LeBaron: Gravestone of Santa Rosa pioneer spurs search for family burial site, with dogs’ help

Historians are only as good as their sources. And they are a curious lot. When they read what it says on a 170-year-old gravestone in the Museum of Sonoma County, they are compelled to dig deep to learn the whole story — particularly if the grave marked is that of your great, great grandfather.

It’s the kind of thing that can set a fiction writer on the path to a historical novel. Something like this: a young Englishman, born at in the end of the 18th century, sails off seeking adventure, wealth, escape, take your pick, and, 50 years later, dies far from home in a new country, a sunny land of mountains and valleys, a great distance in both miles and aspect from his native British Isles.

But, if you happen to be a direct descendant of the hero of the story, you are looking for truth, not fiction. So what do you do, in this modern age of miracles? You call on “man’s best friends” for help.

Carol Eber did just that last month. She’s a Petaluma resident, retired from a full career as a teacher and administrator in Sonoma and Marin county schools. She is a Sonoma County Parks Commissioner, writes an outdoor column for the Petaluma Argus-Courier and, to the point of this discussion, is a great, great, granddaughter of William Marcus “Mark” West.

Carol grew up hearing a family story, told to her mother in 1940 by her great grandmother, Maria West, about an old burying ground on a rocky knoll north of Santa Rosa where 13 people, including the original land grant owners — Mark West and Guadalupe Vasquez West — were buried in the mid-1800s. So was Maria’s husband, one of Mark and Guadalupe’s sons.

Thus, when Carol’s well-known ancestor’s gravestone turned up in the Santa Rosa museum, the story of this British adventurer and his Mexican-Californian wife took on some immediacy. She wanted to know exactly where that gravestone once was, where Mark West was buried. In early July she contracted with Canine Forensics, a Woodside-based institute that uses highly-trained dogs to detect, by scent, long-buried human remains.

WATCHING cadaver dogs, as they are known, go about their work is something to behold. They cover the prescribed area, one at a time, searching for scents of human remains. When they find what they seek, they lie down and stay down until the spot is marked with a tiny flag. The routine is repeated. In this search, three certified cadaver dogs, working separately, marked five sites. It’s enough evidence to bring to the County Landmark Commission’s Sep. 7 meeting (4:30 p.m. on the agenda) for consideration of a permanent marker identifying the site of the Mark West Family Cemetery, dating to 1850 or before.

Marking the site is important to more than the West descendants. It lends a human element to the name of the road on the south and the creek on the north and the school district next door, and a one-time railroad station and … well, you’ve probably figured out by now that this guy is important to history, as was his wife, Guadalupe Vasquez. As the widow in an era when women had to go to court to be named “sole trader” to own property or run a business, she was the inheritor of the remainder of the 6,800-acre Rancho San Miguel land grant that surrounded the adobe where she and her England-born husband raised their eight sons and daughters.

But that’s the end of the story. We should start, not with the grave search, as interesting as these dogs are, but with the land grant in the last years of Mexican California.

IF THIS was a novel we could sub-title it “The adventures of an English lad on the Frontera del Norte.” West’s life story has all the elements necessary for a frontier adventurer — sailors in exotic ports, cowboys, bandidos, every kind of wild west hero. Visualize some modern-day Errol Flynn to play Mark West, whose name lives on today across Sonoma County.

Mark West Springs, near the creek, was the “discovery” of his upstream neighbor William “Wild Bill” Elliott, a bold bear hunter who, with equally rugged sons, tracked a grizzly into the northeastern mountains and came back with astonishing reports of a canyon full of geysers.

More than 40 years ago I wrote a column about Mark West based on what I had read in histories of the state and region from H.H. Bancroft’s earliest and onward, and from what I had heard from the several “I remember” and/or “I was told” historians who helped create a rough framework for Sonoma County stories.

West, who spent the last half of his life (he died in his early 50s) in Monterey and Santa Rosa, was smack in the middle of an era that saw Anglo-California culture displace Hispanic in this area — and all of California’s North Coast.

