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Sailor buried with honors in Mendocino, 150 years late

At the Evergreen Cemetery in Mendocino on Tuesday , California Parks State Archaeology Specialist Emily Carleton, right, describes the bones of a man found in a Mendocino bluff who died sometime in the 1860's. The unidentified remains were discovered nearly 30 years ago and reburied Tuesday.

KENT PORTER / The Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 6:15 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 at 6:15 p.m.

MENDOCINO — A diverse crowd gathered Tuesday at a sun-drenched Mendocino cemetery to pay respects to an anonymous young man who never received a proper burial when he died, likely from drowning, more than a century and a half ago.

The man likely was a sailor who had not achieved a high station in mid 19th-century society, judging by his crude burial in a redwood coffin that was exposed in 1986 on Mendocino's ocean bluffs.

It was a different scene Tuesday, when the man was given a moving send-off with speeches, poems and the sound of bagpipes. About 40 people, including California State Parks officials, attended the event.

The burial plot where the skeletal remains were lowered in a small plywood coffin has a sweeping view of the coastal town and the bay where it's thought the man perished.

Mourners took turns shoveling dirt onto the coffin as “High Winds and High Waves,” a song written by a Vancouver composer, sounded on the bagpipes.

Several participants said the man represented those who helped build Mendocino, first as a logging town, but never received acknowledgement for it.

“We know a lot about the movers and shakers in town, but not much about people like this guy,” said Martin Simpson, a volunteer at the Kelley House Museum in Mendocino.

The ceremony also fulfilled an emotional need for several participants.

Breck Parkman, the state's senior archaeologist and officiate for Tuesday's ceremony, said people hope to be remembered when they die.

He told mourners that “by being here today, taking time out of your busy day, you become his family.”

The event at Evergreen Cemetery capped an extraordinary effort to do right by a man whose history is known only by the bones left behind.

A hiker discovered the burial site on April 21, 1986 on the western outskirts of Mendocino. The bones were intact, save for the man's skull, hands and feet. The site also contained six brass buttons or snaps for trousers or bib overalls, and porcelain buttons for a collared shirt.

Parkman sent the bones to Sacramento for further review. But in a mix-up that may have been related to the state's efforts to identify the remains of Native Americans, Mendocino's mystery man languished in a Sacramento facility until a few years ago when Parkman inquired about them.

Emily Carleton, an archaeology specialist with state parks who examined the bones, was present for Tuesday's ceremony.

She estimated that the man was in his 20s and stood about 6 feet tall, which was five inches taller than the average for men at that time. She also theorized he was a sailor or logger, based on his skeleton showing he was strong in parts of the body used for pulling or hoisting sails.

Carleton's analysis showed the man was of Northern European ancestry.

“Being able to read the bones allows us to give them an identity, and we can have an affinity and connection to the past,” she said.

Carleton theorized the man drowned because of his missing hands and feet, which is typical in such circumstances. Darker sand, like that he may have collected as his body lolled about in the surf, also was found where his trouser pockets would have been.

He may have been among seven crew members aboard the J.S. Cabot who drowned on Nov. 15, 1860 after the vessel struck a rock while trying to get into Mendocino Bay. Or he could have been of the five men who rowed out to assist with the rescue and drowned when their boat capsized.

Carleton was joined at the ceremony Tuesday by several family members, including her father, Chris, who constructed the coffin for the unknown man.

Sand and pieces of redwood that had been saved from the original burial site were poured into the dug-out hole prior to the coffin being lowered.

Everything, aside from the $300 price tag for the bagpipe players and the staff time related to the study and transport of the man's remains, was donated. That includes the plot at the cemetery, which normally goes for $1,400.

Albion stonemason and sculptor Robert Milhollin fashioned the headstone with a wave and a star in a nod to a sailors' traditional navigational aids.

The headstone reads: “Unknown. A Casualty of the Sea, c. 1860.”

Parkman read from two poems Tuesday, including one by John Masefield:

“I must go down to the sea again,

To the lonely sea and the sky;

And all I ask is a tall ship

And a star to steer her by.”

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