“Cowiche Valley From Top Of Cowiche Mountain Looking North”

Cowichee-Natchez Cemetery

When the Pioneers and the early Settlers came along Cowiche Creek beginning in 1867 up until March 1881 there was no community burial site for the graves of the immigrant dead. Yakama Indian burial grounds existed on the north side of Cowiche Mountain along what is now Pioneer Way and north of Cowiche Mill Road on the hill north of the old Adrian Wagner homestead down along the South Fork of Cowiche Creek at the west end of Cowiche Valley.

Early immigrants buried their dead in family burial plots set aside for that purpose on each of their farms and homesteads. The whereabouts of these family burial sites in Cowiche are lost to the ages in the fields, orchards and brush of the area. A number of individual grave sites however have been unearthed along the ancient Indian trail that passes over Naches Heights. It is likely that such graves are those of individual cowboys, Indians and miners

as they died along the old Eel trail. On occasion a farmer may unearth a skeleton, but there is seldom identification of the remains. A typical Pioneer/Settler family burial plot would have appeared as the one in the photo above of the old Thorp-Splawn Pioneer Family Cemetery visible today when driving west bound on Interstate Highway I-90 near the small town of Thorp in Eastern Washington.

There may well have been over fifty or more who died in the community of Cowiche from 1867 to 1880. During this time period some who died may have been interred in the old Pioneer Cemetery along Ahtanum Creek in Yakima City (Union Gap) shown in the photo below. However many of those graves are now lost to changing stream flow, floods and grave erosion over the years which has occurred just beyond the current tree line shown in the photo. It is reasonable to believe that the majority of the early dead of Cowiche were buried in local family grave sites similar to that shown above in the photo rather than in the old Pioneer Cemetery in Yakima City.

Ironically it was a Splawn family member who was responsible for the Cowichee-Natchez Cemetery that we find in Cowiche today. The Splawn boys came with Major F. M. Thorp’s family when in 1861 the Thorp family was the first Settlers in the Yakima Valley. The Thorp family first homesteaded east of the Yakima River across from where the Ahtanum empties into the river. It became too crowded for the Major by 1869 across the river from Yakima City so he moved his family on to the location of the small village of Thorp that bears his family name.

Charles Splawn married Major Thorp’s daughter, thus the name on the grave yard marker in the photo above. Charles Splawn’s younger bother, Andrew J. Splawn, settled in Cowiche Valley and the family owned property there until 1950. A. J. Splawn became one of the most prominent ranchers and cattlemen of the 1870s and 1880s and the first mayor of North Yakima in 1911.

A. J. Splawn who owned hundreds of acres in the Cowiche area gave the land where the Cowichee-Natchez Cemetery is today to the community as a communal place to bury its dead. The date was March 1881 and the location was a five acre plot (sense reduced to approximately two acres) on the bluff overlooking Pioneer Way N. just as that road turns west after crossing the South Fork of Cowiche Creek at Mahoney Road. The cemetery is believed to be the second oldest registered cemetery in Yakima County having its first grave dug in March 1881 it would still be eight more years before it became a registered cemetery in 1889. Andrew J. Splawn died in Yakima in March 1917 and is buried near the west entrance to Tahoma Cemetery. The family burial area is marked by a large Egyptian style obelisk easily visible once a person enters the Tahoma Cemetery in Yakima.

The first to be buried in the local Cowiche-Natchez Cemetery was a young man in his early twenties. The Kelley family of five came from the area known today as Tigard, Oregon sometime in the 1870s. They settled on a ranch in what today would be considered Lower Naches not far from Gleed, Washington. There were two sons and a daughter. Within a short period the eldest son lost his life to drowning trying to cross the swollen Naches River with a team and wagon rather than hiring J. B. Nelson’s rope ferry near Painted Rocks. Not long there after the father succumbed to pneumonia and died. Philander Kelley the remaining son became the man of the house living with his sister and mother on the ranch his father had started.

By 1880 families were moving north and west along the North Fork of the Cowiche and Philander wanting a place of his own and knowing of a spring that flowed year round rushed to file for a homestead patent on a piece of property at the location of that spring. Today most residence remember the site as that of the Highland Saddle Club. The spring at the site was used by many in the hot summer months to water stock and for many years was known as Kelley’s Spring. Ultimately the site became the site of the first school in the Tieton area in 1882 called North Fork School. The name of the spring later became known as Donnelly Spring when that family acquired the same homestead property.