He was a ship’s carpenter by trade, had lived a time in Mexico and arrived in the Monterey area in 1832 to work with another adventuring Briton, also a ship’s carpenter, named William Trevethen who was creating lumber from the redwoods in the area around Santa Cruz. Within the year West would become a Mexican citizen, marry Guadalupe Vasquez, and start thinking of bigger things than redwoods even.

HE MOVED his young family north in 1840 when he applied for and was granted the land where, several years earlier, political powers in Mexico City had designated a site for a kind of penal colony, a destination for people no longer welcome in Mexico. Known as the Hijar-Padres Colony (for its two leaders), it was a disastrous failure, taken over by an angry Gov. Mariano Vallejo, who shipped the settlers home to Mexico and offered the area for a grant.

Mark West applied and, in 1840, became owner of the 6,800 acres known as San Miguel Rancho. It stretched from the north edge of Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa, the land granted to Maria Carrillo, Vallejo’s mother-in-law, that would become central to the town that grew out to absorb West’s grant, the largest portion becoming, in 1875, the Fountaingrove community of the Utopian experiment known as the Brotherhood of the New Life.

Mark West prospered, even attempted to claim a second grant, Rancho Llano de Santa Rosa (today’s Sebastopol), but failed as Doña Maria’s eldest son, Joaquin, became old enough to claim it as his own.

Meanwhile, West and Vasquez built a redwood and adobe house, which became a way station on the northwest corner of his land, where the old north-south trail crossed Mark West Creek, (between Larkfield and Wikiup in today’s world). He farmed his land, supplied his carpentry skills to neighbors, building wooden beams and framework for several adobes, including the ones that became central to Healdsburg, Alexander Valley and the Dry Creek areas.

His craft is confirmed in a rare surviving letter from Moses Carson (Kit’s half brother), who was the major-domo of sea captain Henry Fitch’s Sotoyome Rancho in 1845. Carson wrote to his employer in San Diego assuring him that plans for construction of the rancho’s adobe were well underway, including “rafters which Mr. West is to furnish.”

THERE IS so much to say about the man buried on that little hill. As I suggested in a biographical column I wrote about him in 1979, his English upbringing was reflected in his reputation as a “gentleman” on a frontier where gentlemen were rarities, where the settlers were described by Bancroft in his earliest California history as “a turbulent and undesirable class.”

With his skills and the rancho’s virgin farm land, West’s family prospered as the population and traffic on the trail past their adobe house on the creek increased.

But West died, of cancer, in 1850. And his family buried him, as those dogs would probably tell you if they could talk, on a rocky knoll, above his fertile fields, his grave marked by a proper stone. That’s not the end but rather the beginning of the next chapter.

LANDMARKS commissioners will hear the Tubbs fire story of 2017, about how Marian Larsen and Kent Ustiantseff lost the 1927 house on the knoll where they had lived since 1979, and how, in the burned trees and shrubs in their yard, they found Mark West’s grave marker intact. They knew it wasn’t on his grave site. Earlier residents had moved all the grave markers — to make room for a garden. Others had crumbled and disappeared. But Mark West’s marker, carved in 1850, survived not only the move and the years, but the fire that took virtually everything in its path.

Marian and Kent’s house did not survive and they moved on, selling their land to the neighboring Redwood Adventist Academy. In a move that has earned them the gratitude of the history community, as well as West descendants, they donated the gravestone to the Museum of Sonoma County.

The marker set a trio of local historians — Jeremy Nichols, Ray Johnson and Bill Northcroft — on a search for the location of the little cemetery. They walked the 25 acres, more than once. They checked boundaries on an 1860s map. They contacted anthropology professors at Sonoma State. They tried ground-penetrating radar. All to no avail. It was time to call in the dogs, which Carol Eber did. And that’s where we came in.

The matter is now in the hands of the landmark commissioners. We watch with interest.

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