recorded. The land changed hands many times before that designation and must have been used as a cemetery prior to it. The sign at the entrance lists the founding of the cemetery as 1886, since that is the year on the headstone of Maria Bower, the earliest burial known at the site. Chehalis became a city in 1883 and Washington became a state in 1889.

In many historic cemeteries, such as Newaukum Hill Cemetery, which accepted its last burial in the 1970s, caretaking duties can fall to volunteers and nonprofit organizations. This relies on local people such as Canfield to see the value in preserving these spaces and the willingness to work, sometimes unnoticed by the public.

When he took over caretaking duties at Newaukum Hill Cemetery two years ago, Canfield said the land had been fairly well maintained, mostly by the neighbors surrounding the land. Canfield and his volunteer crew have tackled some of the overgrown areas and plantings. Canfield also hand-built a new entrance sign to the property with donated materials. For him, the work is worth it to honor the people buried there.

“You’ve got some neat people up here,” Canfield said. “There’s Civil War veterans buried here. One lady was a nurse and she shut down her plantation during the war to care for the soldiers.”

And then there’s the dignity of the nameless people at Newaukum Hill Cemetery that Canfield also wants to preserve.

He built and painted several white crosses that he placed in all the spots with the telltale rectangular indents of graves but no markers. Canfield said he has heard stories from locals that some of the burials without markers may belong to people who may have died at a local poor farm.

About half of the cemetery’s land is also overgrown with trees and ivy and Canfield said he suspects there may be more graves hidden there. He would like to figure out a way to find out if there are still undiscovered graves there and where they are so he can give those people’s final resting places markers.

No matter the circumstances of their lives or deaths, Canfield said their graves deserve to be honored and he hopes others may join him.

“When I’m gone, I don’t know who will take care of them,” Canfield said of the cemetery’s residents.

 

Learn More

If you would like to access information on researching historic cemeteries, more information can be found at WALCGS.org, Dahp.wa.gov or Findagrave.com.

If you are interested in helping care for the Newaukum Hill Cemetery, contact Mel Canfield at 360-748-6069.

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