What lies beneath

From prehistoric cultures to pioneer artifacts, there’s a lot of history buried below the surface of Rancho Murieta. Now a sprawling new expansion project could wipe out what remains.

A matter of grave concern: Development has dramatically changed the landscape around this historic cemetery in Rancho Murieta. Lois Brown and her daughter Dorothy Vasconcellos (right) have been coming to visit the graves of their ancestors for decades, and they believe houses may have been built on part of the old burial ground.

A matter of grave concern: Development has dramatically changed the landscape around this historic cemetery in Rancho Murieta. Lois Brown and her daughter Dorothy Vasconcellos (right) have been coming to visit the graves of their ancestors for decades, and they believe houses may have been built on part of the old burial ground.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Now there are houses, tan and stucco, with red tile roofs, backyard swings and swimming pools, jammed in around the jumbled, broken-down pioneer cemetery. But Lois Brown remembers this landscape much differently. She recalls wooden grave markers and headstones spread along the gently sloping field. That was before this place was called Rancho Murieta. Before the wide streets were carved into the hillside, the oaks were cleared and hundreds of houses were built here. Even when Brown was a young woman, the graves weren’t set in orderly rows like in a modern cemetery, but clustered here and there under the oak trees. “This part was where the people who had families were buried,” Brown explains, gesturing to the area around her own family plot, a concrete slab over the grave of her grandmother, Mary Dickinson, who died in 1932. Now 80 years old, Brown remembers coming here as a young girl for Grandma Mary’s funeral. “I remember it really well because they dropped the casket,” she says, laughing and shaking her head.

Beneath the slab with Mary are her second husband and two of Brown’s great-uncles. One, Henry Hilton, died in 1883 when he was only 14, after being thrown from a horse.

The Hilton and Dickinson graves are the most recent burials in the tiny cemetery. Others date back to the 1850s. There’s the simple white headstone carved for Sarah Connor, who died in 1866 at the young age of 38. Another Sarah, Sarah Neill, who passed away in 1858, had a more elaborate headstone, embossed with the image of an oak tree. Over the decades, an actual oak tree grew up around, and eventually swallowed, the grave marker. There’s now a deep cavity in the tree’s trunk, where Sarah’s headstone had to be extricated a few years ago. And Brown says another corner of the cemetery was set aside for gold miners and itinerant bachelors who died while they were passing through. “A lot of them didn’t even have headstones,” she says, and the exact location of their burials is a mystery today.

Brown’s daughter Dottie Vasconcellos remembers playing among the headstones while her mother and grandmother, Mabel, tended the family plot, set fresh flowers and cleared the place of accumulated leaves and brush. Vasconcellos and Brown say they have been coming to the cemetery almost every year for Decoration Day (what most of us now think of as Memorial Day).

Throughout the years, the landscape around the little cemetery has changed dramatically. In the 1980s, a golf course was built a little bit to the north. Then came the roads. Then came the houses. As Rancho Murieta began to fill in—a whole new town, with more than 2,000 homes covering 12 square miles—the women found it increasingly difficult to get their bearings on the landscape.

Today, both women say the little pioneer cemetery looks much smaller than it used to look. Perhaps that’s just because of the way places in a child’s memories are always outsized when compared with reality. Whether it’s the house one was born in, the elementary school or a favorite climbing tree, the territory of childhood often looks smaller in the bright light of adulthood.

But Vasconcellos and Brown think there’s more to it than that. “There used to be graves all through here,” Brown explains, gesturing with an open hand across the fence on the east side of the little burial plot to the tan house that was built there about a decade ago. “At least to the middle of that house right there,” she adds. And on the south side of the cemetery, where another house now stands, Brown says there once was more cemetery.

“There used to be a lot more cemetery between my family plot and the Jackson Highway,” she explains. “I’m afraid the houses around here have graves under them.”

So it is in Rancho Murieta, where thousands of years of human history are tangled up with the swimming pools, golf courses and custom homes of 21st-century suburban living. That history, when it isn’t paved over or dug up and carted away, lingers around like mute ghosts that nobody wants to acknowledge.

There are still bedrock mortars—used by the local Miwok people more than a century ago to grind acorns into flour, or to pulverize mugwort and other native medicinal plants—in several backyards. There are the remnants of American Indian village sites buried under the fairways of one of Murieta’s lush golf courses. Not far from that location, a pioneer house, possibly 150 years old, stands unprotected and crumbing; it looks as though some Rancho Murieta residents have been carrying off bits of the old house to landscape their backyards.

