On August 4, 2016, Pioneer Cemetery in Auburn, a burial site since the 1860s, is awarded landmark status by the City of Auburn and King County. The designation enables the city's parks department to secure funding for preservation and restoration work on the cemetery grounds and monuments. In 2019, the cemetery will be rededicated with new walkways and interpretive signage, and the restoration of stolen and damaged statues.
Auburn Pioneer Cemetery
Pioneer Cemetery began as a family plot close to the White River in what is now north-central Auburn. It became the Slaughter Precinct Cemetery in 1878 and was the area's primary cemetery for white settlers prior to the opening of Mountain View Cemetery in 1890, after which the cemetery was largely abandoned by white caretakers and community members.
Starting in 1903, people of Japanese descent living in the White River Valley began to use the cemetery for their burials, and volunteer caretakers from the Japanese community, including members of the White River Buddhist Temple, took up maintenance of the cemetery and management of Japanese burials. The cemetery sustained damage during World War II due to racist vandalism, but Japanese Americans who returned to Auburn following their forced incarceration continued to care for the cemetery and oversee burials until the space was given in 1962 to the Auburn Parks Department.
The following history of the cemetery is taken from excerpts from the 2016 Landmark Nomination written and researched by Holly Taylor of Past Forward Northwest:
The Auburn Pioneer Cemetery, first known as the Faucett Cemetery, served as a family farmstead burial ground starting in the 1860s. Rachel Ann and John T. Faucett (often misspelled Fawcett in historical records) claimed 160 acres on the White River in 1864. Less than a decade earlier, several Euro-American settlers in the immediate area had been killed in conflicts with Native Americans in 1855. The Faucetts had 14 children, five of whom died in infancy, including two daughters Harriett (1865-1866) and Mariae J. (1850-1866), who were buried on the Faucett property. These are the earliest recorded burials in what became known as the Faucett Cemetery.
The Faucetts sold a portion of their claim that included the burial ground to Charles A. and Mary Williams in 1871. The Williamses, in turn, separated out an approximately one-acre parcel surrounding the burial ground and sold it in 1878 for the sum of one dollar to "L.W. Ballard, Thomas Christopher, and J. R. Stark as Trustees of the Slaughter Precinct Cemetery, King County, Washington Territory, and to their successors in office of said Slaughter Precinct Cemetery."
The trustees legally recorded a Plan of the Cemetery at Slaughter in February 1889 that divided the triangular parcel into 91 plots. This original, recorded plan served as the base document for a more detailed and elaborate cemetery plot map that is perhaps the most remarkable artifact associated with the site's history. Also titled the Plan of the Cemetery at Slaughter, this second version contains several hand-written declarations in the margins outside the cemetery boundaries, and a multitude of annotations on individual plots regarding family names and burial dates.
Concerns about valley flooding led to the establishment of Mountain View Cemetery approximately two miles southwest of the Slaughter Precinct Cemetery in 1890. After Mountain View Cemetery was established, many pioneer families had the graves of loved ones exhumed and moved uphill to the newer facility. Mountain View's records do not exist before 1907, meaning that burial information from its initial 17 years of operation is missing, making it difficult to determine which graves were relocated. Diversion of the White River in 1906, and subsequent flood control projects on the Green River, greatly diminished the threat of flooding in the Auburn area; however, Euro-American families rarely buried their loved ones in the Slaughter Precinct Cemetery after 1895.
In 2016, grave markers remaining at the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery identified 15 Euro-American individuals associated with seven families: Boyd, Brooks, Faucett, Hart, Hopkins, Pautzke, and unknown, spanning a period from 1866 to 1935. Auburn Japanese pioneer Chiyokichi Natsuhara noted that many early grave markers for non-Japanese graves were made of wood, which rotted away leaving graves unidentified. The Auburn Globe-News estimated in 1959 that "there are something like 75 unmarked graves of white people."
