Me and Ashley, my favorite grave hunting partner (RIP) near "Texas" Ellen Wilson's grave in Coloma's Pioneer Cemetery
My name is Lonnie DeCloedt, though I often go by the name Thomas Canty online. I adopted that name because I've been a huge Mark Twain fan my whole life, and little Tom Canty was a character of his -- the poor kid in The Prince and the Pauper.
I'm also a huge history buff, a fact which would probably astonish my high school history teachers, since I hated the subject at that time and only did enough studying to barely manage to squeak by with a passing grade. But, many years after I'd graduated high school I finally visited California's Gold Country and Nevada's Comstock Lode areas, places that had long fascinated me because of my love for Mark Twain's writings and the fact that he had lived there and written about his experiences.
I continued to visit those areas often, sometimes heading north (I live in Los Angeles County) as many as five or six times per year, and in the process I learned a lot about the history of the places I went to. At first I didn't have much interest in the people who lived back then, other than those who had a significant place in history, such as James Marshall or John Sutter. I also had no interest in the old pioneer cemeteries in the beginning. Those interests, now bordering on obsession, developed gradually over time.
I know exactly where my interest in cemeteries began, though I don't remember the exact date, or even year. It was sometime around 1999 or possibly as late as 2001. It was my day off from work and I spent some time in Griffith Park. As I headed home I passed Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills, and on a whim I decided to stop. I had recently read Penn & Teller's book "How To Play In Traffic" and remembered a card trick they described in the book, in which the punchline involves a cenotaph they had placed in that cemetery. I had a vague idea where the marker was located and decided to look for it. I didn't find their marker that day, but while looking for it I did find Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Bob Kane. I was hooked. I spent the next couple years visiting all of the local Los Angeles area cemeteries in search of celebrity grave sites. And, I found quite a few.
In October 2001 I visited Bodie, an infamous ghost town in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. While there I visited the gift shop where I found a booklet about the cemeteries. It was a guided walking tour that gave a brief description of the people buried beneath the few remaining headstones. I spent almost the entire second day of that trip in the Bodie cemeteries, following along in the book as I took a photo of each headstone. The three Bodie cemeteries (and two graves outside the fences) were the first pioneer cemetery inventories I completed.
I no longer have that booklet from the Bodie gift shop, but I sure wish I knew what I did with it. I'd love to have it back, and have not been able to find it in the gift shop again, though there is now a similar -- but much smaller -- pamphlet available at the cemeteries' entrance gate.
In April 2002, on one of my many, early return visits to California's Gold Country I stopped in the gift shop in Coloma. There I found a book about Coloma's cemeteries, similar in theme to the Bodie one, but quite a bit bigger with much more detail. Just as I had done earlier in Bodie, I bought this book and spent a day in the cemeteries, photographing each grave site as I read about the people who lived, died and were buried in that town a century or more ago.
Gradually, on subsequent trips to Gold Country, I found more and more cemeteries. Some are obvious, in plain sight right next to highway 49, which I rarely strayed far from at first. But, many more of these cemeteries are off the beaten track, hidden from view unless you know just where to look. Surprisingly, one of the best sources I found for locating these hidden cemeteries was by geocaching. A large number of these old pioneer cemeteries have (or had) geocaches hidden in them, and I let my GPS receiver lead me to them.
Also, as I completed photo inventories, I would put my pictures online. As a result I began to occasionally receive emails from people. Usually they were simply thank-you notes from those who had been looking for a photo of the headstone belonging to a long lost ancestor, but many times those emails would include additional information about the people buried under the markers I had photographed, and sometimes the sender would then say "Have you been to this cemetery", followed by directions to yet another obscure, out of the way cemetery that I hadn't yet discovered.
In 2007, one of those random emails opened the flood gates. A woman named Suzi dropped me a line to ask if I'd photographed any of the markers in Placerville's Old City Cemetery. I didn't have them online yet, but as luck would have it I had completed a photo inventory of that cemetery only a month or two prior, so I sent her what I had. We continued to swap email sporadically for the next several months until at one point I mentioned the book I had bought that guided me through Coloma's cemeteries. I suggested she might want to obtain a copy of it. Well... That's when I found out Suzi is the person who did a significant portion of the research that went into creating that book.
Since that time we have become very close friends. I have visited with Suzi many times, spending countless hours in the library she has in her home, which is chock full of information about the early El Dorado County pioneers. She has also introduced me to several other people who have done similar research on the cemeteries in other California Gold Rush counties.
So, for the past three or four years, while I still do the occasional photo inventory, I have been concentrating more on researching the people buried in those cemeteries I've already visited and inventoried, learning as much as I can about them and the lives they led. In the process I have managed to build my own rather extensive collection of resources to run to: books, people, online reference sites, maps, official government records, cemetery interment listings, etc.
Naturally, this all led up to me creating this blog, and possibly eventually writing a book on the subject, too. We shall see about that book, though. In the meantime, I spend a large amount of my time doing research and writing these weekly bios, and I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I've enjoyed putting them together.
If you have any questions or comments for me, feel free to leave a comment in the blog. Or, if you prefer, you can also send me email at "lonnie at pioneergraves dot info". Be forwarned: Out of necessity, I have my spam filters set very strict, so avoid terms that may trigger those filters. If you send me an email and I don't reply within a week or so, try again. You can also reach me via Facebook and Twitter. The links for my pages on those sites are on the right hand side of this blog.