QUESTION: Can you please tell me the history behind the single grave site on Highway 4 between Copperopolis and the turkey/chicken farms? I grew up with my grandparents telling me the person was scalped by Indians, but I would like to know the real story.
ANSWER: It is interesting the way history can become one big mashup. Good thing we have people like Judith Marvin around. She’s worked as a historian since 1977, was curator and director of the Calaveras County Museum and Archives and has done historic research all over the state. She’s also a partner in Foothill Resources Ltd., a historic research organization based in Mokelumne Hill.
She immediately discounted this story, saying “Oh, no. That’s Robert Beardslee’s grave. His home was right behind it.” In the mid-1800s, Beardslee owned a ranch that went for miles and miles around. Known as Telegraph City, the area was aptly named because the telegraph lines ran through there.
Hundreds of people came to the area in search of copper. Hence, Copperopolis. Beardsley’s grave is about five miles from Copperopolis. He died in 1888 at 62.
Miles and miles of stone walls were built generations ago by itinerant laborers for fencing — both to fend off fire and to hold in cattle. Many of those walls remain, easily seen on Telegraph Road, the old road to Stockton.
Marvin said Beardslee and a few others are buried there with a small tombstone marking the spot. You have to be really looking for it to see it at Highway 4 cruising speed.
So here’s where the mashup begins. Across Highway 4 there used to be a store — Shafer’s Market — run by Adam Shafer.
According to a post on Find A Grave website: "On Sunday night last near Telegraph City in this county a most outrageous murder was committed. Mr. Adam Schaffer (sic), a well known and highly respected citizen, was called out of his house about 8 o'clock in the evening. As he stepped out the door he was shot dead by a Mexican."
The post says the murderer was Jose Rameros of Chile. He died in the county jail after he was sentenced to life in prison. The same day. Frontier justice?
The post also says it was an inside job, a family member ordered the hit, and he was sent to San Quentin for five years.
So there’s the murder. The reference to Native Americans likely refers to a whole ’nother graveyard. That’s the Shoemakes. They were once believed to be melungeon — a term from the American South that referred to people of mixed ancestry — Cherokee, African and European. The Shoeakes did not scalp anyone and were not scalped. In fact they were one of Calaveras County’s pioneer families.
James Shoemake was born in South Carolina and married a Tennessee woman with whom he had eight children. He died in 1878 at the age of 38.
Marvin said recent research shows the family was not melungeon but black, making them among the first free blacks to move to Calaveras County. They were ranchers and some of the children were likely copper prospectors. The house is gone now, a victim of wildfire.
Today, the sweep of pasture land around these three burial places seems almost forlorn. On a recent day, a breeze nudged the grasses and spun a windmill. Cattle grazed.
All you could see was the yellow grass, dotted by oaks and those stone walls. History lost to the wind.