On a cold blustery January Morning in 1881 Philander was seen by Anson White coming up out of Cowiche Valley on horseback headed north along what today is Old Cowiche Road. White tells the story of asking Kelley where he was headed on such miserable day. Philander responded by telling White that earlier a company of beef packers from Seattle had packed out a quantity of beef up along the North Fork in the area we think of today as French Canyon and had abandoned a small herd of horse when they left. Kelley explained to White that it was his plan to fine the horses and claim them for himself.

White tells the story that the weather couldn’t have been more miserable that day with heavy dark clouds even at mid day up along the North Forth, bone biting cold and a bit of a snow-sleet in the air. He said he pointed out to Kelley that he was taking a risk; everybody knew the winter in those hills already had been a bad one and it wasn’t half over. White said he told Kelley, “You could get up in those hills and it starts snowing and you won’t be able to find your way out.” Kelley was determined stating he knew right where the horse were and he would be in and out of there before any heavy snow could settle in. With that Anson White said Kelley turned and head toward the North Fork. He passed the old mountain-man turn farmer, Joe Robbins’, place up on the North Fork near where Forney Road passes over the North Fork, but no one else saw him that day.

Anson White said that Kelley had no more than gotten out of sight and it commenced to snow and snow hard. It snowed all that afternoon and night and off and on for two more days. White was sure Kelley had not gotten out and organized a search party which included White and Kelley’s friend Andrew J. Splawn. They road as far as they could up on Loudon Hill near French Canyon, but the snow became to deep for the horses and they turned back in hopes that Kelley had dug in somewhere waiting for better conditions.

The winter of 1880/1881 turned out to be one of the worst on record in the area. As told elsewhere on this website over 100,000 head of free range cattle were lost that winter all directly or indirectly do to the weather. It was March before enough snow had melt to warrant another search Kelley. This time the search party road back to the spot they had turned back from earlier in January. There some one hundred yards farther north and west they found Kelley sitting at the base of the southeast side of a tree. The area showed evidence that he had attempt to get a fire going, but he had been unsuccessful and had frozen to death in his sitting position.

The search party brought Kelley’s body out to a local farm site and had a cut lumber coffin constructed line with black calico cloth tacked with large brass tacks. It was then that A. J. Splawn made the decision to give the land for his friend’s burial high on the bluff overlooking the stream he had worked along all of his short life and where he had hoped to make a life for himself. Philander Kelley’s grave became the first one in the old cemetery.

Mrs. Kelley and Philander’s sister had had enough death of family members. It is said they caught the stage at Cowiche Junction Station near the mouth of Cowiche Creek and returned shortly after the burial to Oregon. There is no record of them ever having come back to visit the area.

Years later a joke would pass through the community of that first celebrity death and burial. It was said that when Kelley was placed in his coffin he was just frozen and not really dead. The wagon roads were seemingly continuous mud ruts formed by wagon wheels passing through the mud during the day and then freezing hard during the cold spring nights. The story was that when Kelley was placed in his coffin for the trip to the cemetery that his body began to thaw and that the bouncing around over the rough roads inside that coffin was what had actually killed Philander!

The cemetery site has undoubtedly changed over the years, but we have a general idea what it must have looked like from an interview with Naomi (Lewis) Wagner who grew up within yard of the old cemetery. She first remembered that in those days the cemetery was fenced not with the barbed wire as it is today but with a weathered split rails fence. Along most of the fence wild pink country roses grew interlaced in the rails.

Naomi most remembered the sound of the school bell from her youth. The third school constructed in the community was in 1895 about a mile or so west of the cemetery at the location of the present day Grange Hall. That school which was used both as a school and as a church had a bell that rang out at church services and at the frequent funerals. She related it as a sound that could be heard for miles up and down both the South Fork and North Fork valleys and she remembered the sound as one of the “most pleasant she had ever heard.” You could tell it was so by the sparkle in her eyes and the smile that came to her face.

Many have been born in the area and lived there all of there lives but have never visited the cemetery, some don’t even know its location. If you have never been there the grounds are as they were the first time John Goodwin climbed to the top of that bluff in 1867. The surface is its natural uneven rolling condition. Most of the sage has been removed in favor of wild bunch grass and most of the rocks have been collected and taken away. It is not the place of green grass and flowers generally thought of as a cemetery site. The site represents the ruggedness and strength of those at rest there.

The current gate area of the cemetery has the sign shown in the photo above over the entrance. Note the spelling of the word Cowiche on the sign while all the legal documents for the property have the word spelled Cowichee. Also note the year founded as 18.89. The year 1889 is actually the year registered the year founded is 1881.

