History uncovered: Homes sit on 1800s Chinese cemetery

History uncovered: Homes sit on 1800s Chinese cemetery »Play Video

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - Some Bakersfield neighbors have had a unique glimpse into local history over the years, but it's rattled them up a bit.

Some current neighbor still have questions about the area near Terrace Way, which was a historic cemetery for Chinese pioneers to Kern County.

A viewer asked Eyewitness News about human bones being found over the years near some of the homes that got built on that location starting in the 1950s and '60s.

"We've had remains found on the property right across the street," Dane Nelson told Eyewitness News. He lives on Brookhaven Drive and moved in about 19 years ago.

He remembers it was about the next year that a neighbor across the street was planting flowers in front of her house.

"She was just putting in rose bushes and dug down probably about a foot or foot and a half," Nelson said. "She found a skull and several bones. A thigh bone and a couple arm bones."

Nelson said at that point he pulled out his escrow papers.

"I found out that this was actually, my driveway was a portion of the entrance to the cemetery," he said.

The neighbors realized their homes were built on a very old cemetery used mostly by Chinese workers who came to Kern County in the 1800s.

"They came here by themselves, they didn't really have family to come along with them," Dr. Patrick Leung told Eyewitness News.

He's a spokesman with the local Chinese Confucius church and Chinese Benevolent Association. The group now maintains a new cemetery, where many of the remains have been moved.

Leung said when the original site off Terrace Way caught the eye of developers, the Chinese community then traded their cemetery site for a new location. He said that was in the early '50s.

"They raised money, they exchanged land," Leung explained. "And they started to move the people, relocate the old cemetery to that location."

The new cemetery is an area near Historic Union Cemetery. The small plot has a small structure, and plaque with names engraved on it.

But, it turned out some bones had been missed. Nelson remembers two other times remains were found on his cul-de-sac.

In the early '90s a neighbor was digging for a new septic tank.

"They had run across two skulls, and at that point, they stopped digging and called the sheriff's department," Nelson recalled. He said the street was taped off while officers investigated.

"They didn't know whether somebody had been murdered or whatever," he said. "Until they realized what they had."

What they had were more remains from the historic cemetery.

And the third time bones were found on his street, Nelson said a neighbor was replacing a palm tree.

"They were taking out the stump and everything, and they found another skeleton and skull," Nelson said. "At that point, that's when they knew that it was part of the Chinese cemetery, and they actually had an archeology group from CSUB come out." 

He believes the group from California State University, Bakersfield then turned the remains over to the Chinese community.

Leung remembers the last time bones were given to his group was around 1993. Those joined the other remains that were found after the homes went in, and the original group that was moved to the new cemetery when development had started.

"According to the history on the plaque that we wrote over there, we actually relocated 261 bodies over there," Leung said.

He said at that time, only 43 sets of remains could be identified by individual name. Later, descendants identified another 86 names of ancestors believed to have been buried in the original cemetery.

Leung said many of the Chinese immigrants to Kern County in the mid-1800s came to work in the rail, oil and mining industries. Community tradition calls for honoring ancestors, even for those not named, and his group continues that tradition.

"We still go to the cemetery over there and pay respects to the early pioneers two times a year," Leung said. A group from the Confucius church meets at the small plot, bringing food and flowers. They light incense and clear any weeds.

Back at the historic site, homes cover the area. But, Nelson thinks it's important to remember that it was originally a cemetery and part of local history.

He had no idea of that when he moved in, but when he found out, "I thought it was really interesting, and nice."

And, even though the cemetery was there more than 100 years ago, and bones found decades later, Leung thinks there could be even more bones under the yards and homes.

"It's very possible," he said.