Resting Place for Japanese Americans
Japanese laborers found work on farms in the White River Valley starting in the 1890s, and established a community support network based on kenjinkai or prefecture associations. Census records indicate a population of 118 Japanese Americans in the White River Valley in 1900, almost all men. By 1910 there were 432 including both first generation immigrant (Issei) men and women, and their American-born children (Nisei). According to historian David Takami, more than half of all Japanese farms in Washington were located in the White River Valley, and in the 1920s, Japanese farmers supplied 75 percent of the region's vegetables and half the milk.
The history of the White River Buddhist Temple is an important element of the cemetery's history, and is closely related to the settlement of Japanese Americans in the White River Valley. The Shirakawa Bukkyokai (White River Buddhist Temple) was formally established in 1912 as a branch of the Seattle Buddhist Church, with approximately 100 members.
According to data compiled by genealogist Roberta Tower, the earliest recorded Japanese burial at the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery occurred in 1890. This may have been unknown to other members of the community, as Chiyokichi Natsuhara later wrote, "Back in May, 1906, when we lost our one-month-old daughter, we held a funeral for her with a few of our friends, with Rev. Gendo Nakai officiating ... At that occasion I remember finding another tombstone of a Japanese named Suketa Kumano who had been killed in 1903 by a railroad accident in Kent." [The Natsuhara family operated a store on West Main Street, opened by Chiyokichi in 1916. In later years he was joined by son Frank and it became Natsuhara & Sons operating into the 1990s.]
Thus began Chiyokichi Natsuhara's stewardship of the cemetery, which continued for more than half a century. Chiyokichi, also known as Charlie, left Shiga prefecture in 1898 for Canada, and began farming in Auburn 1902. His wife Sen, a picture bride also from Shiga, arrived in Seattle in 1905, and they were married on board the KAMIKAWA MARU in Smith Cove before Sen was allowed to disembark. A 1959 published account of Chiyokichi's longstanding role as the cemetery's caretaker explained the sense of obligation that he felt for the cemetery:
"Several of his relatives are buried there, and there are, according to his son, Frank, two stones that represent the graves of his parents who died many years ago and are buried in Japan. The elderly gentleman 'pays his respects' at these two stones, symbols of an attitude of veneration and sensitivity seldom encountered today ... His care of the cemetery has been animated by a traditional respect that Japanese accord their deceased ancestors, and grew out of quasi-obligation placed on the Japanese of Auburn when a 25-foot strip at the rear of the cemetery was deeded to them in 1914."
In contrast to the community that had largely abandoned the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery in favor of Mountain View Cemetery, the Japanese American community actively maintained the graves of their relatives and community members at the Pioneer Cemetery. Formal establishment of the White River Buddhist Temple in 1912 meant that a community institution had a relationship to the cemetery.
By 1928 there were more than 60 Japanese Americans whose cremated remains, in keeping with Japanese Buddhist custom, were buried in the Pioneer Cemetery. Most graves were marked with wooden posts (bohyo), and each year on Memorial Day family members and other volunteers cleaned up the graves. In the fall of 1928, temple members made concrete tablets at the Natsuharas' warehouse to replace the deteriorating wood markers. The Auburn Globe-Republican praised the Japanese work crews that transformed the cemetery "from an unkempt weed-grown desolate plot of ground," and noted that in addition to replacing the wood markers, volunteers also leveled the ground, put in grass seed, cleaned up the brush and weeds, and replaced an old wood fence that had partly fallen down with a new iron-rail perimeter fence. The area around the cemetery remained a predominantly agricultural rural landscape until after World War II.