“I lived here 10 years before I really realized what the history of this place was. … What you see is the history here of the native people, going from the Stone Age economy to the Mexican frontier of agriculture to the Gold Rush.”<br>—Naida West

Photo By Larry Dalton

But the archaeological wealth of this place goes back further than the Gold Rush, further than the Miwok and Nisenan tribes. There is evidence here, if you know where to look, of the places where, more than 10,000 years ago, Stone Age man lived, made primitive tools and stalked prehistoric animals like the woolly mammoth. Indeed, Rancho Murieta is home to one of the oldest known human habitation sites in North America.

“It’s a very rich area for archaeology,” says Rob Jackson, the principal archaeologist at the consulting firm Pacific Legacy. The superabundance of food in the area, the acorn-rich oak forests that blanketed both the valley floor and the foothills, and the native salmon runs on the Cosumnes (which runs through the heart of Rancho Murieta) and other rivers sustained a large and very dense prehistoric society. Few places in the world boasted such high concentrations of hunter-gatherer people, and nowhere else in North America. The density of a human population here, from the Sacramento River Delta to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, meant a lot was left behind—sites of both spiritual and scientific significance.

That much has been obvious since the creation of Rancho Murieta in the early 1970s. Even then, the new development was controversial, a classic example of what is now commonly called leapfrog development—far from an existing urban area.

Ironically for this affluent, gated community, Rancho Murieta was not named for some prominent 19th-century landowner, but for Joaquin Murieta, a shadowy, romantic figure and legendary bandit. Depending on whose history you read, Murieta was either a bloodthirsty 19-year-old cattle thief or the Mexican Robin Hood of California’s gold country.

Today, there is a suite of state and federal laws to protect those sites, historic and prehistoric, that still exist in Rancho Murieta. But in the early days of Rancho Murieta’s development, those laws were young, untested and not rigorously enforced. Throughout the years, a large portion of that reservoir of “cultural resources” has been lost.

Now, a wave of new development is being proposed in Rancho Murieta that will nearly double the number of rooftops there. If approved, it will push into some of the highest known concentrations of both historic and prehistoric sites that remain.

Naida West has lived in Rancho Murieta for 22 years. Not in one of the new subdivisions, like those called The Fairways or The Greens, but in an old ranch house with a bright-blue tin roof surrounded by a stone wall. The house was built in the early 1920s, at the heart of the old Granlees ranch. Today the little spread is one of the few “inholdings” that lie inside the Rancho Murieta gates but are not part of Rancho Murieta proper.

Since purchasing the old Granlees homestead, West has written two historical novels about this area, and she’s now finishing her third. The first, Eye of the Bear, is set in the 1820s and chronicles the local Miwok population’s early confrontations with Spanish missionaries. The next, River of Red Gold, is a Gold Rush-era epic featuring a who’s who of regional history, including Murieta, John Sutter and the ill-fated Donner party. Both books are closely tied to the real landscape and to those who populated what is now Rancho Murieta.

Surprisingly, West didn’t move here with the intention of researching and writing about this place. A sociology professor turned lobbyist for major oil companies like Chevron, she came here with her husband and three children simply because it was a nice place in the country. But, over time, the landscape and the history that lie just beneath its surface began to work on her imagination.

“I lived here 10 years before I really realized what the history of this place was,” West explains. But after a while, she says, she realized that the history of the Rancho Murieta area is really the distillation of just about everything that has happened in California’s history. “It has so many elements and layers. What you see is the history here of the native people, going from the Stone Age economy to the Mexican frontier of agriculture to the Gold Rush and then hydraulic mining and the gold-mining industry coming quickly under corporate control.”

It’s hard to keep up with West as she storms around the trails and back lots of Rancho Murieta in blue jeans and a bulky sweater. Traveling with West like this—crawling under barbed-wire fences, through thick brush and over one hill after another—is like touring an endless open-air museum. She reels off names, dates and events in the area’s history.

The land where her house sits was once home to Elitha Donner, one of the few survivors of the tragic Donner party. And she believes she knows the location of the ruins of Jared Sheldon’s dam, the one that got him shot and killed by angry miners, not far from her house on the Cosumnes.

The presence of the past: A crumbling fireplace on Murieta Parkway, the ruins of a stone house built in the late 1800s, stands as a reminder of the Gold Rush history abundant in the area.

Photo By Larry Dalton

But if this place is a museum, there are no glass cases, no plaques and markers or docents. In fact, many of its historic features get no recognition at all. Take, for example, the old Driscoll house. “I think most of the people who live in Rancho Murieta have zero knowledge of what this is,” West explains, approaching the doorway of a roofless stone house, partly subterranean, that lies just a few yards from the Rancho Murieta Association office building.

