ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED online with the Martinez Tribune on February 29, 2020 and THE MARTINEZ News-Gazette ON March 6, 2020
For those that are familiar with our column, we would like to share why it matters so much to us personally. For those of you who have never read our column, allow us to introduce ourselves. We began writing Underground Echoes over four years ago to share the stories of the forgotten in Potter’s Field and the history we uncovered about the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery as a whole. However, the question we often get asked is why? Why do we care about a cemetery, let alone one that neither of us have any family in?
Unfortunately, it seems every great story starts with a tragedy and ours is no different. Both Judie and I suffered tremendous loss at very young ages. During a family visit in Arizona, I lost my 4-month-old baby sister Becca when I was five. Instead of staying for the funeral, we left the next day. At the age of thirteen, Judie lost her father, Robert, to smoke inhalation when he heroically saved the lives of three fellow volunteer firemen. Both events forever altered our families and forced us prematurely to contemplate the issues of death, its aftermath, and the hereafter.
When I was ten, my first visit to a cemetery was paying respects to Becca and my recently deceased grandmother. As a young kid looking out over the grounds, I found the experience extremely moving as I contemplated the former lives of all the residents there. What were their stories? Who did they leave behind? What had they accomplished?
Judie was introduced to the family tradition of tending to their ancestors’ gravesites at an early age. Her relatives immigrated from England, Scotland and Germany to settle in New York and New Jersey. Holidays were interesting as the English/Scottish side would often serve lamb, and the German side would offer sauerbraten. One grandmother would ask for tea and biscuits (cookies) and the other would bake bread. At times Judie would wander around the cemetery, notice all the names and wonder, “Had they too come from foreign lands to settle here?”
For Judie, our column is an opportunity to give voice to immigrants from around the world and the US that made a life for themselves here. For me, our column is the chance to finally answer the above questions and learn history through the eyes of those that experienced it firsthand. Additionally, with the loss of numerous family members, friends, and mentors it only reinforced our desire to research and tell the stories of the Potter’s Field departed. By remembering their contributions in life, it is after all the deepest form of respect and honor we can bestow them.
Over seven years ago we were approached to rebuild the Chinese Funerary Burner (Burner) located in Potter’s Field, and we saw an opportunity to act on our passions. However, instead of just focusing on rebuilding the Burner we thought, “Why not tackle the whole of Potter’s Field as well?” With other interested parties, we started the Potter’s Field Restoration Project (PFRP) to restore the traditional and historical value of the Burner and its surrounding environment (originally the County Cemetery).
In the latter 1800s, there was a strong Chinese community presence in Martinez and Contra Costa. Many of them practiced an ancient Chinese Folk religion, which is currently resurging in China and Taiwan. They believed that a person had two souls: hun and po. Hun and po would separate after death with hun ascending into heaven and po residing on earth. Around their beliefs, they created traditional practices that could help them complete the perceived needs of their ancestors. A burner was used for the burning of paper mimics (such as money, clothing and possessions) in order to transport them in service of their deceased love ones in the afterlife.
Initially under the auspices of the Martinez Historic Society, PFRP volunteers were recruited to deconstruct the Burner and participate in the City of Martinez’s biannual Cemetery Cleanup Days. They cleared Potter’s Field of broken bottles, trash, fallen branches, and weeds. However, last year we expanded our scope to the entire cemetery with the founding of our 501c3 nonprofit, the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA). Its mission is “To support the preservation, restoration, and significance of an outdoor historical museum, while giving voice to its untold stories and serving as a genealogical resource for descendants.”
In March of 2019, the MCPA assumed responsibility of the PFRP and its signature Burner Project. After attending a well guided tour of several Bay Area Chinese cemeteries, with three well respected Chinese-American Historians, we discovered our cemetery was missing an altar. The altar is considered the most sacred of the two structures and although it can exist without a burner, a burner would not exist without it. As a result, our project evolved to also include an altar and renamed the Chinese Funerary Burner Altar Complex Project (Project).
