I’ve been in California for almost exactly four years now, and it’s finally starting to grate on me that I haven’t done a lot of the touristy things everyone is supposed to do. I’ve never ridden a cable car or walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve never had a Mission burrito. I’ve never seen the Wave Organ or that plaque commemorating the time Janis Joplin did something or another (was arrested, maybe?) in Berkeley.

And, until a few weekends ago, I’d never been to Sutter’s Mill, the place where gold was first discovered in California, prompting the gold rush that would eventually lead to statehood.

Sutter's Mill Reconstruction

Sutter’s Mill Reconstruction

I went to Sutter’s Mill expecting a tourist trap and was pleasantly surprised. There were more bikers than tourists in Coloma, and most of the people we saw were more interested in rafting or camping out on the grass under a shady tree than thinking about history. Not that I blamed them. It was a cool 90 degrees in the shade and so humid it was easy to believe the American River had crawled up its banks and died.

I was grateful, though. It meant that we had the interesting stuff all to ourselves.

Minecart

It was an odd place. Mine carts and remains of old mining equipment were scattered around the grounds as if they’d been left where they were found. History didn’t announce itself. There were no advocates or guides. I was never entirely sure when we stumbled on a building if it was someone’s house until we found a plaque of some kind.

The only traditional museum exhibits were in vaults telling the story of the place to anyone who was curious enough to try a door to see if it was locked. We spent several hours trying doors and peering into windows, wondering if we were trespassing.

Miner's Plaque Wall Miner's Plaque

On our way out of Coloma, we passed an old cemetery, and I had this nagging sense that we should stop. It was hot, so we drove on, but the feeling wouldn’t leave me alone.

Then I remembered a legend that one of my ancestors, Timothy Dunton Robinson, had gone out to California for the Gold Rush. A quick search from the car (genealogical records have gotten so much better the past few years) revealed that not only was the legend true, but he died in Coloma, California, and no one knew where he was buried.

When I lived back East, I took periodic trips to the New Hampshire town where one branch of my mother’s family had lived for generations. Most of my family came to America in the 20th century, so it was exciting to be able to follow this one branch on paper back to New Hampshire, down the Merrimack River, to Newburyport, before the boat went back to England in the 17th century.

I made it a project to find the burial places of as many of those ancestors as possible. My quest was mostly a success, but there was one exception. Timothy Dunton Robinson. I’d found the place where Timothy’s wife and children were buried, even his mother and father, but Timothy wasn’t there. At the time, I suspected that he’d been left in California, not knowing that I’d settle only a few hours from Coloma a few years later.

As far as I could tell from my research, there was only one cemetery in Coloma old enough to host a 49er, so we went back to Coloma just to visit the Pioneer Cemetery.

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Pioneer Cemetery is easy to miss, up a steep hill to the parking lot. Getting to the stones themselves requires hiking up an even steeper hill and navigating labyrinthine paths that sometimes leave you with no option but to turn around or hop over stone walls that may or may not have been crypts once.

Before we’d even left the parking lot it looked like we were in for bad news. A big sign explained that the cemetery was host to 400-500 graves, and as many as 300 of them were unmarked.

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Another (extremely faded) sign listed the names of the known dead. I was able to make out the Rs just enough to learn that it would be pointless to climb up and down the hill searching for his name. If he’s there, the place where he’s buried has never been found.

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Still, we’d driven two hours to get there, so we spent some time exploring, which is well worth doing if you ever get the chance. It’s full of just the sort of characters you would expect from old mining town legends.

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The most ornate stones were dedicated to the young wives of the miners, some as young as twenty, all of them under thirty. In Hawthorne’s version of the King Midas legend, the golden king touched his daughter and turned her to gold. How many of the miners went west not knowing they were making a similar bargain?

The cemetery made us homesick in a weird way. In New England old burial grounds are like this everywhere, woven into the landscape. I can’t tell you how many times we took a wrong turn in New Hampshire and ended up stumbling on a family’s tiny lot when we slipped into a side road to turn around. Once in the middle of a very foggy night we didn’t realize where we were until a big white obelisk appeared suddenly and loomed over us.

It seemed we weren’t the only homesick ones in the cemetery. Most of the big stones mentioned the dead’s abandoned homes, even those who, if they came with the gold rush, had undoubtedly come to California decades before. The land itself had called them. Those wealthy enough to buy fences and marble tombs owed everything to the golden state, and yet, if their tombstones are to be believed, they’d died pining for somewhere else.

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Cemeteries by nature are fields of loss, but the stones that dotted the hill in Coloma felt like icebergs. We knew from our visit to the museum that many of the miners were crushed in hastily constructed mine shafts and left there. The pits in the ground we felt for under the fallen leaves at the cemetery cradled the lucky ones who made it out to the open sky, only to be lost again when their wooden markers rotted.

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Someone attempting to solve the mystery put markers near spaces identified as unmarked graves, hoping that families would step forward with information. The ground was littered with pieces of the markers, and it was only by putting several together that we were able to discern their message.

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I wondered if I should call, but I couldn’t imagine what I would say. I knew nothing but where he had come from and that he had died there.

It was only then that it began to sink in that my quest was over. In many ways, it’s still sinking in that nothing short of digging up the entire hill and doing DNA tests on every scrap of bone will tell me where Timothy is buried.

I feel like I should say something here about Ozymandias and the inevitability of decay.

Wood Reflection

Instead, I can’t stop thinking about Sutter’s Mill.

The mill was lost decades ago in a flash flood on the American River. All they were able to recover were a few tools and some boards. These remains are displayed behind glass in an outdoor display that is, like most of the others, easy to miss. Most people come to see the replica and miss the real thing, so it is the replica that shows up in search results when you search for images of Sutter’s Mill.

Before we left the discovery site, I took a picture of the remains of Sutter’s Mill with the replica reflected in the glass. It was only after we got home that I saw that I had actually created a self-portrait in which I and the replica dissolve into the artifacts, and the artifacts dissolve into us.

Ghost hunters say that ghosts are very rarely found in cemeteries. If they have unfinished business it is in the world of the living.* Left too long, they dissolve into spectral GIFs looping a single gesture until that gesture becomes legend. We the living are the silly ones who go looking for the dead in names and dates carved in stone.

Maybe Timothy is buried at the bottom of a mine. Maybe I walked over him in that cemetery without knowing it, but that’s not where he is. Timothy Dunton Robinson is dissolved into the endless gold digging gesture of the West.

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*Pioneer Cemetery is, ironically, an exception according to local legend.

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