Grave misunderstanding

There are headstones missing from Chico Cemetery—but we’ll probably never know why

Bill Shelton dug through two feet of dirt to find these headstones of early Chinese settlers in Chico. That was in the 1960s, and he’s still searching for answers.

Bill Shelton dug through two feet of dirt to find these headstones of early Chinese settlers in Chico. That was in the 1960s, and he’s still searching for answers.

Photo by Meredith J. Graham

Almost a year ago, the CN&R published a bizarre story about the Chico Cemetery. What we’d discovered was the very real possibility that there were bodies buried under the roads there. In particular, several sources came forward to discuss the paving over of up to two dozen graves of black people in the old part of the cemetery. The probability that Chinese graves had also been paved over during the widening of Mangrove Avenue also came to light.

About a month ago, local history buff Bill Shelton came forward to share his insights—and proof—that wrongdoing had indeed occurred at the Chico Cemetery. One of the first sentences out of his mouth was, “I have some of the Chinese headstones at my house.” Say what?

But the story goes deeper than what we’d first thought. It’s not just minority groups whose grave markers are no longer present in the cemetery. Dozens if not hundreds of graves, most of them from the 1800s, are missing. Green grass grows where their stones once stood testament to their existence.

“It’s the worst desecration to get rid of someone’s headstone and erase them from the face of the earth,” Shelton said during a recent visit to the cemetery. With a grave map in hand, he walked this reporter around what’s called Section 2, in the southwest corner facing Chico Junior High. That corner was once the original entrance, Shelton explained. It probably hasn’t been used in over a century.

So what happened to all the headstones that should be there? Nobody seemed to have a good answer to that question, though Shelton remembered vividly digging through several feet of dirt in the 1960s after an old slough that wrapped around the cemetery had been filled in and coming out with the headstones that now adorn his garden. It was his understanding at the time that the headstones had been thrown in the ditch to make room for more burials.

Nobody can prove that, of course.

Shelton didn’t dig alone. He gathered those headstones with his cousin, the late Larry Richardson, who served as cemetery historian for about three decades. When they dug through the dirt that filled the former slough, they found dozens of head- and footstones, as well as concrete slabs that had been used to outline family plots and the stones used to mark the corners of those plots. Richardson even unearthed one of the eagles that had stood atop the original entry gate, Shelton recalled.

“Larry was just sick about it,” he said, referring to the desecration of graves and, therefore, history.

Looking at the map of all the missing graves, he added: “These people had headstones, some of them big ones. That’s how we trace who we are and how we remember them.”

The Chico Cemetery is a strange place indeed. Few people know that better than Shelton. For one, its history is hard to trace, despite Richardson’s 30-year effort to do so. A fire in the cemetery office around 1900 burned up all the old records, and the practice of some cultural or religious groups of burying their own makes keeping track of exactly who is buried where nearly impossible.

“Larry often said we will never know how many people are really buried here,” Shelton said. He said his cousin often guessed that, in certain areas, there are bodies buried on top of other bodies.

Bob Keith, another historian who is working on a book about John Bidwell’s time running the cemetery, agrees.

“You’ll never really know how many people are buried out there because there are no records,” he said recently by phone. “There’s a lot of sordid history of the cemetery. There’s too much that’s gone on—adding sections, burying people in the roadways—that’s why I’m more interested in John Bidwell’s connection to it.”

Keith hypothesized that many of the grave stones are missing from the southwest corner because of vandalism, or because the markers were simply so old that they no longer exist.

Local civil-rights activist Willie Hyman was the first to hear from former cemetery employees who claimed it was common knowledge while working there that black graves had been paved over. One of those former employees even showed Hyman and this reporter exactly where those bodies supposedly are.

In addition, a letter written by Richardson shed some light on the matter, explaining that originally there was no road between the “colored section” and the section next to it. “… [T]he oldest colored person who could remember said they covered old colored grave with the road,” he wrote.

Without the names of people whose bodies were covered over, however, Hyman fears an investigation by the state Cemetery and Funeral Bureau is all but over. Investigator Glenn Miller said he could not comment on the case, but confirmed he was wrapping up the investigation.

“I just needed to give him a name,” Hyman said, adding that, as president of the Butte Community Coalition, he wouldn’t have sought action by the state if the Brusie family, which has owned the cemetery for 20 years, had responded to any of his queries. Claudia Bartlett, cemetery manager, apologized for the lack of communication, citing not enough time to do the research she’d wanted done in regard to the covered-over graves.

“Anything is possible,” Bartlett said, referring to the paving-over. “But how could we actually know for sure?”

Finding a name could prove that the paving-over did occur, but the likelihood of that happening is slim. A search of the names of Chinese buried in the old Chinese section (nearest the stop light on Mangrove Avenue) revealed none of those whose headstones now reside at Shelton’s house. He does have a few of those names, however—George Gale and Ah Yu.

“I just want history to be told the way it is,” Shelton summed up.