Elisabeth Walton Potter, historian of Salem Pioneer Cemetery, shares the background of tombstones at the cemetery. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

There’s a pleasant and safe way during these COVID-19 times to learn about Salem and the state’s early history without having to get close to anyone, open a book or attend a lecture.

The way is to stroll through the bucolic Salem Pioneer Cemetery, founded in 1854 on a portion of the Rev. David Leslie’s donation land claim at South Hoyt and Commercial streets.

Buried or memorialized in the 17-acre site are pioneers, war veterans, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, territorial government representatives, educators, residents of state institutions, missionaries, politicians, emancipated slaves, civic and business leaders and ordinary citizens.

The cemetery’s original five acres, known as the Odd Fellows Rural Cemetery, was acquired from Leslie by Chemeketa Lodge No. 1 and is among the oldest fraternal society-sponsored burial grounds in the state. Such cemeteries were developed to fulfill the Odd Fellows’ charter obligation to “provide for the last needs of the members.”

To help visitors find burial sites, a visitors’ kiosk is located toward the east end of the cemetery.

Some of the notable and important people buried there are:

David Leslie and his family: Leslie, a Methodist minister, was born in 1797 in New Hampshire and was recruited to help minister Jason Lee run a mission in the Salem area. Later he was president of the board Oregon Institute, later Willamette University.

Samuel R. Thurston: He was born in Maine in 1816 and was the first delegate from the Oregon Territory to Congress. He was instrumental in passing the Donation Land Claim Act.

Dr. William Willson: He was born in 1805 in New Hampshire, moving to Oregon to work at the Methodist mission. He was the first treasurer of the provisional government, platted the city of Salem, served on the board of the Oregon Institute, owned a book store and donated land for a park at the site of the state Capitol and for what became Willamette University.

Capt. Charles Bennett: He was born in 1811 in Pennsylvania and is credited along with James Marshall for finding gold near Sutter’s Mill in California. In Salem, he built the Bennett House Hotel and was the co-builder of the steamer Canemah in 1851, the fourth steamer on the Willamette River. A cavalry officer, he died in 1855 near Walla Walla, Wash., during the Yakama Indian War.

Asahel Bush: He was born in 1824 in Massachusetts and was a banker, lawyer, and the founder and editor of the Oregon Statesman.

Tabitha Moffatt Brown: She was born in 1780 in Massachusetts and founded a boarding school in Forest Grove for orphaned and immigrant children. She is known as the pioneer mother figure of Oregon.

John Minto: He was born in 1822 in England. He served as a state legislator, writer and was a prominent sheep breeder.

Harvey Gordon: He was born in 1780 in Massachusetts and was an editor at the Oregon Statesman, and he designed the state seal.

Thomas Lister Kay: He was born in 1837 or 1838 in England and was associated with textile manufacturing, starting what became known as the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill.

Reuben Boise: He was born in 1810 in Massachusetts and was a chief justice on the Oregon Supreme Court.

The cemetery was developed during horse-and-carriage days when Salem was much smaller and there were mostly farms, orchards and open fields between downtown and the new cemetery, said Elisabeth Walton Potter, historian for the cemetery and spokesperson for the Friends of Pioneer Cemetery. The group formed in 1985 “to promote, maintain and restore” the site.

The cemetery, located about a mile and a half from downtown, was placed on high, well-drained ground overlooking the Cascade Mountains and the Methodist Church, she said.

Rural cemeteries in those days were in some ways precursors to municipal parks, Potter said.

“Picnicking was somewhat common place in cemeteries with scenic views, contoured carriage drives and so on,” she said.

Any picnicking at Pioneer Cemetery that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was most likely associated with family gatherings organized to clean and tend plots, she said.

The cemetery contains about 8,200 burials, with about six taking place each year. Because the site is full, only people who are deed holders or have family in the cemetery can now be buried there.

The city of Salem owns the cemetery, and in 1999 the Friends of Pioneer Cemetery established an endowment fund to restore two family mausoleums, pay for headstone upkeep and repair cast iron ornaments.

The group also promotes the cemetery as a resource to study community history by staging educational programs.

The cemetery is a city of Salem historic landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more information about the cemetery and those buried there, visit the cemetery website: salempioneercemetery.org.

Donations to help with the cemetery’s preservation can be mailed to: Friends of Pioneer Cemetery, c/o The Salem Foundation Charitable Trust, Pioneer Trust Bank, P.O. Box 2305, Salem, OR 97308.

Elisabeth Walton Potter, historian at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, at the cemetery's information kiosk. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Portland residents William and Laura Powell bring decorations to the grave of Laura Powell’s mother, who is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Elisabeth Walton Potter, historian for the cemetery and spokesperson for the Friends of Pioneer Cemetery, at one of the many historic tombstones at the Salem cemetery. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A historic grave marker at Salem Pioneer Park. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A historic tombstone at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place for many local figures who built up Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A historic tombstone at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place for many local figures who built up Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A historic tombstone at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place for many local figures who built up Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A historic tombstone at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place for many local figures who built up Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A historic tombstone at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place for many local figures who built up Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A historic tombstone at the Salem Pioneer Cemetery, the final resting place for many local figures who built up Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

WHAT DO THE IMAGES MEAN?

During the religious movement of the early 19th Century known as the Great Awakening, symbols carved on grave markers shifted from reflecting mortality and death to those of a hopeful afterlife and peaceful slumber.

The carvings of angelic features and hands reaching down from heaven spoke of spiritual ascension after death, offering a kind of comfort to those left behind.

Then during the Victorian era, images of nature such as ornate flowers and decorative animals replaced the religious motifs .

Many markers then and now include the initials of fraternal organizations.

The following is a list of tombstone symbols, many of which are on markers at Salem Pioneer Cemetery, and what they signify:

Religious:

Anchor – represents the cross and hope for resurrection.

Angels – mean spirituality and they guard the tomb.

Chalice – represents the sacraments.

Clover – represents the Trinity.

Column – implies ascension.

Crown – represents the soul’s achievement and the glory of life after death.

Heart – refers to the suffering of Christ for our sins.

Urn – the soul waits here for resurrection.

Mortality:

Broken column – usually represents the loss of the head of the family.

Clasped hands – means a farewell to earthy existence.

Doors – represents the entrance to heaven.

Drape – is the closing of earthly life.

Garlands – represent victory in death.

Gates - the passageway into heaven.

Globe – represents the soul waiting for resurrection.

Hand or finger pointing upward – means God’s salvation.

Snuffed out candle – means the loss of life.

Veil – symbolizes the closing of earthly life.

Wreath – means victory.

Living things:

Birds flying – represents the soul flying to heaven.

Butterfly – symbolizes a short life.

Dog – implies a good master worthy of love.

Dove – is the symbol of purity and peace.

Flowers – show the brevity of earthly existence.

Grapevine- speaks to Jesus and his protection.

Lamb – usually marks the grave of a child and denotes innocence.

Lion – guards the tomb eternally and stands for courage.

Oak leaves and acorns –represent power, authority and often appear on military markers.

Poppies – mean eternal sleep.

Rosemary – is for remembrance.

Tree – stands for life.

Miscellaneous:

Axe, cleaver – means a butcher.

Broken ring – means the family circle has been severed.

Crossed swords – symbolizes a military person of high rank.

Open book – means a teacher.

Sextant – means a mariner.

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