Like any cemetery, the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery (previously known as the Slaughter Cemetery) is scattered with monuments of various shapes and sizes. Standing prominently among them is an oversized but otherwise innocuous boulder. This very large rock does not mark a grave, but affixed to its face is a simple bronze memorial plaque. It reads, “In memory of the Pioneers of Slaughter.”
Although the prominence of this monument is unexplained, it seems straightforward enough—a common sentiment toward a community’s founders. Pretty bland, in fact. What could it possibly have to do with white supremacy?
Like so many of the monuments under discussion currently, the story doesn’t come into focus until you begin to ask when these monuments were erected and why. In this case, the rock itself was placed in the early 1960’s as an act of defiance. At that time, Auburn was moving forward with a plan to widen and straighten Auburn Way, and the improved roadway would require space from the western edge of the cemetery.
When first announced, this plan didn’t inspire much controversy. After all, the cemetery, at that time, was known informally as The Japanese Cemetery—a remnant of the vibrant Japanese and Japanese-American community that was sent to prison camps, just twenty years earlier, for the duration of WWII. At the war’s end, local civic groups formed in Auburn to discourage the newly released families from returning to the White River Valley. These efforts were largely successful. It’s estimated that only one in ten Japanese families ever returned to our area. The remaining Caucasian population had little concern for gravesites of people that many still viewed as the enemy.
But as the plans for the roadway progressed, local groups realized that the cemetery still included more than just Japanese graves. Although most Caucasian burials had been moved to Mountainview and other local cemeteries as they opened (because of flooding at the old cemetery downtown), there were still a handful of burials representing some of Auburn’s earliest white settlers—“pioneers,” in other words, a label that was clearly not intended to include the early Japanese arrivals to our area. The thought of disturbing these important “pioneer” graves, unlike expendable Japanese graves, was a great affront to Auburn’s white community. It was only then that resistance to the road project began to foment. The protests ultimately culminated in the placement of the oversized boulder directly in what would have been the bulldozer’s path.
Although Auburn abandoned the plan to straighten the road at the expense of the cemetery, the community felt they should do more to ensure the cemetery’s on-going protection. It was then that they held a brief ceremony to formally re-name the cemetery, not “The Auburn Cemetery,” but “The Auburn Pioneer Cemetery,” to underline the presence of important graves of the community’s white founders in perpetuity. At the same time the plaque we see today, also honoring the community’s “pioneers,” was placed on the stone that ultimately prevented these white graves from being disturbed. And so it sits today, a memorial to the fact that even in death, our Japanese neighbors were never seen as important as their white counterparts.