The Truth, The Myth, The Legend
And Other Convoluted Stories
The Grave Next to the Highway
When driving California State Route 88 (aka Carson Pass Highway, Alpine Highway, Route 8, etc.) east from Jackson, California, in approximately 45 miles you will see this highway sign. Signs like this alert people that there is a point of historical interest ahead; in this case it reads MARKER 500 FT AHEAD.
If we have the time to stop to see what this sign is inviting us to discover, this is what we will see.
As you can see there are three markers.
I want to quote from the California Historical Landmarks, California Department of Parks and Recreation publication. No publication date is listed.
This is the text for Maiden’s Grave, Historical Landmark 28:
NO. 28 MAIDEN’S GRAVE - It is said that in 1850 a young girl, Rachel Melton, native of Iowa, was accompanying her parents on a journey West via covered wagon train when she became violently ill. Camp was made and every effort was made to cure her, as she was the joy of the party, but she passed away and was buried on this spot.
It is curious to me, as a historian, that there is no reference as to the source of this text. But it does begin our study as to what other text versions offer in our search of the “truth.”
I will begin with taking a closer look at each of the three markers in the sequence as to when they were installed.
This was the first of the three markers placed at this site. The inscription sets the stage the rest of this paper.
Oct. 4, 1850
Native of Iowa
Erected by Guests
The second marker was erected sometime in the 1990s. Note it was donated by Sharky Begovich, raised in Jackson, CA, a resident of Minden, NV, who did not apply for a US Forest Service permit. He just thought it was something nice to do. We have no source documentation for the information on this monument.
Now lets us look at the third marker.
The text reads:
WHO IS REALLY BURIED IN THE MAIDENS GRAVE?
Who is the maiden? Who is buried here if not the maiden?
Maiden’s Grave is a popular roadside stop that commemorates the death of a young woman during the overland migration in 1850. Around 1900 an elderly woman looking for the gravesite of her daughter started a series of events that identified the wrong grave as that of her daughter.
At two different times, two headstones were installed at a location along busy Highway 88. The site came to honor the maiden and many others that died on their journey to California. Historical research in 1989 disclosed that a young man was buried here, and that the young woman or maiden was buried in a meadow two miles to the east.
On October 4, 1850, William Edmundson wrote in his diary,
“After Traveling 6 miles we came to Tragedy Spring … After Traveling two miles further, we came to a trading post about noon where we camped having come 8 miles today. A young man from Henry County, named Allen Melton died at this place during the night.”
Allen Melton was buried near here. No one knows the actual location because of highway realignment when the rocks marking the original location were moved. This memorial commemorates the life and death of Allen Melton of Henry County, Iowa, and all the others who suffered and died during the great western migration.
Please take a moment to reflect on the hardships they endured to follow their dreams.
Dedicated October 4, 2004
Marker dedicated jointly with the Amador County Sesquicentennial
United States Forest
Amador County Historical Society
Oregon-California Trails Association
This next photo appears to show the original location on the grave before several realignments of the highway. By observing the trees from the first photo to this one, it is obvious that these are different locations.
With the Edmundson journal eye witness account, it becomes obvious that there is no maiden buried here, but rather a young man.
So how did this misidentification happen?
We must go back to the early 1900s when an elderly woman came to the area looking for her daughter’s grave.
This is how a California State Highway engineer described the event in his memo dated September 26, 1916.
For more than half a century there has existed a legend that somewhere along the trail was a grave of a young maiden who had succumbed to the rigors of the journey across the deserts and was buried beside the trail.
Well intentioned people subscribed to a fund to mark the grave and had a granite block prepared for that purpose. About two miles west of Tragedy Springs (there is only one spring) is a grave of a man who died and was buried in 1850. The grave was marked by a cairn of stones, and a board taken from a wagon-box, upon which the man’s name, Allen Melton, nativity, and date of death were cut with a knife.
In the absence of a woman’s grave to mark, the granite stone was engraved with the information appearing on the headboard above described, substituting a woman’s Christian name, Rachel Melton, for the given name cut on the board. The monument bearing a woman’s name was then erected at the grave of a man.
