Thomas Cox came to Oregon from Illinois in 1847 with his wife, Martha, and several children. Mr. Cox owned a mercantile in Illinois and he must have really had a strong case of “Go West” fever because when he could not find a buyer for his store he packed a dozen or so ox-drawn wagons with all of his unsold merchandise and set out on a perilous journey to a land he had never seen, but had heard stories of its fertility and promise. Upon arrival Thomas Cox opened the first mercantile in Salem. His wife, having survived the arduous journey west, died just two years later in 1849 and was the first to be buried in this hillside cemetery, part of the property they purchased around the time that he decided to sell the mercantile and try his hand at farming. Thomas was buried beside her in 1863 and as the years went by Thomas Cox’s children, various other relations and close friends were laid to rest in the clearing that overlooks a spectacular verdant valley that today grows some of the finest wine grapes in the world.
I visit this cemetery at least once a season, and it is one of the first places I drag out of town guests, promising them wine-tasting after we explore. To reach the cemetery one must walk a about a half a mile uphill on a rocky path that passes through row upon row of pinot noir and chardonnay grape vines. Before grapes were planted here, the undulating terrain was covered in orchards of peaches, pears and plums.
Recently I made the trek alone up the hill on a day so cold and wet even the vineyard dog that usually accompanies visitors on the trek opted to stay on the covered front deck of the winery tasting room. That day, despite the icy and loquacious March wind, I felt like paying Thomas Cox and his family a visit.
I love this cemetery because it is so unpretentious and humble. The grass is usually shin-high and swaying no matter what the season, and in the summer it releases prickly seeds that hitch a ride home with you on your socks and tiny grasshoppers flutter up as you pass through. Most of the headstones are very old, moss-worn and difficult to read. Some lay in crumbles. The headstones cluster in small groups with swaths of blank loamy earth in between which leads me to believe that some headstones, perhaps many made of wood, have long since dissolved away leaving some of the dead forever unsignified.
I have great respect for all of the people buried up on this hill. I am in awe of their courage and work ethic. I can only begin to imagine the toil they endured to make the six-month trip west and begin a new life for themselves and their progeny. There is a family plot in this cemetery with a marker that bears the name of four children, all of whom died before the age of six. Four children from a single set of parents, lost. Their grief must have been unbearable.
Someone must tell the stories of those buried here.
Photo of Thomas Cox courtesy of the Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon. The date of the photo is unknown.
Whenever possible I will cite the resources of my information. My knowledge of the people and places mentioned in this post is from accumulated reading and studying of my community's history and conversations with local historians.