Peeling Back the Layers of Place – The Sakagami Farmstead

Have you ever stood in a public place and wondered what it would look like if you could peel back the layers of time? If you could grab a corner of the present and pull it back like wallpaper to catch a glimpse of a previous year, or a decade, or even a century? What might you find just beneath the surface of the Right Now?

garden center

Let me introduce you to this place. This is the garden center at my local big-box chain store. At least, I think it’s a picture from my hometown. This is a place so generic that it probably looks exactly like the garden center in your town’s version of this store. Intentionally so—the store’s designers have capitalized on customers’ sense of the familiar in order to make it more comfortable for them to spend their money. It’s an effective strategy but one that has erased any sense of uniqueness of place, any sense of locality, and certainly any sense of history. This garden center is a perfect example of how so much of our sense of place has become homogenized in modern times. From offices, to stores, to schools—the places where I live so much of my life have become indistinguishable from the places where you live yours—regardless of the number of miles that may exist between us. I don’t think of this phenomenon as being either good or bad—it’s simply our approach to “place” in the present.

But I can go into this particular garden center pause in its aisles while my imagination drifts back into history. Although I may be surrounded by harried mothers pushing toddlers in shopping carts or befuddled men clutching sweaty scrap-paper shopping lists, I can take a moment to visualize this place as it once was. I can, in effect, grab a loose corner of the present and peel it away to reveal the past. I can do this because I was sent the photo below by a man whose ancestors used to occupy these very same acres. And this is what I see:

Sakagami Homestead 1921 White River Auburn  (2)
This remarkable photograph was sent to me by Mark Sakagami, a man I have corresponded with in the past regarding the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery website. He recently came across this photo in a trunk and recognized the infant in its center as his father, dating the photo to 1921 or 1922. His dad is pictured here with his own parents and siblings at their family farmstead. Mark was good enough to send me a copy, and I’m so glad he did.

What’s remarkable about this photo, in addition to the irreplaceable family images at its center, is its indisputable sense of place. Although this is western Washington, there’s not a tree in sight. Instead, we can see a fenced area in the far background, probably a berry crop of some sort. In fact, every inch of land in this scene is under cultivation. Not a scrap of yard surrounds the unclad little house; the plowed furrows come right up to its walls. The small space in front appears to comprise a vegetable garden, probably grown there for the family’s own use. In 1922, Issei Japanese like Mark’s grandparents were prevented from owning or even leasing land in their own names by our state’s racist alien land laws. The Sakagamis were instead tenant farmers, growing potatoes and making use of every last inch of land that they could just to make ends meet.

There is something desolate about the house, naked of paint or even siding, and even about the field, leveled and lined into maximum production. But at the same time, there is a balance of hopefulness in the Sakagamis themselves, posed as they are for this informal portrait. They’ve dressed in what are probably their best clothes; they’ve brought a chair into the yard to better position themselves for the cameraman, and they seem somehow content there as they look toward the photographer, and beyond him to the road, and beyond it to the little cemetery where they have already buried lost loved ones. They have, in so many ways, put down roots in this strange land, this less than welcoming place.

Do you think they could have imaged a day when everything they saw around them would be sealed under pavement? When their farm would be buried under a store that existed solely to sell impractical things like grass seed and lawn sprinklers, insect candles and gnome statues? Extravagancies like petunias and pansies?

We wander through such wonderlands every day, rarely even thinking about the pedestrian miracles that have already come to pass. Those wonders will remain forever imperceptible to those of us who refuse to cultivate our sense of place.

Who Gets to be a Pioneer?

Black Pioneers in Roslyn, WA. Pioneer Cemeteries.

Black pioneers at Roslyn, Washington, c. 1895

Pioneer cemeteries. Just about every U.S. town has one lying at its outskirts, hinting at history and promising importance. Park your car and investigate, and, sure enough, you’re bound to find weathered tombstones of a suitably impressive age. That’s part of the formula.

But not everyone buried in a pioneer cemetery is an actual pioneer—right? There are always burials of a more recent vintage too. Are those newer arrivals pioneers-by-association? And does everyone who lived a century or more ago qualify as a pioneer simply because they came from Long Ago?

What exactly are communities trying to tell us when they put the “Pioneer Cemetery” label on their local burial grounds?

Our little cemetery in downtown Auburn had been in use for almost a century before the local citizenry decided to append the Pioneer Cemetery label to its name. In the early days it had been known variously as the Faucett Cemetery (after the family first known to bury its dead there) or the Slaughter Cemetery or Christopher Cemetery (both of which were early names for the Auburn area). After other near-by cemeteries opened, the original cemetery was often listed in newspapers simply as “the old cemetery.” We don’t know if any of these names were ever official enough to inspire signage; it’s more likely that the locals just knew which cemetery was being referred to, regardless of the name in use during their time.