John Driscoll was an Irish immigrant, a squatter and independent gold miner who eventually came to own much of what is now Rancho Murieta. West’s research suggests Driscoll built the stone house in 1853. “It could be the oldest house in Sacramento County,” she says, working her fingers along the broad sandstone cobbles and admiring its careful masonry—the reds, oranges and yellows of the local sandstone, and the tightly squared corners.

It may be 150 years old, but reaching its 160th birthday looks doubtful. West points out the northeastern corner of the building’s interior, where great gaps appear in the wall.

“I think people have been taking stones,” she says, looking around. And then—“Aha!”—she finds a shovel in the other corner, marches it out the door and flings it into the high grass.

What is remarkable about this building is that it is so exposed and seemingly discarded. There is no plaque or historic marker and no fencing. It simply sits there, a decaying afterthought. “I’m really very disgusted by this. It should be protected, don’t you think?” West says.

Outside the house is a tremendous oak tree—“the mother oak,” West calls it. The tree is a good 6 feet in diameter and probably as old as the stone house or older. West says the house sits on part of what was once a Miwok village, possibly a burial site. “Driscoll probably built here because the ground was soft,” West adds. And there may be evidence of the American Indian village nearby in a field that stretches over 100 yards south of the Driscoll house. The whole swath of land is proposed to be built on in the next two years, part of a new subdivision called The Retreat. “I hope they excavate very carefully,” West says, arching her eyebrows.

Later, far from the Driscoll house on the northern border of Rancho Murieta, West walks along a dirt road strewn with unusually colorful orange, red and purple stones. The road leads to Lake Calero. There, a naturally flowing creek was dammed in the early 1990s to create a new water supply for the growing development—but not before archaeologist Anne Peak discovered a group of historic and prehistoric sites in the area. Peak already had done the earliest surveying of the area in 1972 and throughout the 1970s. “She was shocked at how much she found there,” said her daughter Melinda Peak. (Now an archaeologist herself, Melinda also has done extensive work in the Rancho Murieta area.)

The ancient finds helped establish the timeline for human habitation in North America. And, like much of Rancho Murieta, the prehistoric butted up against more-modern historic structures. When Calero was flooded, the water covered a prehistoric rock-quarry site, and other habitation sites that could have been 18,000 years old. Not far from the early-man sites were the ruins of a house identified in archaeological surveys as the “F.E. Connor homesite,” also dating back to the 1850s. (West believes that the Sarah Connor buried in the historic cemetery in south Rancho Murieta was part of the same family.)

Many of the artifacts of the early-man site were removed. These were mostly what archaeologists call “bifaces,” crude stone knives chipped from larger blocks of obsidian. The Connor house, on the other hand, was left to drown. But other archaeological sites found at the time may still be intact in the area around Lake Calero. Some were recorded as habitation sites, and others as “lithic scatter” sites, meaning a collection of blades and other stones that appear to have been worked by human hands.

Near Lake Calero is the old Miser Cemetery, a tiny family cemetery containing the bodies of the Miser family and its nanny Agnes. It’s one of the stranger stories of this place, told to West by descendents of the Miser family.

Agnes, West explains, never told anybody her last name. She had come to this area from back East, looking for a man she was engaged to marry. As a gesture of her commitment to the man, she decided to shun her maiden name and be known only by her first name until she married. But she never found her fiancé, and instead she lived, died and was buried simply as “Agnes.”

Not far from the Miser Cemetery is what, at first, looks like an unremarkable pile of whitish-gray stones. “But do you see how they are more or less squared off?” West asks. “These were quarried by people.” Earlier archaeological surveys have suggested that this pile of stones is also an early-man site. The stones may have been cut at the old quarry site, now at the bottom of the lake bed, and brought here to be worked at the village site. “It’s kind of mind-boggling to come out here and think of these hunters 14,000 years ago, hunting the giant sloth, the saber-toothed tiger, the woolly mammoth,” West says.

Naida West explores one of the many bedrock mortars left behind by Miwok people who once lived along the Cosumnes River.

Photo By Larry Dalton

If this is an early-man site, it wasn’t recorded by Anne Peak. But it would be consistent with the cluster of prehistoric habitation sites she found a little south of there in the 1970s.

If those sites are still there—and have not been destroyed over the years by animals, rock collectors or other passersby— they are exactly where the “Estates at Calero,” 80 custom homes, are proposed to be built in the next two or three years.

