Historic, Not Haunted: National Park Service Public Archaeology Program Studies the City of Vancouver, Washington’s Old City Cemetery

Historic Not Haunted
Portland State University graduate student Shoshana Rosenberg recording grave markers from the Old City Cemetery in 2011.


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News Release Date: October 11, 2012

Contact: Douglas C. Wilson, (360) 921-5241

VANCOUVER, WA - While some people think of graveyards as spooky places, particularly at this time of year, University and National Park archaeologists want to stress the historical importance of old cemeteries. Over the past two summers, students from Portland State University and Washington State University Vancouver have recorded over 650 individual grave monuments at the Old City Cemetery in Vancouver, Washington. This represents over half of the graveyard, one of the oldest and most significant in the area. The cemetery contains some of the most historical graves in the city, including monuments to people who worked for the Hudson's Bay Company fur trade post at Fort Vancouver, soldiers of the early U.S. Military, and immigrants who traveled the Oregon Trail.

The project has been collecting information on the monuments' condition to assist in their preservation. Last year the cemetery was seriously vandalized. Photographs and descriptions of the monuments collected by the students will set a baseline to help track and preserve the cemetery. Ongoing results of the work have been provided to the City of Vancouver, the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, and the Clark County Genealogical Society.

"The National Park Service is honored to collaborate on the stewardship of this important local cemetery," said Tracy Fortmann, Superintendent of Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. "Many people do not realize that the National Park Service not only preserves and protects in perpetuity our nation's most precious cultural and natural resources in National Parks, but we also assist and support local preservation efforts."

Students are also exploring the data collected from the cemetery to explore how our society treats death and burial and how these cultural patterns have changed over time. A Portland State University class in historical archaeology led by Doug Wilson, National Park Service Archaeologist and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, conducted some preliminary analyses of the first year's data. The findings document that the headstone styles of the Old City Cemetery changed through time. "As the Victorian era gave way to the modern, the students found that the larger monuments, obelisks, tablets, and large slanted markers gave way to smaller beveled, raised, and flush markers," said Wilson. This pattern is similar to the Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, California. Researchers there suggested that the transition was associated with the public's reaction to the large-scale deaths on the battlefield during World War I. Likewise, the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 could have had a similar effect. The smaller, simpler headstones reflected the transition to a modern era.

Students will continue to explore the newly recorded data in a class in historical archaeology scheduled for this winter at Portland State University.


BACKGROUND: Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is one of the 398 national parks which make up the National Park System and it is located in both Washington and Oregon. This national park is also the heart of the Vancouver National Historic Reserve, which is located in Vancouver, Washington. The Vancouver National Historic Reserve brings together a national park, a premier archaeological site, the region's first military post, an international fur trade emporium, one of the oldest operating airfields, the first national historic site west of the Mississippi River, and a waterfront trail and environmental center on the banks of the Columbia River. The partners of the Reserve teach visitors about the fur trade, early military life, natural history, and pioneers in aviation, all within the context of Vancouver's role in regional and national development. The National Park Service's vast array of public programs -- including living history events, festivals, cultural demonstrations, exhibits, active archaeology, and other special activities -- serve communities in Washington and Oregon and create a dynamic, fun, and unique tourist destination for people of all ages.

EXPERIENCE YOUR AMERICA: The National Park Service cares for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage.

Cemetery preliminary results
Seriation diagram of the Old City Cemetery in Vancouver, Washington. The bars represent the proportion of headstones for each time period.


Last updated: February 28, 2015

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