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A bygone California cemetery’s newfound death certificates shed light on an immigrant past

There’s a pioneer rancher who suffered a stroke and later committed suicide, and a woman who opened her own dress shop in San Fernando before she was killed one day riding a horse.
But those buried at the Pioneer Cemetery in Sylmar are mostly infants – hundreds of Mexican-American babies who didn’t live to see their first year.
Joyce Gaynor with copies of recently discovered death certificates, 500 in total, of people who were buried in the Pioneer cemetery in Sylmar, CA May 24, 2019. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) 
The surfacing of some 500 death certificates dated as early as 1884 of people buried at one of the San Fernando Valley’s oldest cemeteries tell revealing stories about not only individuals who lived and died in today’s Sylmar, but also of a region that transitioned from being home to early white ranchers to predominately poor Mexican immigrants.
“We’re really excited about this, and the certificates are so interesting to see,” said Jacky Walker, who heads up an effort to collect and share information about the Pioneer Cemetery for the San Fernando Valley Historical Society. The findings are the product of seven years of fact hunting, conducted by volunteers.
A total of 519 death certificates dating between 1884 and 1939 will be on display at the cemetery during a Memorial Day ceremony set for Monday. Five Civil War veterans are also buried at the site – four Union soldiers, one Confederate.
The SFV Historical Society acquired the cemetery from the Native Daughters of the Golden West in 2002.
It was originally owned by undertaker William Noble, who kept a mysterious list of around 600 names that Walker still has. It’s a key tool in this quest for history because the cemetery only has around 20 actual grave markers.
“So there was this huge disconnect,” said Anne Stansell, who along with her mother, Carol, conducted the bulk of the research digging up the certificates.
A recently installed a memorial to Civil War Veterans buried at the Pioneer Cemetery. 500 death certificates were recently discovered of people who were buried at the historical cemetery in Sylmar, CA May 24, 2019. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) 
As a graduate student of anthropology at CSUN in 2012, she was looking into the possibility that Pioneer was the site of a mass grave following the 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse. Now she’s an archeologist for the National Park Service.
From the get-go, she turned to the Morman church for its extensive genealogical library containing reels of death certificates for all of L.A. County. Many of the certificates include a wealth of information about the decedent’s cause of death, occupation or even family members.
She ran into a couple of closed doors initially.
“But then I got another email saying that they had digitized the reels and put them online, so that set the stage for us to find out who is buried at Pioneer,” she said.
The process combing through thousands of records was tedious. She and her mother found some 200 people – a number that matched the original list – case closed, right? A 2010 ground radar study done by the historical society also only found around 200 bodies.
But then the church indexed the records last September, making the death certificates searchable by year and name. It led to the discovery of hundreds more people buried at the cemetery.
Stansell’s search for a possible flood-related mass grave didn’t pan out, of course, but she discovered what she called a “fascinating way to apply historic records, and a cool story.”
Joyce Gaynor walks along the newly installed pathway at the Pioneer Cemetery. 500 death certificates were recently discovered of people who were buried in the historical cemetery in Sylmar, CA May 24, 2019. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG) 
The majority of individuals buried at Pioneer were not the white frontiersman ranchers of the designated township of San Fernando, but rather infants of Mexican heritage that died between 1917 and 1919 – a flu epidemic, according to Stansell.
Over 70% of the graves were for Mexican individuals, 23% white, five Japanese, two Native American, one Filipino and one African-American. There are significantly more males than females.
“This cemetery is very unique for how old it is and that it didn’t become anything else,” she said. And per her understanding, its history can be split into two different periods.
The first set of graves were of those early ranchers. But over time, “the cemetery almost became inactive and was used predominately by Mexican-Americans who didn’t have much money.”
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“These were small little, stillborn babies. They weren’t buried in a coffin or anything all that substantial, mostly wrapped in swaddles,” she said. “It’s pretty graphic in some ways when you think about it, but it was common for people to perform their own burials back then.”
Of course, questions still remain.
Noble’s original list included some people who aren’t buried at Pioneer and left off some who are, so it’s unclear exactly how it fits in. Stansell calls death certificates a “snapshot in time,” documents that need census records to develop a full story.
The aim is for all the documents to be made available online. But for now, you’ll just have to go see them.

WHAT: Memorial Day Observance at Pioneer Cemetery in Sylmar
WHEN: 11 a.m. to noon
WHERE: 14451 Bledsoe Street at the corner of Foothill Boulevard

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