Drifters, immigrants, heroes, scoundrels: New book chronicles lives of those buried at Santa Rosa’s first public graveyard
Sandy Frary and Raymond Owen care deeply about people long buried.
The pair’s reverence for, and fascination with, the stories and lives and legacies of the deceased enliven 520 pages of an authoritative new book that lists everyone who’s known to be interred at Santa Rosa’s first public graveyard.
Individual, alphabetical entries reveal what Frary and Owen gleaned from 13 years of research about 5,515 pioneers, children, drifters, immigrants, heroes, scoundrels and others laid to rest on the wooded knoll occupied by the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery.
Ask Frary, at 74 a retired civilian employee of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, why she is so potently drawn to people who died as long ago as 1854 and she’ll say their dying is not what intrigues her — but that they lived.
“I want to learn about those who went before me, what they did and how they lived,” says the Santa Rosa-born lover of local history. “And yes, how they died is also part of their story.”
The cause of death is noteworthy for sure in the case of Thompson Mize, whose listing appears on Page 275. The 31-year-old native of Patrick County, Virginia, had been in Sonoma County just 48 days when, says his entry, he “got drunk, fell into a small pond near Santa Rosa Creek, south of present-day Courthouse Square, and drowned.”
That happened Nov. 21, 1854, nearly 14 years before Santa Rosa was incorporated as a city. Mize’s death caused his in-laws, Richard and Sallie Fulkerson, to break off a piece of their approximately 600-acre Santa Rosa spread for use as a graveyard.
Thus the drowned husband of the Fulkersons’ daughter, Ruth, became the first person known to be buried in what would become the 17.5-acre Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery. It’s located at the north end of McDonald Avenue, adjacent to the Santa Rosa Memorial Park and Odd Fellows cemeteries.
Researcher and co-author Owen said of the Rural Cemetery, “Until 1885, it was the only non-family cemetery in Santa Rosa.” It saw burials regularly until the early 1930s.
The graveyard is now long owned by the city of Santa Rosa and is cared for by Frary, Owen and their fellow volunteers with the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery Preservation Committee. The picturesque graveyard early on became the final resting place for Civil War veterans, most but not all of whom had worn blue.
John Pressley, whose entry appears on Page 319 of the historical reference book, was a South Carolina native who became a lawyer and added his signature to his state’s declaration of secession, which on Dec. 29, 1860, made South Carolina the first state to leave the union. In the Confederate Army, Pressley rose to rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1873 he came with his family to Santa Rosa, where he became city attorney, then a county judge, then a Superior Court judge. He died of heart failure in 1895, at 63.
Page 192 bears the entry for John Horst of Pennsylvania, who fought with the Union in the Battle of Gettysburg. On Sept. 27, 1903, his story goes, he purportedly did some drinking in the morning and while preparing his midday meal fell onto a pit stove he’d made and “was believed to be roasted to death.”
Author Owen, 81, honed his research skills through decades as a U.S. Army Intelligence Corps agent and an investigator with the Civil Service Commission. His work on the book leaves him astounded by the variety and frequency of fatal accidents that put people in the Rural Cemetery.
“I concluded,” Owen said, “that the people of early Santa Rosa had to be the clumsiest people in the world. They chopped trees onto themselves, fell off horses, drank poison by mistake. They fell into wells, they shot each other while hunting. They fell off wagons. There were also a lot of suicides, a lot of murders.”
In compiling the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery book, Owen and Frary didn’t have to start at square one. History enthusiasts with the Sonoma County Genealogical Society had in 1987 completed a book on the people buried at the graveyard. Other researchers produced updates of it in 1997 and in 2007.
Owen and Frary set out more than a dozen years ago to add to the confirmed list of people buried at the old cemetery, to determine the locations of many unmarked graves, to augment biographical information on the deceased and to correct erroneous information published in earlier iterations of the book.
Also, they wanted to include, for the first time, details on the veterans and others interred in the county’s cemetery for indigents. That graveyard, with its 351 known committals, is located behind the Rural Cemetery, between it and the backyards of homes on Terrace Way.