Jews reclaim Gold Rush-era cemetery in Marysville

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More than 70 years after the Jews of Marysville left behind their town and cemetery, the graveyard is back in Jewish hands due to a rediscovered property deed.

The Judah L. Magnes Museum’s Commission for the Preservation of Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries and Landmarks was granted trusteeship of the cemetery this summer in Yuba County Superior Court.

The commission hopes to begin archaeological research and detailed restoration on the long-neglected cemetery by the end of the year.

Susan Morris, a commission member and administrator-curator for the museum’s Western Jewish History Center, considers the trusteeship important for both religious and historical reasons.

“These are sacred burial grounds. They contain our ancestors,” said Morris, author of a soon-to-be published traveler’s guide to Jewish cemeteries of the Gold Rush era. “And historically, they are extremely important. Much can be learned from them.”

Since the commission formed in 1963, it has restored six other pioneer Jewish cemeteries with 160 gravestones in Grass Valley, Jackson, Mokelumne Hill, Nevada City, Placerville and Sonora.

With 55 headstones, the Marysville cemetery is the largest among these seven graveyards. The first Jewish burial in Marysville took place in 1850, a year after the Gold Rush began.

Among the cemetery’s more dramatic headstone inscriptions: “Simon Glucksman. Aged 24 years. A native of Kempen, Prussia. Was murdered Friday, August 26, 1859, on the high-way between La Porte and St. Louis.”

“This just speaks Gold Rush to me,” Morris said.

The final Jewish grave was dug in 1945, although the cemetery was considered abandoned after the Marysville Hebrew Benevolent Society disbanded in the early 1900s.

Marysville, located about 30 miles north of Sacramento, was one of three main supply towns to Gold Country. In the 1850s, Jews joined the throngs descending on the area, trying to strike it rich.

At the Gold Rush’s peak, Morris estimated, 100 to 200 Jews lived in Marysville, where they created the now-defunct Congregation B’nai B’rith as well as a Hebrew Benevolent Society. Many were merchants, farmers or ranchers.

But as gold fever faded in the late 1800s, Jews abandoned the mines and towns along with everyone else. Today, fewer than 20 Jews live among Marysville’s 13,000 residents.

Commission members have known about the Marysville graveyard for decades, Morris said. But no one could find a property deed, so they couldn’t prove the Jewish grounds were separate from the adjacent city cemetery, which also was neglected and no longer in use.

In the meantime, the cemetery’s disrepair deepened. Headstones toppled and crumbled. Frequent flooding, as recent as this winter, moved gravestones and wore away inscriptions. Weeds grew among the plots.

“It was rather benign neglect, I would judge,” Morris said, pointing to the city’s poor economy. “The funds were not there.”

In theory, the commission could have begun restoration on the Jewish plots without trusteeship. But Morris said asking for donations for restoration is difficult when the land belongs to someone else.

“It’s a lot of responsibility to come in and work on property that isn’t yours,” she added.

In late 1993, however, commission members visiting the cemetery accidentally bumped into Marysville history buff Dick Marquette.

Marquette, now a retired postal carrier, decided to help and spent a day in January 1994 poring through records at the county recorder’s office. He found the original deed, misfiled under the seller’s name instead of the buyer’s.

The deed showed that in 1855 the Marysville Hebrew Benevolent Society paid $50 for the land, which covers the equivalent of a city block. The society purchased it from the estate of Robert Buchanan, Yuba County’s first sheriff.

Although he isn’t Jewish, Marquette said he was glad that he could help advance the cemetery’s restoration. “It was just probably the right thing to do,” he said.

But finding the deed wasn’t enough. The commission then was required to petition the Yuba County Superior Court to gain trusteeship. Placerville attorney Freda Pechner did pro-bono work to file the petition. Trusteeship was granted on July 19.

The commission will meet in Marysville this fall to approve a restoration plan. Seymour Fromer, commission secretary and Magnes Museum director, said he already has two grants — $2,500 from Sinai Memorial Chapel and $6,000 from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Endowment Fund’s Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation — to pay for the initial restoration work.

Pacific Gas & Electric has promised to lend the commission a special device, generally used to locate underground pipes, to search for unmarked graves and buried headstones.

The work will focus on restoring headstone inscriptions and building a new fence. But it will also include searching for the base of a brick wall that once stood around the cemetery and locating a mortuary building that was once part of the cemetery as well.

Commission members hope the work can begin by year’s end but are unsure when it will be completed.

“The restoration will be slow,” Morris said. “We’re treating this as an archaeological site. It’s not just an aesthetic repair.”

Although the commission knows of another abandoned cemetery in Nevada, Morris said she doesn’t expect the group will take on any new projects in the near future.

Still, she doesn’t believe the Marysville restoration will be the commission’s last project because members consider the work so vital. Too often, she said, Jews are stereotyped as having immigrated primarily to New York’s Lower East Side.

“But there isn’t just one kind of experience,” she said.

Restoring the cemeteries, she said, reminds people of the Jewish role in the history of the West and “completes the full story of the Gold Rush.”

Fromer agrees. “It shows that Jews were part of the creation of California right from the start,” he said.

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.