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Drifters, immigrants, heroes, scoundrels: New book chronicles lives of those buried at Santa Rosa’s first public graveyard

New Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery guide book

The 2021 Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery reference book goes on sale June 1, for $45.

To purchase, call Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks at 707 543-3737.

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.

New Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery guide book

The 2021 Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery reference book goes on sale June 1, for $45.

To purchase, call Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks at 707 543-3737.

Through their years of research, Frary and Owen pored over county death records, coroner’s reports and inquests, census records, archived stories from The Press Democrat and other newspapers, genealogical information published online at ancestry.com and other sources. The pair also spoke with family members of people buried at the Rural Cemetery.

The pair dedicated the 2021 update to the late Alan and Margaret Phinney, who committed untold hours to converting the list of deceased from a word processing document to a true, sortable database. For the 1997 update, the Phinneys found and corrected hundreds of erroneous dates, facts and name spellings.

Owen and Frary are confident their latest update should not be the last.

“This book will probably never be done,” Owen said. Frary said she’s sure there are people buried at the cemetery whose identities and stories remain unknown.

But in the pair’s exhaustively researched update, they add details of 585 previously unknown burials, delete 367 listings after finding them to be duplications or involving people who in fact are in fact buried elsewhere, and correct thousands of misspellings and errors.

“I hope the book sparks an interest in local history.” Frary said.

Whenever possible, she and Owen included in a person’s entry the name, date of birth, date and place of death, names of the person’s parents and the general location of the grave. “Vet” identifies those people known to have been military veterans.

The authors include what they and earlier researches were able to determine about the person’s street address, occupation, character and peculiarities, historical significance and the cause of death.

A quite-complete example on Page 218:

Newton B. Kinley

Born: 9 Feb. 1881 in Iowa

Died: 9 July 1938; 57 years, 5 months

Father: B.C. Kinley of Indiana

Mother: Mary Caroline Miller of Iowa

Narrative: “His residence was 471 Sebastopol Rd., Santa Rosa, and his occupation was a farmer. He also served as a Santa Rosa mayor in 1924, but resigned before the end of his term. He had been arrested for having improper relations with Mary Edna Bonar, but was released on bail 7 July 1938.”

Cause of death: “On the morning of 9 July 1938 (two days after his release from jail), he prepared to blast out a cherry tree in his orchard using a bag of old and very dangerous loose dynamite powder, and something went terribly wrong. The powder accidentally detonated and blew his body to pieces.

“A shoe and a legging were found at first, and then parts of flesh were discovered all through the cherry tree. His head was found 125 feet from the tree, and his right hand was found 100 yards northwest of the tree. A Coroner’s jury ruled his death as accidental.”

A skimming of entries reveals many of old Santa Rosa’s most prominent names. A sampling: Carrillo, Doyle, Farmer, Geary, Grace, Hahmann, Hoen, Hood, Juilliard, McDonald, Proctor, Slater.

The 2021 Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery reference book is so new it’s not yet available for sale. It will go on sale June 1, for $45.

To purchase one, on or soon after June 1 phone Santa Rosa Recreation and Parks at (707) 543-3737.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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