Many people find solace in cemeteries; others have a morbid interest in death. Cemeteries, however you engage in them, are full of history, the stories of lives, families, entire communities.
Such is the case with Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery on Broadway, just south of downtown. One cold, cloudy February day, I wandered through Sacramento’s historic cemetery, searching for headstones and monuments of some of the leading figures in Sacramento history. I had driven by the cemetery for years and had heard there were several important people buried there.
I also found a lot of beauty in its rippling lawns, its clusters of headstones and towering markers, lovely trees and shrubs and occasional flower arrangements, and surrounding the main section, a lower section covered by smaller or flat gravemarkers that appear more recent. The core of the cemetery is on a gentle rise, featuring crypts, statues, monuments and heavy carved blocks among the oaks and shrubs.
The cemetery was created by Captain John A. Sutter, Jr., in 1849. Sutter was the son of the German-born John Augustus Sutter, who had left Switzerland for America long before his son’s birth and arrived in “Alta California” in 1839. The elder Sutter obtained a land settlement that gave him title to 48,827 acres on the Sacramento River, which ultimately became the city of Sacramento and the site of Sutter’s Fort and the state’s Capitol.
Sutter, Jr., arrived in California in 1848 to help his father, but took a different path. His father wanted to call the settlement Sutterville, but Sutter, Jr., had his own vision. Sutter founded the city of Sacramento and became its city planner. Among his various actions was to give the city 10 acres for a public graveyard. Sutter, who died in 1897, is buried in the cemetery, and his large headstone stands near the gated entrance off Broadway.
Margaret Crocker, widow of Edwin Bryant Crocker, not only assembled the art collection (some 700 paintings from the couple’s trips abroad) that became the initial basis for the Crocker Art Museum, but Mrs. Crocker also donated 50 acres to the cemetery to expand it further. Margaret Crocker, who lived from1822 to 1901, is buried in the cemetery alongside her husband, Edwin Bryant Crocker, who was a justice of the state’s Supreme Court in the 1860s and chief counsel for the Central Pacific Railroad Co. Crocker, who practiced law and was an abolitionist (as was his wife), was also well-known for his love of art. The Crockers’ Victorian home became the Crocker Art Museum.
After Mrs. Crocker’s gift, however, the cemetery went through years of neglect and vandalism, as well as a loss of acreage, so that the cemetery is now 28 acres and contains the final resting places of more than 25,000 Californians.
Many of those buried there are the pioneers and miners from the early days of California’s Gold Rush as well as former governors and state officials, railroad barons, notable families as well as veterans. The Masonic Lodge at one corner of the cemetery sits hear the many small gravemarkers of soldiers who died in 1940 or later.
One of the “Forty-Niner” pioneers is Mark Hopkins, who is buried in a 350-ton red granite sarcophagus in the cemetery. Hopkins, who lived from 1815 to 1878, was also one of the so-called “big four” in the history of California’s railroad and served as the treasurer of the Central Pacific Railroad Co. A plaque memorializes his story and the fact that “this monstrous vault” cost $80,000 and a year and a half to build. Hopkins was buried in San Francisco initially until his vault was completed.
Other important names who can be found in the cemetery:
- John Bigler, a California Assemblyman, the first Speaker of the Assembly, the state’s third governor (1852), the first governor to complete an entire term in office, and the one who brought the Capitol to Sacramento permanently
- Hardin Bigelow, the first elected major of Sacramento.
- Newton Booth, a state senator and governor in the late 1800s.
- The families of the Watts, the Teicherts, James McClatchy of journalism repute, and former governor William Irwin.
As I walked through the cemetery, groundskeepers mowed the lawns between the crypts and headstones and volunteers tended the headstones. Two men, one with a pronounced British accent, were working on a trellis. Volunteers help care for the cemetery. In 1986, The Old City Cemetery Committee was created by citizens concerned about the vandalism and neglect that had damaged some of the headstones. The group soon became part of the city’s Historical Society, and the city worked to have the cemetery included in the Work Release Program within the Sheriff’s Department.
Within the cemetery is the Pioneer Cemetery Grove, which was started by the Sacramento Pioneer Association, which was founded in 1854. The Association is dedicated to preserving the memory of the Gold Rush and those who were a part of it, and contributed to purchasing acreage for the cemetery. Hopkins and McClatchy are among the members buried in the Grove.
The volunteers not only work on preservation but also beautification, and have spruced up the cemetery by creating three gardens of roses, perennials and native plants. The cemetery still has room for more Sacramentans, but I saw few gravemarkers more recent than 1975. Only one surprised me—from 2015.
As more and more people prefer cremation, there will be fewer cemeteries and fewer headstones to mark the lives of those who preceded us. I have often wondered how e-mail and telephones, which have almost entirely replaced the written letter, will impact the art of the biography. Though Mrs. Crocker’s ashes are what is buried in Sacramento’s cemetery, cremation and the cost of land, especially in California, will no doubt lead to the erosion of cemeteries as they become small plots of the past.