Of course, as the local Japanese community grew, so too did their use of this cemetery. With the ever-increasing number of kanji tombstones, the cemetery eventually became known primarily as the Japanese cemetery.

It wasn’t until well after World War II that developers and city planners began to view the cemetery’s real estate with a hungry eye. Most of the white folks had been moved out to the cemetery up the hill. The local Japanese community had been decimated by their imprisonment in internment camps during the war; few had the means to return to Auburn after their release. With these facts in mind, it was assumed that no one would really mind if a wedge of land was shaved off the cemetery so that Auburn Way could be widened and straightened. Plans went into motion.

It was at this point that a local civic group with the best name ever—The Pioneer Daughters of Slaughter—got involved. After a careful survey of the remaining graves, they noted that not all of the city’s founders had been moved out. Several early families were still represented among the remaining graves that dotted the cemetery’s west side.

The Daughters of Slaughter rallied local support to preserve these important burials. It was at this time that a large bolder was placed in the cemetery—directly in the path of any earth-moving equipment that might be sent in to expand the adjacent road. Evidently the cemetery was patrolled at night to prevent any incursions that under-handed developers might attempt as concerned neighbors slept. And, to underline the point that the cemetery had historically significant graves, its name was officially designated as The Auburn Pioneer Cemetery.

In other words (according to the tenor of the times), the name was chosen to emphasize the fact that, despite initial impression, it wasn’t just insignificant Japanese burials that populated the cemetery. There were actually Christian burials too. Of important people. Upstanding, white people. Pioneers.

Sadly, during those days the term “pioneer” was anything but inclusive. It never would have been used in application to the Muckleshoot people who had settled the area long before any white people showed up. It never would have been applied to the black people who came to the area and helped establish the coal mines that once flourished here (some of whom are pictured in the photo above). And it would never have been used to describe the Japanese people who came here to make Washington their home.

It seems appropriate today, as the country celebrates its independence and more than two hundred years of freedom, that we pause to remember the literal meaning of the term “pioneer”: A person who is among those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others.*

It’s a broad definition, and makes no distinction based on race or religion. Let’s make it our business to respect the memories of all of our pioneers–even those who never had the chance to claim the title in their lifetimes. Our cemeteries are full of them.

* as defined by

Where Did All The Content Go?

haunted house

Websites are like haunted houses…

I’ve often thought of a website as a haunted house. It might have dark passages that lead to abandoned rooms, cobwebs in the corners, furniture moldering in disrepair. Sometimes it’s hard to find your way back where you came from. It’s disorienting. If you could only find the right room, you’re certain you would find exactly what you’re looking for.

Or would you?

Our website has definitely taken on a haunted appearance lately. Where we once had bright and cheery rooms full of useful items in the expected places, we now have locked doors carrying a sort-of No Tresspassing sign: “This content temporarily unavailable.” You can almost see the skulls and crossbones. What’s up with that?

Well, our website is in the middle of a pretty extensive re-model this summer. And, if you’ve ever remodeled a house, haunted or otherwise, you know how chaotic the process can be. But the first fruits of the chaos have already arrived in the form of this blog. It will give us the opportunity to opine about all sorts of cemetery-related matters, those directly related to the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery and those of a more general tenor. I can’t think of a more fitting addition to build onto our haunted digs, can you?

Just as a way of reminding myself of all the content we have in storage, I composed a laundry list this week of all the features that we have developed for the site—features that will all be returning as time permits. It’s not a bad little list. Many cemetery sites offer little more than a transcript of their tombstones. We have always endeavored to make this site more engaging, both to descendants and other interested visitors. I hope the list is evidence that we are slowly succeeding.

So, please—feel free to look around. There’s no need to be scared. All of the ghosts are friendly here.

Materials Developed for Auburn Pioneer Cemetery website:

  • Complete transcript of all extant tombstones, including a kanji transcript of the Japanese language stones.
  • Row listings indicating the location of individual Japanese-language markers relative to nearby English-language markers
  • Translations of names and dates for each of the 100+ Japanese language stones.
  • High-def, high-contrast digital photo catalog of each of the original kanji tombstones (those produced between 1928-1942 including Jizo statues)
  • Miscellaneous site photography
  • Compellation of unmarked burials, both Japanese and “pioneer”
  • Plot map including locations of marked and unmarked graves; locations of statuary and cenotaphs; location of vacant plots
  • Comprehensive cemetery history from 1866 through present, both in text form and interactive timeline form
  • Glossary of specialized terminology applying to the cemetery, especially of terminology of Japanese and/or Buddhist burial practices
  • Slide deck illustrating the evolution of Japanese markers at the cemetery from 1900 through present day
  • Genealogy/Family trees of all families represented in the cemetery (except in the few cases where a family returned to Japan after a burial, at which point they disappeared from U.S. records)
  • Narrative biographies representing approximately 25 individuals (and/or their families) buried in the cemetery. A number that will grow in the future.