A walk through the old cemetery reveals new and untold stories at every grave marker. Elsewhere on this website such stories are told and we invite visitors and family members to tell their stories about those at rest in the old cemetery. Research of the lives of the people known to be buried at this location would make for challenging student essays and school credit work.

From this internal cemetery grounds photo below one can see the cemetery remains an active place for those who remember friends and family throughout the year. Beyond those whose graves are identified are numerous grave yet to be identify many of which will pass through the ages with the un-named never becoming known to us. For example, in the far northwest corner of the cemetery are said to be scores of unmarked “shoebox graves.”





Many babies and very young children perished under normal conditions a century ago and still more deaths would occur as epidemics swept the community. Shoes were sold and shipped in small wooden boxes and families often used the shoe boxes as miniature coffins for burial of the smaller dead.

Many individuals have taken interest in the cemetery over the years and have attempted to record as many of the graves as possible. Mrs. LeRoy Stewart and F. L. Crosswhite have done some of the more extensive work recording dates and names where they can be read on grave markers and then where possible to record the cause of death. As has been said many graves cannot be identified and others have been un-earthed and moved to other local cemeteries over the years. The website COWICHE CALLS has a detail listing in Microsoft Excel format should reader wish to review some of the names and other information about the graves in the cemetery.

When Andrew J. Splawn gave the land for the cemetery to the community there was no community structure per se. The nearest thing approaching community structure was the Cowichee School Board formed in 1872 to run the first school that opened in the fall of 1873. The original school board included A. J. Tigard, J. W. Stevenson and Peter Leonard with S. L. Masters elected as the bonded school clerk. Masters would start the first store and post office in the community in 1884 three years after Splawn donated the land for the cemetery.

It is believed that funeral services for Philander Kelley were conducted at the one room Cowichee School that had been erected in early 1873 at the current site of the old Cowiche Grange. Church services were also conducted in the school when not performed out of doors at various locations along the South Fork. It is known that it was A. J. Tigard that was the presiding lay-pastor at Kelley’s funeral.

For years the legal status of the cemetery appears to have been loosely controlled. In an era of so few residents who all knew each other very well, often the only needed contract was that of a person’s word. With the on coming rush of people arriving to take advantage of irrigation in 1910 and 1911 a more formal arrangement was thought necessary for the cemetery property. On September 6th 1909 the “COWICHE & NATCHEZ CEMETERY ASSOCIATION” was formed. Those signing the legal paperwork for the Association were:

G. W. Rockett
David Weddle
G. W. Weddle
G. M. McLean
Jay Elliott
T. M. McLean
John Howard
Henry J. Dankers
A Rightmire
Ed Smith

In accordance with the Associations By-Laws and related legal paperwork “…all persons living within the present limits of the election precinct commonly called the Cowichee and Natchez Valleys shall have the privilege of voting on all questions relating to the cemetery and the management of the same.” The current registered Board Members and officers of the foundation are Byron F. Koempel, President and Scott J. McLean, Vice President.

When we walk through the old cemetery especially in winter as the photo above shows we think of some of the dead and try to recall what it must have been like in the cold of winter when the ground was too hard to dig a grave. There are many stories of the dead in winter having to be buried frequently out doors in snow and ice until spring thaw, hung in the rafters of barns, or placed in the farmer’s ice house awaiting a spring funeral.

The Association appears to have managed the cemetery property as it were for the community. No doubt those sitting one the Association Board changed from time to time. Then on the first of November 1949 we find a “Quit Claim Deed” Number 1310472 was issued. The signatories to the Deed were:

Mark White
Dorothy K. White
Adolph Strand
Margaret M. Strand
Margaret C. Splawn
Andrew J. Splawn
Homer B. Splawn
Lallooh Splawn Carpenter

Clearly members of the Splawn family had some ownership rights to the land the cemetery was on and perhaps the others had some vested right as well. Whatever those rights were they were transferred by virtue of the signing of the Quit Claim Deed to the “COWICHEE & NATCHEZ CEMETERY ASSOCIATION” The Association acts today as a non-profit foundation for administration of the cemetery property. The foundation was temporarily dissolved under state law on May 10, 1988 for failure to pay necessary annual fees, but was reinstated September 12, 1988 following payment of delinquent fees.

Readers of this story are invited to make recommended contribution to content and corrections. All are invited to read related stories on the website of the individuals buried in the cemetery. They were a hearty group those early residents of the community who lead the way for many of us who followed. Their final resting place is worthy of our respect.

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