When she was a girl playing on her grandfather’s homestead southeast of Cheney, a neighboring farmer would warn Helen Boots not to go into the nearby cemetery, where the ghosts of native people would reach out from their burial mounds and snatch her.
Nearly everybody in that part of Spokane County knew of the cemetery. It was nestled in a grove of old pines and for as long as anybody could remember had been protected by a fence.
Boots, 87 and a historian for the Cheney Cemetery Association, also remembers when the place known as the “Old Burying Ground” was leveled by heavy equipment during a logging operation in 1990.
“My sister and I sat there bawling,” she said. “They were so reckless. They weren’t one bit careful. There couldn’t be any mounds left.”
It may be the state’s oldest known cemetery, the resting place of American Indian ancestors and white pioneers from the days of the fur trade. All of this, including the very existence of the cemetery, apparently was unknown to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation until this month, when it was brought to their attention by an amateur historian doing research on the possible site of Lt. Col. Edward Steptoe’s last campground less than a mile away.
The historian, Guy Boudia of Olympia, also told the tribes about the burial ground’s alleged desecration 17 years ago.
“It makes me angry that someone would desecrate these Native American and pioneer graves like this,” said Boudia, whose findings were presented last week to both tribal councils.
The state enacted a law in 1989 to prevent desecration of “Indian burial sites and cairns,” punishable by up to five years in prison, a $10,000 fine or both.
Despite that law, and the fact that at least one state official knew of the site and attempted to stop a tenant farmer from logging it in 1990, no enforcement action was taken.
Repeated calls and an e-mail to the Washington state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation went unreturned this week. Tribal officials would acknowledge that they’re now aware of the situation and considering what action to take.
By law, tribes have two years from the time they are informed of desecration of a burial ground to bring civil action against the violator.
The site, located on the road used to travel from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Colville in the 1800s, is of tremendous historical significance. According to a history of Spokane County cemeteries, the site was a burial ground when fur trader Ross Cox saw it in 1824.
Only the resting place of the Rev. Marcus Whitman in Walla Walla and a gravesite used by Hudson Bay Co. at Fort Vancouver in the late 1820s rival the Old Burying Ground in terms of antiquity in Washington state, according to Olympia historian Roger Easton.
When Steptoe retreated after his last confrontation with the Palouse, Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribes on May 17, 1858, according to historical documents, the bodies of 12 to 15 native combatants were carried off by their comrades. Some of those dead could have been buried at the nearby site, Boudia said.
The Old Burying Ground, more than 100 graves on a four- to five-acre site, was part of the Alling family homestead. An 1873 map of the area by the Surveyor General’s Office, Territory of Washington, indicates fencing around the cemetery. In September 1989, Joseph L. Alling, of Grant County, died, leaving his widow, Mariann, as sole owner of the property, according to public records. That year Mariann Alling, now deceased, leased the property for farming to a relative, Shannon Sanderson, who lives near the site.
The lease granted Sanderson farming and grazing rights to the entire property – except the site of the burial ground.
Concerned about the presence of heavy equipment on the site, a Cheney-area historian whose family property borders the Alling property wrote Sanderson on Dec. 14, 1989, informing him of the historical significance of the Old Burying Ground. The letter from Robin Bruce, niece of Helen Boots, told Sanderson where he could find information about the site.
On Jan. 3, 1990, Paul Elvig, program administrator for the state Cemetery Board, a division of the Department of Licensing, wrote Sanderson stating that he was aware logging was under way on the property and advising him of its possible illegality.
Elvig wrote to Sanderson again in April, warning Sanderson that he would refer the issue to the attorney general’s office if Sanderson did not respond by the end of that month.
Contacted last week, Elvig, now retired, could not recall whether he actually did refer the matter. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office could find no record of the office being informed of a possible violation concerning the Old Burying Ground.
In a June 1990 article about the Mead cemetery in The Spokesman-Review, Elvig noted the alleged desecration of the burial ground south of Cheney.
Elvig said the property owners were of the opinion that no one could tell them what to do on their land, but as far as he was concerned the land also belongs to the people buried there and should be protected.
It’s likely that many times over the years, “somebody stood there and cried” over a grave, Elvig said. Contacted last week, Sanderson said he was leasing the property but declined to comment on logging activities.
A Department of Natural Resources aerial photograph of the property clearly shows the Old Burying Ground with a standing grove of pine trees in 1986. Another photo taken in 1992 shows the site had been completely logged.