During the tour, we were honored to participate and witness firsthand their customs. We learned that although a burner is for transporting needs, an altar is ultimately used for honoring ancestors. Among the many items, incense is burned, wine is poured, and offerings of food (citrus, meats, and more) are placed on the altar. Since many Chinese immigrants lived in overcrowded housing, individual household altars were not possible. Therefore, the one in Potter’s Field was used to honor anyone interred in the cemetery and other family members regardless of their residence.
So far, with our great volunteers we have completed the excavation of the Burner’s foundation, design work of its replacement, and received blueprint approval. Next steps include, additional excavation for the remainder of the Burner’s artifacts and brick, while also seeking the altar’s remnants (hopefully the foundation). After which, the installation of drainage and the foundations for both will immediately follow. Once the cement has cured, actual construction can finally begin. The MCPA is currently working with the City of Martinez staff and Cemetery Commission on the logistics of recommencing our Project in May. (The MCPA needs material donations and funds to complete the project. Please call (925) 316-6069 to learn more.)
The MCPA has also assumed responsibility for PFRP’s “one-place study” specifically focused on the cemetery’s decedents. Originally centered on the interred of Potter’s Field it has been enlarged to include all of the Cemetery’s occupants. Genealogy has quickly become one of the most popular hobbies in the US resulting in a huge interest in cemetery restoration. Thus numerous “Friends of…” charities, that facilitate their care and upkeep, have sprung up nationwide. As an important genealogical resource, celebrating and raising awareness of its residents, the MCPA is following this trend by becoming a community ambassador for the oldest known cemetery in Contra Costa County.
Since many of the Potter’s field decedents were immigrants, our stories have taken us and our readers to places such as Portugal, Greece, England, Italy and more. By engaging in and sharing a biographical study of their life, their experiences allow for a better understanding of the laws, politics, social behaviors, economic and religious conditions, etc. of the past. They have given us a personal view of our country’s history through their eyes of the Great Depression, Civil War, the bubonic plague and other infectious disease epidemics, land and crop destruction, gold mining, merchant shipping, World War II, and more.
Our first biography was inspired from one of the four visible headstones from the road, Aaron Rice. Aaron was born in North Carolina into slavery in 1819 and with his family was brought to Missouri between 1826 and 1833. In 1859, Archibald Rice gave them to his son William as a wedding present. William decided to relocate his cattle ranch to Napa, CA taking Aaron and his family with him. In 1860, while working on William’s land, Aaron freed himself and his family with the exception of his eldest son Nathaniel. In attempting to use the court to free him, his case has taken on greater historic import due to being one of only four California African-Americans to press charges against their former owner. By 1870, Aaron became one of the first 38 African-American Napaians to vote. Our treatise on Aaron was recently credited in Alexandria Brown’s book, “Hidden History of Napa Valley.”
Living descendants give their permission for the MCPA to investigate and publish their loved one’s story. As long as we have monetary support from members and the community, we will be able to offer aid for descendants that cannot financially or otherwise obtain information on Alhambra’s decedents. As always more information on any of the subjects we have explored can be found on our website and blog of the same name.
Thanks for allowing us to share with you our passion for the cemetery and why it matters so much to us personally.
Due to their passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology, and archaeology, Judie and Joseph Palmer founded the MCPA and PFRP. Judie is chair of the MCPA’s Genealogy Committee, while Joseph is President including being a board director of the Martinez Historical Society. The MCPA is always looking for any information or photographic evidence regarding the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery, Potter’s Field, Chinese Funerary Burner Altar Complex, or of its residents. Additionally, monetary or material donations are always welcome. If you have anything to share, would like to donate, become a member, or volunteer, please visit their website martinezcemetery.org. Or you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (925) 316-6069.
Judie & Joseph Palmer are two of the founding members of the Martinez Cemetery Preservation Alliance (MCPA) and the Potter’s Field Project. Both have a passion for discovery, history, genealogy, anthropology and archaeology.