WARREN CHINESE CEMETERY
Contributed By: Larry Kingsbury
Click HERE to view the satellite map to this cemetery.
This cemetery is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The following is a short history written for the Payette Natl. Forest, Heritage Program, July 2002. The burial listings appear at the bottom.
On a hillside just northwest of Warren lies a cemetery resting above the mining scars of the gold rush era of central Idaho. The Chinese immigrants arrived by ship on the West Coast of the U.S. after the onset of the California Gold Rush of 1848. They came seeking fortunes in the gold fields, railroad camps, fish canneries, and later, the great ranches of the southwest. These Chinese immigrants were primarily from six districts of the Guangdong (previously Kwangtung) Province. They soon journeyed beyond California, arriving in Idaho during the 1860's. So too, came the "Six Companies", clan societies to provide housing, protection, and to mediate disputes among those from one district or another. The company would also ship the bodies of workers back to China if they should die while in America.
The Warren miners voted to open the district to the Chinese, unlike Dixie, where they were not allowed to mine. Although they were not permitted to purchase land, except for lots in town, they were permitted to buy claims or lease the right to placer operations. From 1870 - 1900, at least twelve Chinese mining companies monopolized the gravel placers of Warren. They sometimes worked the ground of a single claim two or three times over.
Chinese were the dominant ethnicity, outnumbering all other groups combined. In the partially segregated community the Chinese created their own cemetery and practiced their customs surrounding the dead. The cemetery was used exclusively during the period between 1870 and 1920 for the burial of Chinese. The year 1887 is significant in that the "feeding of the dead" at Warren was widely reported. The Grangeville Free Press, September2, 1887, publishes the following article: "The Chinese in camp had a grand festival last Sunday, the occasion being the feeding of the dead. Several hogs and chickens were barbecued and taken to the burying ground and were then brought back and made a repast for the living. . . About ten o'clock at night they burned a whole lot of joss sticks and colored paper and spilled lots of indifferent whiskey on the ground as an obligation to the evil spirits. . .
The burials, on a hillside, were arranged in parallel rows oriented northeast to southwest. The majority of the graves are concentrated on both sides of the mortuary. A mortuary is utilized as part of Chinese cultural practices. In Warren it may have also been used for storage of bodies when the ground was too frozen to excavate the traditional grave. It is believed that nameplates affixed to wooded markers attached with square nails were used to identify graves. The nameplates facilitated identification so the remains could be exhumed and shipped to the Chinese homeland. A total of 29 burial slots have been documented as part of the Chinese Cemetery. Oral tradition and artifacts indicate that the site experienced cemetery related activity intermittently from 1870 to 1920, with exhumation ceremonies as late as the 1930's.
Exhumation was an important burial practice among overseas Chinese and has been documented at several Idaho cemeteries. when a Chinese man died, the body was in most cases, eventually shipped back to China. Relatives would take up the bones and boil them before they were sent off on their long journey. The Chinese believed that when the flesh decomposed the devil was driven out. It was customary for them to leave dishes of food on the graves, and also numerous small confetti-like papers with small holes in them, the idea being that through these the devil could not get to the body of the deceased, but would become confused if he attempted to find his way among all the supposed obstructions.
One Warren resident, Frank Sheiffer, reportedly witnessed an exhumation. He said he had gone up to the cemetery to watch the men dig up the bodies. They uncovered the body of a Chinese woman that had not decomposed. When they realized it was a woman they covered up the body. Women did not have the same rights as men and the grave diggers were not paid to exhume them. There are several local stories that mention that a Chinese woman, Too Hay, and perhaps one or two other individuals were never exhumed. It is believed that these are the only remaining burials at the site.
The land the cemetery is on is owned and maintained by the Payette National Forest. The metal Dragon Memorial was erected in 1984 by a local informant Herb McDowell to commemorate the Chinese as a apart of the heritage of Warren.