Prior to the marking of the grave as above related, a citizen of Amador county was encamped at the meadow near Tragedy Springs, when a very old woman appeared, having driven by a team from Jackson. She stated that in 1850 when she and her family came that way with an immigrant (emigrant) train. Her daughter died and was buried on the meadow at Tragedy Springs, the grave being at the foot of a large tree. She had come to remove the remains of her child and give them Christian burial.
She recognized the campground but unable to find either the grave or the tree she thought marked it, and went away disappointed. No one thought to inquire her name of whence she came.
Some years later, and after the monument had been placed as above stated, the foreman in charge of work on the State Road, Stephen Ferari by name, cleared the meadow by burning the logs which encumbered it.
When one log, lying in the vicinity of where the woman had searched for her daughter’s grave, was reduced to ashes, there were exposed the outline of a grave marked with stones, with a mound of rocks at the head.
Recently the grave has been marked by a rude wooden cross, on the arms of which are cut the words; “The Maiden’s Grave.” It is believed that this is the true Maiden’s Grave of the legend, the one sought by the aged mother who was unable to visualize the fir tree in the prone log covering the grave form sight.
Signed: P.M. Norboe
September 26, 1916
California Historic Landmark No. 28
Officially registered August 1, 1932
It was in 1932 when Elizabeth Sargent, the principal Amador County historian, was instrumental in establishing “Maiden’s Grave” as the twenty-eighth California State Landmark.
It did not take long for attention to be raised about the incorrect referencing of the name of the girl, Rachael Melton to thinking about correcting the name to Allen Melton.
In 1935, a man named William F. Bliss wrote a letter to the State Chamber of Commerce.
By request, a copy of the inclosed (sic) reference to one of the State Land Marks was left with the California Department of the State Library yesterday. The attendant in charge suggested that I also mail a copy to you and upon looking at the reports of land marks, we find that #28, County Amador, history and description, the MAIDEN’S GRAVE, has already been reported by you.
The first I learned in 1935 of the recent marking of this spot and spoke to the attendants of the library of the impropriety of selecting a grave already marked as a burial place of a man, using his family name and substituting in place of his surname, that of a woman.
Later I made inquiry of Mr. Clarence E. Jarvis, a former resident of Amador County and now a resident of the Capital National Bank in Sacramento, as to the marking of the spot and was advised by him that he was present at that time and that it had been learned later that the maiden’s burial place was pointed out, by one who claimed to know, as being at Tragedy Springs, which is about two miles east of the present location of the present marker. He did not know what became of the original marker.
This is confirmation of the fact that at no time in the past was there any confusion about the application of the name of the person with the original marker until the move was made to mark the Maiden’s Grave arose.
Trusting that this information may assist in rectifying the error by our good California friends, I am
William F. Bliss
Letter from the State Chamber of Commerce to Mr. Bliss, March 9, 1936.
Dear Mr. Bliss:
Your letter of March 5 is received. Please be advised that the material contained in the application blank covering “Maiden’s Grave”, which is now known as State registered landmark #28, was sent in by Mrs. J.L. Sargent of Jackson, California, who was the chairman of a committee of historians from Amador County to send in various applications for registration. Mrs. Sargent is also the author of an extensive history of Amador County.
In view of the fact that you contend there is a discrepancy in regard to this landmark, I suggest that you take up the matter up with Mrs. Sargent at your earliest convenience in order to call to her attention that you believe to be the authentic history surrounding this grave.
I would like to hear from you after you have either conferred with or been in correspondence with Mrs. Sargent.
Very Truly yours,
Frank McKee Director of State Highway
Howard Bartlett frequently submitted articles to the local county newspapers. He was active in several organizations, including serving as secretary of the Kit Carson Pass Association. He became interested in William Bliss’ efforts to correct the misnamed “Maiden’s Grave.”
In 1945, we gave all this information to Mrs. Sargent, and she said undoubtedly some of this was true, but why mess around with any changes now, because after all its the sentiment that counts. This all happened in a small area, a radius of two miles, the real grave is off the highway while the marked one is not, so let’s leave things as they are. It is a wise decision, and we agree she was right. So that is the true story of “Maiden’s Grave”.
Signed: Howard Bartlett
We do not agree that Mrs. Sargent was right. Nor do we agree with Howard Bartlett’s statement, “this is the true story.”
