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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

History Lessons in Cemeteries

All Hallows Eve is next Sunday, when centuries-old pagan beliefs insist that ghosts and goblins haunt old graveyards at the Midnight Hour. But in daylight hours, the only ghosts in graveyards are whispers of the past. There is nothing to fear and much to gain by strolling through old cemeteries, a fascinating window into the lives and events of yesteryear.

In the 1840s, covered-wagon overlanders who crossed the lofty Sierra Nevada headed for Sutter’s Fort, the only waystation and trading post in the Sacramento Valley. After resting themselves and their animals for a few days, many families settled near the rivers and creeks several miles south of the fort, establishing farming communities that eventually became Elk Grove and Franklin. Between them, both towns contain six public cemeteries founded in the 19th century, two of which have connections to nationally known historic events.

In the 1850s, Elk Grove and its neighbor-hamlet Franklin some two miles southwest, each boasted a stage stop and one hotel. Then in 1868 the railroad came through Elk Grove, and the little settlement boomed. Within a few years, the town center moved one mile east to be closer to the tracks and the railroad depot. Founded in 1874, the Elk Grove Cemetery covers the spot where the first “downtown” Elk Grove used to be.

The most famous grave here is that of Elitha Donner Wilder, a survivor of the ill-fated Donner Party’s dire entrapment in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846-47. Elitha, age 14, and her sister Leanna—the daughters of George Donner and his deceased second wife—were rescued in late February 1847. Elitha’s three little stepsisters were rescued next, but her father and his third wife, Tamsen, both perished. Orphaned, and with no means to support herself and her younger sisters, Elitha married 26-year-old Perry McCoon—who had ferried supplies to the rescue parties—on June 1, 1847. The marriage was not a happy one, and Elitha also endured the loss of their toddler daughter, who died in 1850. Then in January 1851, Perry McCoon was dragged to death by a half-tamed horse when his foot caught in the riata.

On December 8, 1853, Elitha married Benjamin Wilder, a rancher, and lived in Elk Grove with her husband and their six children for the rest of her life, as an ordinary settler making a living from the land. She died July 7, 1923, aged 90. Her grave in the Elk Grove Cemetery is California State Historic Landmark 719.

The railroad eventually came through Franklin too, but not until 1910. Meanwhile, from 1849 to about 1853, early pioneers settled along the Sacramento River, where they planted extensive fruit tree orchards and raised large quantities of wheat. From the mid 1850s Franklin (located in Sacramento County’s Franklin Township, but known as Georgetown initially and for some years thereafter) had a post office, a two-story, combination church and schoolhouse, and a hotel and tavern. The Franklin Cemetery, small at first, was established in 1887. It later expanded to 4.3 acres by taking over the land once occupied by a one-room schoolhouse, built in 1876, at the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Hood-Franklin Road.

The Franklin Cemetery grave of national interest is that of Alexander Hamilton Willard, a member of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition. Born in New Hampshire on August 28, 1778, Willard was living in Kentucky when he joined the U.S. Army in June, 1800. He was stationed at Fort Kaskaskia, Illinois, when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived there in 1803 to recruit troops for their expedition of discovery through America’s new acquisition: the vast, unexplored regions of the Louisiana Purchase territory. Alexander Willard was young, strong, and had skills that would be valuable for just such a journey into the unknown. He was a blacksmith, an accomplished game hunter, experienced at gun repair—and knew some carpentry.

The famed Lewis and Clark Expedition commenced on May 14, 1804. The story of its hardships, victories, and feats of courage are well known. Willard himself was attacked and nearly killed by a Grizzly, and almost drowned when his canoe was swept into a raging river. Back from the long journey in September 1806, the men got double pay ($166.66 for Alex Willard) and 320 acres of bounty land. He took up residence in Missouri, married Eleanor McDonald in 1807, and “settled down” to farming and raising 12 children—yet it seems that he still had a yen for adventure. During the Indian hostilities of 1812, Willard served as a bearer of dispatches between St. Louis and Prairie Du Chien, at serious risk to his life; and served in the militia when the Blackhawk War broke out in 1832.

The family had been living in Wisconsin for many years when, still vigorous at age 74, Willard decided to move to California in 1852, with his wife and such of their offspring as wanted to accompany them. At some point Willard and his wife began farming in the vicinity of Franklin, but by early 1865 his robust health was failing. Alexander Hamilton Willard’s long life ended on March 6, 1865. His obituary said he died in his residence on the lower Stockton Road (now Franklin Blvd.).

He was the next to last surviving member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition; outlived only by Patrick Gass. Willard’s obelisk-style grave marker, installed in the 1950s by the State Society, Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America, is California Historical Landmark 657.

The stories of a young girl who survived a tragic ordeal and a courageous wilderness explorer are but two interesting tales of the past—who knows what else you’ll find by visiting an old cemetery?

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