Preserving the Past
Salem Pioneer Cemetery
Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery, founded in 1854, is one of the oldest burial grounds in Oregon. Its markers represent missionaries and politicians dating back to Oregon’s territorial period and early statehood. And while these men played star roles in the development of both Oregon and its capital city, there are many more stories of common working folks—merchants, farmers, and teachers—all of whom contributed to Salem’s early character.
Oregon’s “Founding Fathers” and So Much More
Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated Friends of Pioneer Cemetery group, it’s not just the typical politicians and businessmen whose lives are memorialized. Stories of more typical citizens too are highlighted at the cemetery. Interpretative signage and other records recount the stories of:
- Hiram Gorman who was born in Missouri to enslaved parents. Hiram served in the Union Army and, afterward, came to Oregon in 1871. He was a long-term employee of the Oregon Statesman.
- Roy Fukada, a Japanese merchant who operated a store in the Lake Labish area. Fukada survived a housefire in which he lost all his possessions, only to rebuild and prosper.
- Tabitha Brown crossed the Oregon Trail at age 60, began an orphanage near Salem, and made and sold gloves to support the children.
- James Veatch brought his family west during the Civil War and helped build a more modern version of Salem as one of its earliest cement contractors.
The stories of countless more citizens like these are represented among the graves, and are available for discovery at the cemetery itself, or through the robust website the summarizes the countless hours of research that have been spent in documenting their lives (scroll down for more website information).
Thanks to a recent Lottery-funded Parks grant, Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery will be able to plan and institute a maintenance plan and fence repairs to help preserve this serene and historically important site for future generations.
A Rediscovered Chinese Shrine
Like many west coast cities, Salem once had a thriving Chinatown. Today, however, there is little evidence of this community that contributed so much labor to building the city. Even the historic Pioneer Cemetery has only a handful of tombstones to document the presence of the Chinese in Salem.
In 2017, the city launched an effort to locate the remains of a Chinese shrine believed to have once existed in the cemetery. With the help of preservation experts, the shrine’s remaining concrete slab and “curb” were located and excavated. Today, “QingMing” ceremonies are held there to pay respect to Salem’s forgotten Chinese ancestors.
In the Internet Age
Historic Cemeteries as Research Tools
Tombstones have always provided important clues to those researching local history or tracing their genealogy; unfortunately, most provide little more than a name and the set of dates that served as the bookends of that person’s life. But in the internet age, cemeteries and their associated websites have evolved into important research tools, often providing far more information than can be chiseled in stone.
Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery is a case in point. The Friends of Pioneer Cemetery have created one of the most comprehensive cemetery websites available. Their search engine allows users to enter the name of any individual buried in the cemetery and returns far more than just birth and death dates. Biographical sketches, obituaries, newspaper articles and more are often available, providing a remarkably rich picture of that person’s life and times.
Check out at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery website at the link above.
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