The Grave in the Meadow
To continue with the legend, we need to consider a “Maiden’s Grave” located in the Tragedy Spring meadow.
Many people believe is the “real” Maiden’s Grave.
There is some doubt that it is a grave at all. By tradition, most religions bury their dead on an east-west orientation. This grave is more on a north-south orientation.
About 15 years ago a friend of ours brought his trained historic human remains detection dog, aka, cadaver dog. Our goal was to examine several graves along the Carson River Route of the California Emigrant Trail.
The Carson River Route was opened in 1848 from west to east by a group of discharged members of the Mormon Battalion who came to California with the US Army to fight the Mexicans. After about a year in California, a few members of this Mormon group were looking for a route over the Sierra. With their 17 wagons, they followed ancient Indian trails that led them over the mountains, eventually through Carson Pass, following the Carson River on east. Their efforts created what I call “The Gold Rush Trail” because more ‘49ers traveled west using this trail than any other trail.
It is along this route where we suspected several pioneer graves might be located. All the sites tested by the dog confirmed them to be graves. However, when the dog was allowed to wonder in the Tragedy Spring meadow and came in the vicinity of the grave pictured above, the dog did not react at all. So now we are wondering where the maiden’s grave might be located. The only understanding we have is there might be a grave in the meadow because of the stories related above.
What we failed to do was to have the dog examine the entire meadow. A rock mound to the right of the concrete curbing also received no reaction from the dog.
Now, just because the dog did not locate this site as a grave, does not completely rule out that it is a grave. It is only that we cannot verify it one way or the other. The wet conditions in the meadow might have interfered with the dog’s sense of smell.
At this time, we do not know who put the concrete curbing or the four green poles at the corners. Should any of our readers have this information please contact us at the Ledger Dispatch.
Now, let us look at the two markers at the Tragedy Spring meadow grave site.
In 1986, our friend Carol Winters went to this gravesite as she often did. While spending some time there, she felt some strong spiritual connection. She then had this headstone made from a stone from Rocklin and had placed on the grave. Carol is convinced that this is the grave of the maiden.
On October 4, 2004, the Amador County Sesquicentennial Committee commissioned and dedicated two interpretive markers to clarify and correct the long misnamed “Maiden’s Grave.”
One of the interpretive makers was located at the grave next to the highway listed as California Landmark #28 and the other two miles to the east in the Tragedy Spring meadow.
Let us look at the interpretive marker in the meadow.
This marker describes the story about the elderly woman that we have already covered in detail. It was the goal of the committee to correct the history but to not remove the incorrect markers. It was decided rather to have them as part of the history, the myth, and the legend.
However, that is not the end of my ongoing search for the “ Maiden’s Grave” in the Tragedy Spring meadow.
The Myth Continues
In 2004, I was having a conversation with my dear friend Norma Ricketts, author of numerous books and articles; among the subjects are the Mormon Battalion and Tragedy Spring.
Norma related a story of a psychic named Betty Laarveld who claimed she could locate historic graves and tell who was buried in them.
Betty had heard about the grave at Tragedy Spring where three Mormon men were killed by Indians in 1848 and she wanted to visit the grave. On August 12, 1983, Norma took Betty and her three children to that grave near spring.
Upon arriving at the grave, Betty sat and meditated with her hands on the grave. When she was finished, Betty related a long story about how and who killed the three men buried there. Her story does not come close to matching the story that we find in the historic record.
(Read the story of Tragedy Spring in my three-part article in the April 2021 editions of the Ledger Dispatch.)
I tell you this because as the group was leaving Tragedy Spring, Betty spotted the grave in the meadow, and she wanted to visit this grave.
Betty sat down with her hands on the grave and asked Norma to write down her words.
Died July 30, 1850
Daughter of William and Mary Mertens of Ohio
Parents buried in San Joaquin settlement
Not knowing what to do with this information, Norma kept those notes for all those years before passing them on to me after learning about our project to interpret the two graves.
So now I am sharing them with all of you, in the hopes you why I support the use of documents and facts, not the “Myths.” However, my friend Doug Ketron always says; “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.”
I love the Myths and Legends because there are fun and add color to the story as long as they don’t displace the facts.