Indeed, looking at the map of proposed build-out in Rancho Murieta, one sees the potential to disturb significant caches of cultural resources. Calero is one area known, at least at one time, to be rich in cultural sites. Environmental documents going back two decades suggest that the area around Bass Lake is, as well. That area is slated for dual projects called The Highlands and River Canyon Estates.

And another proposed project, called Riverview in south Rancho Murieta, also is slated for an area known to have high concentrations of archaeological resources, particularly Miwok habitation and possibly burial sites. The area has not been surveyed in any great detail since the early 1990s. County staff is in the process of deciding whether to require further environmental review of the area.

Local American Indian tribes are keeping a close eye on the new development push. But Glenn Villa, who heads the Cultural Resource Committee for the Ione Band of Miwok Indians, is reluctant to talk about what projects or development areas most concern him.

“I don’t think those sites really need to be written about in the newspaper,” he says.

Melinda Peak, who has worked for many years for the developers Pension Trust Fund and Reynen & Bardis, says that although much of the developable land contains archaeological resources, that doesn’t mean those resources will be abused.

Environmental laws regarding such resources are more stringent now, and public awareness is higher than when the earlier phases of Rancho Murieta were built.

“The perception is always that these evil developers just want to bulldoze everything,” Peak says. But, in fact, developers would rather avoid sensitive sites than be surprised by finding a burial or some other significant resource and then have to stop construction. “Having to stop everything and then mitigate can be more expensive than the actual value of the land,” she explains.

But many residents of Rancho Murieta don’t have as much faith in the developers as Peak does.

In fact, Rancho Murieta is now in the middle of an acrimonious debate over the scale of the proposed build-out there.

“If the proposed build-out of over 2,000 rooftops is approved, Murieta will endure traffic jams, lose irreplaceable cultural sites, thousands of oaks and wildlife.” <br>—Candy Chand

Photo By Larry Dalton

And some residents see the archaeological wealth of the area being threatened along with the natural beauty of the Murieta landscape.

“The cultural resources in Murieta, from prehistoric sites to those that are only a couple hundred years old, are immense,” says Candy Chand, with the Rancho Murieta Development Concerned Citizens Committee (RMDCCC), which opposes the current plans to develop the rest of Rancho Murieta. “If the proposed build-out of over 2,000 rooftops is approved, Murieta will endure traffic jams, lose irreplaceable cultural sites, thousands of oaks and wildlife,” she adds.

Chand says that the early planning documents for Rancho Murieta promised that about 1,800 acres would be left as open space. But the actual amount of open space has dropped below that already; about 300 acres were taken up by a sewage plant built to process Rancho Murieta’s wastewater. More was lost over time, because as development proceeded, and building plans changed, houses were built on larger lots than originally envisioned. Much of what is left will be wiped out if the Pension Trust Fund and Reynen & Bardis get approvals for all the new homes they want to build, Chand says.

The RMDCCC has asked for a temporary moratorium on new building and approval of new projects until the open-space issue can be resolved. It has suggested that new building should be capped at 1,000 new homes. But the proposals submitted to the county so far call for twice that many new houses.

Not surprisingly, the companies involved in developing Rancho Murieta today say that Chand and others at RMDCCC have misinterpreted old planning documents to try to stop development they don’t like. “We have been relying on the 1984 master plan, which has been in place for 20 years,” explains Gerry Kamilos, vice president of Cassano Kamilos Homes, which is a partner with the Pension Trust Fund in developing the northern half of Rancho Murieta. “Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent” on the sewer lines and other infrastructure to support the development approved under that master plan, Kamilos adds.

Keeping more of Rancho Murieta as open space certainly would help preserve what’s left of the cultural resources there. And although the archaeological and historic wealth isn’t very high up on RMDCCC’s list of concerns, it has been an issue.

For example, when Chand got wind of Vasconcellos and Brown’s concerns about the old cemetery in south Rancho Murieta, Chand wrote a long tongue-in-cheek letter to the community blog, evoking the 1980s movie Poltergeist, in which a family whose suburban home was built on an old American Indian burial ground is tormented by ghosts. The letter angered some, in particular one family that lives next-door to the cemetery. “We didn’t find your letter interesting, we found it obnoxious,” wrote one neighbor, Christine Herrman. Others were more receptive to Chand’s point: There’s little open space left, and there’s no telling what’s under it.

SN&R contacted county planning officials in hopes of shedding some light on the mystery of the shrinking cemetery. But neither county planning director Rob Burness nor Department of Environmental Review and Assessment chief Cathy Hack knew anything about the cemetery. And most of the environmental documents for the area offered few clues.

