As he does almost every Memorial Day, Michael Harris turned onto a dusty country road in the hills Monday above the American River to place an American flag next to 36 unmarked graves from what was once the thriving Gold Rush town of Negro Hill.
His flag joined 15 others adorning the graves of veterans of foreign wars buried in the Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery, established in 1954 on Shadowfax Lane by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for more than 400 bodies displaced from their original resting places by Folsom Dam. The 13 cemeteries relocated here date to the 1840s. They include 289 from the vibrant Gold Rush community of Mormon Island, 85 from Salmon Falls, 10 from McDowell’s Hill, seven from Dolton’s Bar, six from Natural Dam and five apiece from Carrollton Bar and Condemned Bar.
Harris, a local African American historian, honored all those who died in the service of their country who rest here, including veterans from World Wars I and II, the Spanish American War and the Civil War. But he has a special place in his heart for the 36 unmarked graves moved from Negro Hill, once a town of more than 2,000 people about a mile and half above Negro Bar and Mormon Island along the American River.
When those 36 unmarked graves were moved to make way for Folsom Lake, each bore a label with a racist version of the town’s name.
Harris fought hard to have the offensive language removed, scoring a victory when the grave markers were replaced in 2011 to say Negro Hill. But Harris –whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all U.S. veterans – said not enough has been done to formally recognize California’s pioneers of African ancestry from 1840 to 1865, including those who fought in the Civil War.
Harris believes Negro Hill was home to several African Americans who settled here from Massachusetts and returned east to fight for the Union Army after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.
But those buried in the 36 graves remain a mystery that gnaws at Harris every Memorial Day, since Negro Hill and Mormon Bar were both early examples of interracial, inter-ethnic and interdenominational cooperation.
“The California Gold Rush was the world’s first global story, and Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery’s one of the greatest historic treasure troves,” Harris said. “People from all over the world lie here – they came from England, Germany, Peru, Panama, Chile, China and and Africa. They include Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and Jews.”
The earliest gold miners moved off the river at Negro Bar, which often flooded, to establish the town of Negro Hill in about 1855, said Sacramento historian Clarence Caesar. The founders included an African American Methodist minister from Massachusetts named Kelsey, along with European, Chinese and Portuguese miners. By 1853, about 1,200 lived in Negro Hill, which had its own school, churches, boarding house, pharmacy and a store build by Dewitt Stanford, brother of railroad baron Leland Stanford, according to historical accounts.
When a town of 1,200 near Mormon Bar burned down in 1856, residents “were welcomed up to Negro Hill,” Harris said, even though some of the white miners supported pro-slavery candidates in the presidential election that year, and racial tension between white and black miners resulted in injuries, arrests and deaths.
By 1858 another wildfire took its toll on Negro Hill, reducing its population to 500, said Rodi Lee, a researcher with the El Dorado County Historical Museum. “The cemetery probably had wooden markers, and many men moved on.”
Although the 1850 census counted only 243 blacks in Sacramento County, all were free, Caesar explained, “because you had to be free to be counted as one person. If you were a slave you were counted as three-fifths of a person until slavery was outlawed in California in 1849.”
There’s a good possibility that some of the African American pioneers from Negro Hill “got disillusioned with the Gold Rush and went back and served in the Civil War,” Caesar said. Some may have made into the famous all-black 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry immortalized by the film “Glory,” Harris said, noting that as many as 200 African Americans sailed to California from Beacon Hill, Mass., in 1848 after word of California gold made it into abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ newspaper The North Star.
Caesar cited John Hope Franklin’s book “From Slavery To Freedom” that 186,000 African Americans fought in the Civil War, and more than 38,000 lost their lives. Sixteen men described as “colored” were recruited into cavalry and infantry units based in San Francisco and Sacramento, “but blacks were always kept in the most menial positions, such as cooks’ assistants, until they were needed for combat,” Caesar said. “The majority of the more than 270 Union soldiers massacred at Fort Pillow, Tenn., in 1864 were African American soldiers and runaway slaves.”
Caesar said Harris’ mission to unlock the mystery of the unknown graves of Negro Hill is important for future generations. “All African American history is underplayed – 90 percent of the people don’t know that slaves cleared land and built whole cities, including Washington D.C.”
Harris, chairman of the Negro Hill Burial Ground Project, decried the condition of Mormon Island Relocation Cemetery, where several graves have been knocked over. “Whether you’re black or white or purple, you don’t need your graves destroyed,” he said.
On Monday he took out an iron Tibetan “singing bowl” and a metal baton and created a deep vibration that he said brought all those in the cemetery, living and dead, together as one. That included Steward Perkins, “Father” and “Civil War Veteran,” who lived from April 19, 1847, until Aug. 2, 1921, and whose grave is in one corner of the cemetery.
Harris noted that modern Folsom was once Negro Bar, and that a Buffalo Soldier from Folsom was one of the black troops who charged up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt. He still wonders about those in the unmarked graves from Negro Hill, who may be black, white, or Chinese. “Where did they come from? Why did they come here?”