Four generations of Hart Ralph Tambs’ family are buried in the Sonora Historical Cemetery. That is where he found the grave of his great-uncle Fred O. Ralph, who died in 1873, a relative he had not realized was buried there. He also found the grave marker of a first cousin who died when he was 25 days old.
But when he looked a week later, the marker had been stolen. Tambs, 67, discovered that such incidents are commonplace and result in many people being unable to locate their ancestors’ graves.
“There were markers for everyone at one time,” he said. “Those missing were stolen or destroyed by vandals.”
Tambs decided to do a plot map of the Sonora cemetery. He also has mapped six other cemeteries in the area and has plans to do 23 more. It is his gift to the people in this Mother Lode community in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Unscrambling a Puzzle
And on a personal level, it is a puzzle he never tires of trying to unscramble.
“Look at this faded headstone,” Tambs said as he began reading it to a visitor. “ ‘Erected by S. G. to the memory of Nelly, Jan. 14, 1861.’ I’m going to do some research and find out who S. G. and Nelly were. I’ll bet there’s a good story there.”
Tambs is just completing his survey of the Sonora Historical Cemetery. Townspeople call it “the old cemetery on the hill.”
All the cemetery maps and records had been lost, so Tambs had to copy the inscriptions from all 1,060 markers. Poring through county records, he found information about 619 other people buried there whose graves are now unmarked. From all this information, he pieced together a plot map.
“Unfortunately, all the cemetery plot maps in the county have disappeared over the years,” Tambs said. “People go to the cemeteries and look for graves of loved ones or ancestors who died years ago and can’t find them. This will help.”
Altogether, Tambs is doing plot maps for 30 known cemeteries in Tuolumne County. It is a voluntary effort, his retirement project. (He retired in 1975 from his job as an engineer for Pacific Telephone Co.)
One thing he has not figured out is what motivates graveyard vandals.
“It’s difficult to understand why anyone would desecrate a grave, but it happens all the time. An average of six grave markers a week have been vandalized or stolen while I have been doing the survey in this cemetery,” he said. Some steal headstones and put them in their back yards. Can you imagine that?”
He encountered a heavy concrete marker that had been knocked off its concrete base and broken in two. “It took more than one person to knock that one over,” he said.
The inscription on the damaged headstone read:
“Magie Mersereau. Died March 30, 1884. Aged 24 years & 26 days. Goodby Babies dear. As I can no longer be here. To Heaven have Gone. Will meet you there.”
Nearby was a tombstone, flat on the ground, in the shape of a heart with the inscription: “Susan Hester Curnow. Died March 21, 1910.” Tambs pointed out the oldest tombstone in the graveyard, that of Louise Lepaper, who was born in Paris in 1824 and died in Jamestown in 1856.
To get information from old, weathered wooden markers, Tambs waits until the sun is just right, with the light coming in at a 45-degree angle. To help him read the faded inscriptions he uses powder, chalk and magnifying glasses.
One tombstone was for William K. Rushing (1835-1880), a rancher. A nearby mountain is named in his honor. At the headstone for Happy Hen Chow Ng (1856-1948) Tambs remarked: “He was the last resident of Sonora’s Chinatown. I knew him when I was a boy.
‘Much to Be Learned’
“There’s so much to be learned in the cemetery. The history of the whole area is here.”
Tambs has prepared plot maps of the old cemeteries in Columbia, the 19th-Century Gold Rush town now a state historic park. Sharon Grout, a ranger at the park the last 11 years who oversees the cemeteries, lamented the vandalism, especially by Satanists.
“Devil worshipers scrawl anti-religious pentagrams on the tombstones. They knock over grave markers and destroy them. We have caught groups in the cemetery at night when there is no reason for anyone to be there,” Grout said.