A grave undertaking
Secular and Mormon historians combine efforts to honor North State pioneer William Ide, believe they’ve solved 150-year-old mystery
“Bowman, Nathaniel, Hanged April 24, 1852,” reads an inscription on a headstone in the Monroeville Cemetery, a small graveyard tucked in an orchard between Highway 45 and the Sacramento River accessible only by crossing a working farm. Arthur Weston’s neighboring marker recounts his drowning in that river in 1887, while yet another nearby stone is arguably the most chilling: “Male Child, Unknown, Possibly Buried Alive.”
While the stones offer a brutally authentic glimpse of life and death in pioneer California, they are themselves cement replicas of marble and granite markers, small chunks of which still litter the gravel-covered graveyard. Original markers not damaged by a century of neglect and vandalism were bulldozed by a local farmer who intended to plant trees there in the 1970s. His effort was eventually halted by outraged members of the Colusi County Historical Society (Colusa, Glenn and Tehama counties were once a single county called Colusi) and a sympathetic judge. The cemetery may have been lost altogether if not for concern over its most famous resident, William B. Ide. Ide’s legacy will be celebrated at the cemetery this Saturday, June 7.
Ide came to what was then the Mexican province of Alta California in 1845, and is best known as ruler of the short-lived Bear Flag Republic. In 1846, after reports that the Mexican government was getting ready to seize lands from American settlers, Ide led the Bear Flag Revolt, and with a small band of buck-skinned frontiersmen captured Mexican Commandante of Northern California Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in his fort in Mendocino. Ide was chosen to lead the new nation, a position he held for 23 days until American forces arrived. He served through the remainder of the Mexican-American War, and then returned to the far northern section of the state. He ran a ferry crossing near the state historic park outside of Red Bluff that bears his name and held numerous public positions in Monroeville, where he died of smallpox in 1852.
In 2009, David Freeman was en route to give a presentation at William B. Ide Adobe park and decided to stop by the cemetery to snap some photos of Ide’s grave. Freeman is an Artois-based construction contractor and historical researcher who uses modern geographic information systems (GIS) technology in conjunction with historic maps, traditional research tools, and a lot of leg work to relocate long-lost sites, and has done a great deal of research on Ide and his North State holdings.
“[Glenn] county had tried to get things right when they redid the cemetery in 1998, but the grave was just cement painted white and riddled with errors, including naming him as governor of California, which he never was,” Freeman recalled during a recent interview at the cemetery.
After seeing the gravesite, Freeman embarked on a years-long mission to get a more accurate and elaborate marker installed, enlisting “anyone within earshot” to help him, but eventually came to an impasse.
Among the more disputed facts about Ide was the man’s religious affiliation; some historians believe he was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which would have made him the first Mormon in California, while others dismiss his LDS affiliation. Freeman went to the church for help on his mission and met Roger Ekins, a retired Butte College instructor, regional director of public affairs for the LDS church and history buff.
“We didn’t know whether he was Mormon or not, but I certainly wanted to find out,” said Ekins, also at the cemetery. He explained that, in the late 1800s, anti-Mormon sentiment was at an all-time high, due in part to the practice of polygamy, and some historians may have glossed over his faith. The duo began assisting each other in their research, sharing notes, and continued trying to obtain the materials for a new grave marker.
The Colusi County Historical Society, which is still in existence, eventually donated the marble material, and another historical group, the Native Sons of the Golden West, paid to have it cut. A third group, The California Pioneer Heritage Association, paid for cement and other installation incidentals. One of Ide’s descendants, a graphic designer, laid out the inscription, and Ekins and Freeman did most of the other work—down to actually etching the inscription by hand—themselves.
“I even shanghai’d a neighbor with a towing outfit to haul the slab down here as soon as Roger finished sandblasting it,” Freeman said, laughing. “Seriously, if someone was standing nearby and breathing, I tried to wrangle them to help.”
Meanwhile, Ekins said he believes he’s finally found definite proof that Ide was indeed a Mormon, which he’s compiled into a 28-page scholarly paper currently under peer review by the Journal of the Mormon History Association.
Freeman said he agrees with Ekins’ findings: “It’s always been there if you read between the lines,” he said. “He was most certainly Mormon.”