Tumwater needs to do more to protect historic cemeteries

July 6, 2011 

For a city that takes great pride in its history, Tumwater should do a better job of protecting the final resting place of its pioneer settlers.

The city should have installed a fence around the Union and Pioneer cemeteries that host, among others, George and Isabella Bush, pioneers who settled in New Market in 1845. The settlement became known as Tumwater a dozen years later. Once the cemetery is fenced, Tumwater officials should focus on erecting a barrier to screen off the cemetery from the adjoining business district.

More than any other community in South Sound, Tumwater touts its history as the northern end of the Oregon Trail or Cowlitz Trail. For decades, Tumwater officials have bragged that their community is the oldest permanent American settlement on Puget Sound.

City historians acknowledge the contribution of the Coastal Salish Indian tribes whose descendants are now members of the Nisqually, Squaxin Island, and Chehalis tribes. The tribal members gathered shellfish and called Puget Sound home, long before Euro-American exploration and settlement.

It was Michael T. Simmons who led the first group of permanent American settlers to Tumwater Falls.

As noted on the city’s website, “He settled in the area that would become Tumwater, while others in the party, including George Bush, a mulatto man, and his family, settled in the rich prairies to the south. The decision of this group to settle north of the Columbia River was made in part because Oregon Provisional Government laws banned the residency of mulattoes but did not actively enforce the restriction north of the river. The 31 members of the Simmons party laboriously cut a wagon trail that became the northern branch of the Oregon Trail. Others followed, with the establishment of Olympia in 1850 and settlement of the natural prairies and river bottom lands throughout the county in the 1850s.”

Tumwater takes great pride in being known as “Washington’s first community.” That’s why it’s a bit surprising that the city has not already installed a barrier between the growing commercial development along Littlerock Road and the final resting place of so many pioneers.

The Union Cemetery, formally dedicated in 1867, and the Pioneer Calvary Cemetery, the first Catholic cemetery in South Sound, formed in 1873, were merged into a single burial ground.

There are 282 known interments in the wooded graveyard that occupies a gently sloping knoll. In addition, there are a number of unmarked graves.

Roger Easton, a member of the Thurston County Historical Commission, makes an excellent point when he says, “I’d like to see a hedge or something green between the (cemetery and Wal-Mart). The cemetery should be a place that is serene and secure.”

We agree.

Tumwater city officials say the openness will showcase the historical cemetery. We seriously doubt that bargain hunters at the nation’s largest retail outlet are going to take the time or make the effort to stroll through a pioneer cemetery, however.

According to city parks and recreation director Chuck Denney, Tumwater designed a $12,000 black chain-link fence around the cemetery boundary, but the money isn’t in the city’s 2011 budget.

The lack of a fence is an invitation to vandals, who have already knocked over the Bush headstone and tagged it.

“Fencing and security lighting for the cemetery has been in our work plan for years,” said Terry Badger, deputy state archivist and a member of the Tumwater Historical Preservation Commission.

It’s time for action.

Dale Croes, a South Puget Sound Community College anthropology professor and member of the county historical commission, said, “There’s ways to build a wooden fence so you can still see through it. Obviously, the cemetery is a major cultural resource. Our thrust is to educate the public about George and Isabella Bush and how important they are to the origin of the state.”

While it’s true that the City of Tumwater has done a good job maintaining the cemeteries which are deeded to the city, the lack of a fence is unacceptable.

Once in place, the city should then show more respect to the dead by screening the cemetery from surrounding businesses.

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