Editor’s note: This is the second in an occasional series on the many historic sites in Calaveras County that are commemorated by roadside monuments. Reporter Charity Maness goes beyond the brass plaques to reveal more about these local treasures and the people who lived and worked here.
A permanent reminder of a rich and sometimes perilous history can be found carved in the weathered headstones that dot the hillside within the historic Pioneer Cemetery.
Located on Highway 12, just west of San Andreas, the Pioneer Cemetery – California Historical Marker 271 – was formerly known as the North Branch Cemetery; named after a town that once existed just opposite the cemetery.
While the location is marked clearly, for motorists passing it at a brisk 55 mph, the actual site more often than not is simply a blur.
To locate historical markers, some basic navigational skills are required, as are sturdy boots and more often than not some good ol’ country gumption.
For this adventure, visitors must park their car, climb a few steps and enter into a fenced area that clearly states to close the gate so that cattle do not escape. This time of year prepare to get muddy.
Up the hill a bit, an aged sign that reads “Pioneer Cemetery Est. 1851” clearly marks the final destination.
Though some information can be obtained through research and archival studies, cemeteries lend themselves to a history of their own through stories carved in stone.
James Sheran, a native of Ireland, came from across the world to the Mother Lode to seek his fortune. He died in 1854 at the young age of 27, when he “came to his death at the fall of a bank south fork.”
The headstone of H.L.W Hill, (Hugh Lawson White Hill) who died May 12, 1861, at 35 leaves us with a gentle reminder of our lack of immortality. “Remember me as you pass by, as you are now, so once was I, as I am now you soon will be, prepare for death and follow me.”
Hill, a native of Tennessee, established the 1,000-acre Hill Ranch in 1855 in Camanche, a town once named Limerick. Married to Euphemia and father to three strapping boys; John, Jesse and Francis, Hill seemed to have it all.
However, the true story of H. Lawson W. Hill has been remembered by others as a bit more colorful than his headstone would lead you to believe.
According to historical accounts, Hill was murdered.
The legend passed down by cemetery archivists is that he was “killed by a gunshot wound to the heart by a sharecropper named Marion Tate who Hill had accused of having an affair with Hill’s wife and of taking her to the courthouse to file for divorce. Euphremia Hill had filed for divorce the day her husband was killed but Tate had not taken her to file, another neighbor had. Hill was drunk and brandishing a pistol and confronted Tate, who shot him.”
The Barkley family of the television series “The Big Valley” was reportedly based on the Hill family of the Hill Ranch.
And the legends of others continue.
As history is often passed down through stories and tales, rumors abound of a missing headstone, which, according to the California Cemetery records archive read, “Here rest the remains of William A. Samson, age 22, and Robert Edes Bradshaw, age 21 years, both of Charleston, Mass. They were cruelly murdered at Chili Gulch, July 18, 1851, by three Mexican assassins, for the sake of gold. This simple memorial to two beloved and worthy sons is raised by their parents, who in homes far distant mourn their sad and untimely fate.”
A bench is located in the corner of the cemetery for passersby to sit and reflect or possibly, just possibly, remember a distant relative who has long since passed.
Calaveras cemetery records show 48 unknown souls were reinterred in the Pioneer Cemetery in 1962 from the Poverty Bar Cemetery, which now lay at the bottom of Camanche Reservoir.