But one document, a 1989 plan for parks in the area, did contain a cryptic reference to the cemetery. It concluded simply that “the cemetery is believed to be larger than the area that is currently fenced.”

When SN&R contacted Mike Winn with Reynen & Bardis, he initially said that parts of the cemetery had been excavated back in 1990, with the permission of families that had descendents there and with the help of the county coroner. But he later called back to say that he had gotten bad information. In fact, he said, Reynen & Bardis (then called Winncrest Homes) had attempted to contact the descendents of the deceased but were unsuccessful. Instead, “careful testing was done around the area, and the cemetery was left intact.”

This story was mostly confirmed by Melinda Peak, who it turns out conducted the archaeological tests in 1990. She dug trenches around what she believed to be the perimeter of the cemetery. And she said she approximated the cemetery’s boundaries with the help of Cecil Brown, Lois Brown’s brother. No homes were built inside those boundaries, Peak says.

Cecil, however, died a couple of years ago, from Alzheimer’s disease, says Vasconcellos. She and her mother are still certain that the cemetery has shrunk. “I’m convinced that if it weren’t for that concrete slab there, this would be all houses right here,” Vasconcellos explains.

As murky as the fate of the old cemetery may be, there are still other mysteries involving historic burial grounds. The 1989 parks master-plan document also referred to yet another cemetery that, if it really did exist, seems to have vanished. The document says simply that the cemetery “has been relocated.” If that is true, then there is a cemetery misplaced somewhere in Rancho Murieta today.

Peak says that the reference to this other cemetery is probably an error. “There is no other reference to this cemetery anywhere else that I am aware of,” she explains.

Roy Imai, the consultant who prepared the 1989 parks master-plan document said that the section on historic cemeteries was written by somebody who worked for him at the time but since has moved out of the Sacramento area. He said the reference to the old cemetery may have been an error, though it’s not exactly a typo. “Obviously, this person had some kind of information. But I have no way of reconstructing that at all,” he says.

Sue Silva, a former Rancho Murieta resident and the president of California Saving Graves, a volunteer group that researches and restores historic cemeteries, wonders if there aren’t other grave sites in Rancho Murieta waiting to be found. “Nobody talks about this much, but I think there has to be a Chinese cemetery out there somewhere. If you look at the Sacramento County census data, they were all over that area,” Silva says.

Several archaelogists SN&R talked to said that the best way to handle a highly sensitive area of cultural resources is to implement a comprehensive cultural-resources management plan.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and its federal counterpart can be effective in protecting cultural resources, says archaeologist Rob Jackson. “But the problem is that CEQA is just a Band-Aid.” Where possible, the thinking goes, it’s better to have a management plan that looks at all the cultural resources in the area, rather than dealing with small pockets of sensitive sites on a project-by-project basis.

But Melinda Peak says there is no practical way to impose a cultural-resources management plan in Rancho Murieta. “Sure, there should have been a management plan in place years ago. But you can’t do it now, with so many landowners and when the place is already halfway built out.”

The only opening for such a plan might have come last week, when the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors considered whether to require a whole new master plan for Rancho Murieta, to resolve the open-space issues and others raised by RMDCCC. The board decided a new master-plan process was too expensive and unnecessary, but it left open the possibility of scaling back the proposed build-out. And that could mean a reprieve for at least some of Rancho Murieta’s remaining archaeological legacy.

“I think the cultural resources that are here make this place unique. They really do add to the mystique and value of the community,” says Bradley Sample, a wildlife toxicologist and member of RMDCCC. “The only way, really, to protect it is to keep them from building houses on top of it.”

Early on in Rancho Murieta’s history, there was a notion that some of the area’s archaeological legacy could be preserved and displayed in a museum built inside Rancho Murieta.

Many of the artifacts from the Lake Calero site, “big clunky stone tools and cores” as Melinda Peak describes them, were boxed and carted off to UC Davis in 1980. At the time, representatives for the developers and the Rancho Murieta Association told the university that, at some future date, a museum would be built somewhere inside the gated community. University officials agreed to curate the artifacts temporarily. But 25 years later, they’re still warehoused at the university.

West thinks a museum, some way to interpret and remember the history of this place, would be a boon to Rancho Murieta and to the Sacramento region generally. She even has wondered if the old Granlees house she lives in might make a nice museum building and interpretive center. It could be an eclectic and sweeping collection—the Donner party, woolly mammoths, Miwok acorn gatherers and Chinese miners, all under the same roof.

For now, she’s content to keep digging and writing about this place. “It’s rapidly disappearing. You know, there’s always some reason to get rid of this old stuff,” West says. “But I like it.”