By LANCE ARMSTRONG, Valley Community Newspapers
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series regarding the history of East Sacramento’s former New Helvetia Cemetery.
It has been nearly 162 years since Captain John A. Sutter set aside 10 acres for his establishment’s first formal burial ground, the now nonexistent New Helvetia Cemetery.
The cemetery, which was eventually doubled in size, served the community for many years before evolving into a public park, which was known as Helvetia Park.
The old cemetery grounds, with the exception of a tombstone-like marker presenting information about the former cemetery, are no longer distinguishable. The land is presently the site of Sutter Middle School at 3150 I St.
In the process of creating Helvetia Park, the old cemetery, which actually adjoined East Park (today’s McKinley Park), had its headstones removed and replaced with flat gravesite identifying markers.
Unfortunately, various decisions and actions connected to the processes of creating the park and removing the cemetery in its entirety resulted in many missing tombstones and markers and even unidentified graves.
Other gravesites were presumably left unidentified in earlier times due to such possible causes as the deterioration of wooden markers and flooding that carried away wooden markers. Because of recurrent flooding in the area, there were no burials at the cemetery from 1850 to 1857.
A classic example related to the old cemetery’s missing markers was presented in the Aug. 11, 1989 edition of The Sacramento Bee, as a story was related in which a lecture about Sacramento cemeteries at California Middle School was interrupted by a boy who raised his hand and said, “We have some of those stones in our yard.”
In a meeting with the East Sacramento News last week, Dr. Bob LaPerriere, co-chair of the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission, discussed the topic of missing tombstones and other markers from the New Helvetia Cemetery.
“When they removed the bodies in the 1950s, we’re not sure exactly what happened, but some people recall that these concrete markers were kind of stacked up along the street,” LaPerriere said. “A couple years ago, we located – just between two homes behind Sutter Middle School – over 70 of these flat, concrete markers. They were used for stepping stones and kind of to widen the driveway.”
LaPerriere said that a unique event occurred following the discovery of these markers, as the stones were transported from Sutter Middle School to East Lawn Memorial Park at Folsom Boulevard and 43rd Street via a horse-drawn wagon.
The decision to deliver these markers to East Lawn Memorial Park was a simple one, considering that the city had purchased property at the cemetery for a mass, unmarked burial site, where 4,691 unidentified human remains from the New Helvetia Cemetery were reinterred.
Unfortunately, this large number of “unknowns,” as these unidentified remains are often referred to, account for the majority of the remains from the New Helvetia Cemetery.
The Sacramento Historic City Cemetery at 1000 Broadway is the site of the remains of about 400 additional people who were once buried at the New Helvetia Cemetery.
However, these remains are individually identified and are located in three separate areas at the Broadway cemetery, west of Riverside Boulevard.
Other individually identified remains from the New Helvetia Cemetery were reinterred at the following Sacramento city and county cemeteries: East Lawn, Masonic Lawn Cemetery at 2700 Riverside Blvd., Odd Fellows Lawn Cemetery at 2720 Riverside Blvd., St. Joseph’s Cemetery at 2615 21stt St., St. Mary’s Cemetery at 6700 21st St., Sacramento Memorial Lawn at 6100 Stockton Blvd., Elk Grove Cemetery at 8540 Elk Grove Blvd. in Elk Grove and the Sylvan Cemetery at 7401 Auburn Blvd. in Citrus Heights.
Despite this long list of other cemeteries, LaPerriere notes that a relatively low number of remains from the New Helvetia Cemetery were relocated to these cemeteries.
LaPerriere provided the following numbers regarding the relocations of these remains: 410 sent to Broadway cemetery, 84 to East Lawn, 32 to Odd Fellows, six to Sacramento Memorial Lawn, three to St. Joseph’s, three to Elk Grove, two to St. Mary’s and one to Masonic.
In regard to the many flat markers from the New Helvetia Cemetery site that are still missing today, LaPerriere mentioned that he would not be surprised if some of these markers are presently located on residential properties within the nearby vicinity of this former East Sacramento cemetery.
Although the aforementioned mass burial at East Lawn Memorial Park is recognized as consisting of “unknowns” or unidentified remains, this does not mean that there are no records of any of the names of the deceased people from the New Helvetia Cemetery who were reburied there.
To the contrary, records exist for many people who were buried at the New Helvetia Cemetery and it is by deduction from the names of those who were reinterred in other local cemeteries that a list of assumed names was created for the mass burial site at East Lawn Memorial Park.
LaPerriere said that East Lawn Memorial Park, although it was not obligated to do so, greatly contributed to the cemetery’s mass burial site.
“The city never put up a marker or anything (at the mass burial site), absolutely nothing,” LaPerriere said. “It took John Bettencourt (the late cemetery historian and preservationist who was vital in the formation of the Old City Cemetery Committee) and I working with East Lawn, quite a few years ago, to get the area memorialized. East Lawn, of course, had no responsibility to do it. The city bought the area, buried the people and the city should have taken care of things. But East Lawn, being very community minded, worked with us and they put four (right angle) corner walls in around the area to demarcate the area and they put a nice monument in the center memorializing those who were moved from New Helvetia (Cemetery).”
In addition to this burial site’s corner markers, most of the perimeter of the site is outlined with the flat, concrete markers that had been retrieved from the residential yards near Sutter Middle School.
As of about two years ago, the whereabouts of only one verified original tombstone from the New Helvetia Cemetery was known.
But fortunately, it was discovered that another original New Helvetia Cemetery tombstone – that of members of the Asch family – was located in Auburn.
About a month ago, the stone was relocated to Sacramento and it will soon be placed in the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery’s already existing Asch plot.
LaPerriere said that anyone with information regarding missing headstones or markers from the New Helvetia Cemetery is encouraged to call the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission at (916) 874-9103 or write to the e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone with information regarding missing headstones or markers from the New Helvetia Cemetery is encouraged to call the Sacramento County Cemetery Advisory Commission at (916) 874-9103 or write to the e-mail address: cemeterycommission@sac