World War II: Caretakers From Afar
Following the Executive Order 9066 issued in February 1942, Nikkei (all people of Japanese ancestry) living throughout the West Coast Exclusion Zone received orders to evacuate and were sent to concentration camps where they remained for up to three years. During the war, Chiyokichi collected donations each year from incarcerated Japanese families and sent the funds to Ray Sonnemann, owner of Sunset Laundry in Auburn and later Auburn City Council member, for Memorial Day flowers and repairs at the cemetery. In a 1944 letter to Ray and Esther Sonnemann, Chiyokichi's son Frank wrote from a concentration camp in Minidoka, Idaho: "Ray, I forgot to write sooner in regards to grass cutting at cemetery. Dad went all over camp contacting people who have graves in Auburn and got together small collection. I had M.O. [money order] made early but forgot again to mail it and write. If you need more write." Chiyokichi showed benefit movies at internment camps during the war to raise money to maintain the cemetery.
After World War II, the Natsuharas were one of 25 to 50 Japanese American families who returned to the White/Green River Valley, out of an estimated 300 families who lived in the area before the war. Those who returned to the Auburn area found the cemetery choked with tall grass and weeds, and vandalized, with some Japanese grave markers knocked over, broken, or stolen. Among the headstones that disappeared during the war was the marker for Chiyokichi and Sen Natsuhara's daughter Yu, who died in 1911.
Chiyokichi recalled that, after returning from the camps in 1945, Japanese community volunteers resumed their responsibility for maintaining the cemetery. He wrote, "We cleaned it up, the white Americans' graves as well, in the hope of serving for better future relationships between America and Japan." The Seattle Times reported in 1946 that "native-born Japanese returning to their homes after wartime dislocation are doing a commendable service here by cleaning up the long-neglected Auburn Pioneer Cemetery." For their part, the Natsuharas, especially Chiyokichi's son Frank, consistently stated that while many people thought of the place as a Japanese cemetery, it actually was a pioneer cemetery, perhaps as a way to enhance the broader community's respect for the site during the fraught post-war era.
Journey to Landmark Status
In 1962, Pioneer Cemetery was deeded over to the City of Auburn and became managed by the cemetery staff members of the Auburn Parks Department. In the early 2010s, staff of the Parks Department began to look at ways to improve the cemetery site and honor its rich history. Toward this end, the City of Auburn contracted Holly Taylor of Past Forward Northwest Cultural Services to write the Landmark Nomination for Pioneer Cemetery. Taylor compiled the nomination draft using archival records and interviews and by January 2016 it was shared with the community for input. Drafts were reviewed by family members of those buried at the cemetery, members of the White River Buddhist Temple, city staff and reviewed by historians and preservationists at King County. Suggestions and corrections were compiled into the completed Nomination.
The King County Landmarks Commission held a meeting at Auburn City Hall on August 4th to accept public comment and review the Nomination for Pioneer Cemetery. For the purpose of this meeting, Kenneth Greg Watson, Auburn artist, historian, and educator, became Auburn's Landmark Commissioner and joined in the technical review and vote. Members of families who had loved ones buried on site gave heartfelt and sometimes tearful testimony. Commission members pondered exact verbiage to make sure that Landmark status would not curtail use of the cemetery for years to come. After testimony had been heard, a vote was taken, and Auburn's Pioneer Cemetery became a City of Auburn and King County Landmark.
Regarding the decision to retain the name Auburn Pioneer Cemetery, White River Valley Museum Director Patricia Cosgrove wrote: "I have pondered whether 'pioneer' is the correct name for this cemetery. In my past, 'pioneer' brought to mind an image of Caucasian people in covered wagons crossing the continent. However, over the years as Museum Director, I have had the privilege of knowing many second and third generation Japanese Americans. I have come to realize that the Issei (first generation Japanese immigrants) were certainly pioneers in the truest sense, and that the name is indeed perfect!"
The Landmark designation is bestowed upon a place or building that is historically important, significantly unchanged and culturally of value to a community. With this status comes restrictions to modernization and development -- and the right to apply for funding for preservation and enhancement efforts. In 2017, a Master Plan for the cemetery's preservation was completed. In 2019 a rededication ceremony for the cemetery celebrated the installation of new walkways, interpretive signage, and the restoration of stolen and damaged Jizo statues at the Kato family monument.