I’m in the middle of writing a novel set in a fictional town in California. The working title is Rattlesnake. The novel’s a contemporary, but the fictional town where it’s set is in Gold Rush territory in the Sierra foothills. Which, conveniently enough, is close to where I live.
As I was doing some research for my story, I stumbled upon a census for the old city cemetery in Sonora, California. Sonora is a town of about 5000 people. It was founded as a mining town, and you can still see the remains of mines right downtown. But the cemetery census is fascinating. You can see it yourself here: http://www.sonoraca.com/visitsonora/History/Old%20City%20Cemetery.pdf .
I’ve never actually visited the Sonora cemetery, although I love old graveyards. I’ve been to the Columbia cemetery many times, and it’s just a few miles away. Speaking of which, notice Joel A. Cumback’s headstone from Columbia: http://oldwest.theblincoes.com/ca/columb3.html (4th photo down). I’ve seen that one myself, and always wondered what the story was. His friend Jacob R. Giddis cared enough for him to buy him the stone–and to put his own name on it. Were they lovers? And then poor Jacob was murdered just a few years later and buried next to Joel.
One thing you can see from the Sonora census is that immigrants came there from lots of places. China, Mexico, Russia, Sweden, Serbia, France, England, Germany…. These people must have endured some really hard journeys to get to Sonora, and once they got there, their lives were still hard. A lot of them died in mining accidents. Some died of exposure or burns or falls or drowning. Murder and suicide were apparently common, as were drug and alcohol use. A lot of people died from TB, as well as things that rarely take lives today (at least in the US): diphtheria, typhoid, typhus, croup, infections. And a few people died rather colorfully, like the 4-year-old who, according to the record, died from eating watermelon. Or the man who was bitten by a bear and died 6 days later.
I also was fascinated by the little snippets of information about some of the people. One of them was an “actress.” In a mining town in 1870, I wonder what kind of acting she was doing. Another had fame as a dancer. A miner died in an accident, leaving his wife and children, who were still back in Wales. Another man murdered his wife and two young children. Several people hung themselves in jail cells. One 70-year-old was survived by 15 children. At least two of the people buried in Sonora were originally brought to California as slaves.
The cemetery census provides a thousand plot bunnies. Next time I go to Sonora, I plan to visit the cemetery. I can post some photos if you like. Don’t be surprised if I eventually write a historical set in the Gold Rush era.