Pioneer cemetery once sat at site of East Sacramento’s Sutter Middle School

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two-part series regarding the history of East Sacramento’s former New Helvetia Cemetery.

When it comes to local history, many longtime Sacramentans can proudly tell those of younger generations how they remember when East Sacramento’s Sutter Middle School, which is located south of McKinley Park at the corner of Alhambra Boulevard and J Street, was the site of a city park. But few people today can recall seeing the site during its pre-park years.

Sutter Middle School at the corner at Alhambra Boulevard and J Street was once the site of a pioneer cemetery. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

Sutter Middle School at the corner at Alhambra Boulevard and J Street was once the site of a pioneer cemetery. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

It is somewhat ironic that the only evidence at this site relating to this earlier era is a tombstone-like marker, which describes the property’s former existence as a pioneer cemetery, which included many large markers.

Indeed, a full-fledged cemetery, complete with stone and wooden headstones and large monuments, once covered the site where the school grounds are located today, as is evident by the information provided on the non-cemetery marker – which sits along the fence line of the school’s Alhambra Boulevard side – as well as a variety of historical documentations.

The fact that the cemetery was established in the 1840s as the burial plot of Sutter’s Fort is sufficient enough information for one who has at least a general understanding of Sacramento’s roots to realize that the school sits on one of the city’s most historic sites.

Referred to in some references as being initially called the “Sutter Fort Burying Ground,” this former, private 20-acre cemetery, which was renamed the New Helvetia Cemetery in 1850 in recognition of its location within Captain John Sutter’s Mexican land grant by the same name, became the burial place of deceased pioneers of the area.

According to an article in the Nov. 12, 1873 edition of The Sacramento Union, after some confusion as to who was the first person to be buried at the cemetery, it was determined that this notoriety belonged to Major Cloud, a paymaster in the United States Army, who died in July or August 1847 – a day after falling off his horse about a half-mile southeast of Sutter’s Fort.

Also significant in the cemetery’s history was the existence of a burial site that included the remains of many of the victims who died during the city’s cholera epidemic of 1850.

In the northeast corner of the cemetery was property designated for Chinese burials.

This area was divided into four, 50-foot by 50-foot sections, two of which were surrounded by iron fences and the other two with wooden fences. And in each lot was a furnace for burning clothing and property of the deceased and incense.

The cemetery was purchased from Sutter by Dr. R.H. McDonald in 1850, and seven years later, it was sold to J.W. Reeves.

During Reeves’ ownership of the New Helvetia Cemetery, in 1860, it was reported by The Union that the cemetery had totaled 420 interments.

Reeves later deeded the cemetery to the city of Sacramento for use as a public cemetery.

In 1885, the cemetery was overhauled, as very large trees that were believed to detract from the beauty of the burial grounds were removed, smaller trees were trimmed, weeds were cut down, driveways were improved and aging redwood markers were refurbished.

A year after the cemetery’s major facelift, however, the Sacramento Record-Union reported that the writing on many redwood markers had been “obliterated by the rains of succeeding winters” and in one corner of the property, headboards “blackened with age” stood so close together that they had the appearance of a “stubble field” – a field where plant material such hay has been cut and left with short stubble.

On May 12, 1887, the Record-Union described the cemetery as being under the management of Nicholas Mohns, who was reported to have prided himself in “keeping everything scrupulously neat.”

During the same time, Mohns, who resided at 2830 O St., was also in charge of the Jewish cemetery, which was established on the opposite side of J Street in 1850.

Although there is no complete record of the interments of the New Helvetia Cemetery in existence, various records reveal the names of those who were buried at the cemetery.

This c. 1909 photograph shows the gravesite of the Rev. Elijah Merchant, a pioneer preacher and pastor, who had his ashes interred in the New Helvetia Cemetery in 1857. / Photo public domain

This c. 1909 photograph shows the gravesite of the Rev. Elijah Merchant, a pioneer preacher and pastor, who had his ashes interred in the New Helvetia Cemetery in 1857. / Photo public domain

For instance, preserved in the 1909 “Souvenir History of the First Methodist Episcopal Church” – a book written for the 60th anniversary of the church – is a biography of the Rev. Elijah Merchant, a pioneer preacher and pastor whose ashes were placed in the New Helvetia Cemetery 153 years ago.

A rare photograph from the cemetery appears in the book and features Merchant’s old headstone, which was engraved with the words: “Elijah Merchant, member of the Cala Conference, Died at Los Angeles, Oct. 26, 1857, aged 28 years, ‘I have fought a good fight.’”

The book also notes that the ashes of other preachers who participated in the annual “California Conference,” which was referred to on Merchant’s headstone, were consecrated within the same plot at the cemetery.

Additionally, the 1909 First M.E. Church book refers to a then-current and now historical part of the cemetery’s history, the possible removal of the cemetery.

Due to flooding during the cemetery’s early years and eventual development in the area, discussions regarding the abandonment and potential elimination of the cemetery continuously resurfaced.

The cemetery officially operated until 1912, despite the fact that the city had previously discouraged any future burials at this cemetery and suggested that many of the existing remains at this site be relocated.

In the midst of the well-publicized efforts to transform the cemetery into a park, the city purchased the Chinese portion of the cemetery for $3,020 in 1917 and the Chinese remains were removed.

Work to eliminate tombstones from the old cemetery for a future park resulted in only 15 tombstones being present at the site in early July 1918.

Although the park plan was approved by the city’s park board in January 1920, efforts to replace the site’s monuments with small markers was a lengthy process, as nine graves still had monuments on them as late as July 1922.

This tombstone-like marker provides details about the New Helvetia Cemetery, which once sat where Sutter Middle School is located today. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

This tombstone-like marker provides details about the New Helvetia Cemetery, which once sat where Sutter Middle School is located today. / Valley Community Newspapers photo, Lance Armstrong

The remaining tombstones were eventually removed and the park became known as Helvetia Park.

However, the fact that most of the graves were still located at the park was not entirely lost, as the park remained a cemetery, included markers, and many of the city’s annual directories listed the site as Helvetia Cemetery Park.

The site remained a park until the early 1950s, and in the mid-1950s, the remains of 5,235 people were removed from the park and relocated to other local cemeteries, in anticipation of the construction of Sutter Junior High School – presently Sutter Middle School – at 3150 I St.

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