It’s no surprise that Marion County has a rich history when it comes to its historic buildings. Still, the roots of the region’s history run deep in other places, specifically, the cemeteries in Marion County, which are the final resting places of the ancestors who came before us and settled this land.
Salem Pioneer Cemetery
210 Hoyt Street S, Salem
Founded as Odd Fellows Rural Cemetery in 1854, the Salem Pioneer Cemetery is among Oregon’s oldest fraternal-society-sponsored burial grounds. It was acquired by Chemeketa Lodge No. 1 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows upon its establishment. Since then, it has grown from its original five acres to seventeen, making it the city’s largest historic cemetery, with over 8,000 burials on record. Many of these plots are the graves of early settlers and prominent figures in Salem’s early history who are credited with establishing the state’s first government and the capital city’s educational and social institutions. Guests are welcome to walk the cemetery grounds from dawn until dusk year-round, and cemetery maps are available online for those looking for specific markers.
8239 Champoeg Cemetery Road, Aurora
Situated near the site of the former town of Champoeg, the Champoeg Cemetery is the final resting spot of at least 30 people from the land’s first generation of pioneering settlers to the area, making it an important historical site in early Oregon history. Cemetery landowner Robert Childers, who established it in 1853, and his wife Mary Ann are also buried on the grounds, as some of the earliest to come to rest here.
Though the cemetery still exists, the city it was named after that once sat along the Willamette River is no more. When the river rose on December 2, 1861, by 55 feet, it covered the city in seven feet of water, and it was never rebuilt. A year later, half of the land was sold to the Masonic Lodge No. 27, who used it for their burials for the next 30 years before deeding their side of the property back to the cemetery association, who held the deed to the remaining half. Nearly 400 graves ranging from early settlers’ crosses to masonic slabs remain for public viewing, perfect for history enthusiasts to explore and examine, as well as those interested in exploring the rich history of the Pacific Northwest.
Lee Mission Cemetery
2104 D Street NE, Salem
Events leading up to the establishment of Salem’s oldest cemetery, Lee Mission Cemetery, are so intertwined with the history of the city’s earliest Methodist Church that it is difficult to separate one from the other. The cemetery’s story begins with Jason Lee and four associates heading west in 1834 after being sent by the Mission Board to establish a mission for the Native Americans in the Oregon Territory. After three years of work, they were joined by a party of reinforcements to help with the mission.
One of those joining the group was Anna Maria Pittman, who would become Jason’s first wife. Sadly, this marriage would end just as quickly as it began after Anna Marie’s untimely death after the difficult birth of her and Jason’s son in June 1838. She and the baby were both buried in a single grave at the Methodist Mission.
Jason was en route east to procure more help for the mission when he was delivered the news by a messenger of his wife’s passing. He continued his journey, returning in 1840 with 52 new members known as the “Great Reinforcement.” Among them was his new wife, Lucy Thompson. The couple moved into one of the four apartments in the first building in Salem.
Tragedy struck yet again when Lucy died on March 20, 1842, leaving Jason to care for their infant daughter, who was just three weeks old. It was Lucy that would become Mission Lee’s cemetery’s first resident. A short time after her death, Jason’s first wife, Anna Maria and their infant son were moved to be closer to Lucy. The iron gates for the entrance to the cemetery went up next, with the date on the gates being inscribed “1838,” the year of Anna Maria’s death.
As the cemetery became more established, the bodies of many early missionaries and pioneers were exhumed from a previous cemetery on “French Praire” and one near the Jason Lee House on Mill Creek and re-interred in Lee Mission Cemetery. As time passed, the cemetery was later incorporated by Oregon on January 27, 1869. The cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places over 100 years later on December 29, 1978, and remains open for visitors to respectfully explore the resting places of some of the city’s earliest pioneers.
Miller Cemetery and Church
7823 OR-213, Silverton
The pretty little, white wooden church at the Miller Cemetery is listed as Oregon’s “only burying church” on the National Register of Historic Places after being added to the list in 1978. The church itself was built almost 100 years earlier, in 1882.
The Miller Church is a burying church in that it was never signed to host weekly worship services. It was simply intended to be a place to hold burial services before laying people to rest in the adjacent cemetery. Not only that, but the church was even more of an anomaly for its time as “said church (was to) be open and free to all religious denominations” by decree of Richard Miller, who gifted the land of three acres the church sits on to the Abiqua region.
Previously Richard, his wife Margaret Stanton Miller, and their large family had moved to a land claim on the Abiqua River that was a square mile. Quickly he and his family became beloved members of the community, with Richard being known to residents as “Uncle Dickey.” In 1850 he became a member of the 1850 territorial legislature, served as chairman of the Marion County Commission, and in 1857 he was elected from the area as a representative to the Constitutional Committee., which was directed to write a constitution that would represent the people of the soon-to-be state of Oregon.
Later, in 1860, Miller moved to the Scio area to live with his daughter. Before departing, he gifted the land the cemetery is on “in consideration of the love and respect” that he felt for the citizens of the Abiqua precinct. Today the church and cemetery remain in their tranquil, beautiful setting, with burials still open for all denominations, just as Miller intended.
These cemeteries are just four of nearly 120 preserved historic sites in Marion County, giving glimpses into the lives and final resting places of the early settlers and pioneers who shaped the region into what it is today.