Thursday, July 23, 2015

Petra Johnston's Traveling Headstone

Petra de Jara Johnston
Several months ago, I  traveled to Half Moon Bay, California, to visit the famous Moss Beach Distillery. On my way there, I noticed two cemeteries that were right along the main road, side by side. Both looked forgotten and neglected, as if life and time had continued to move forward around it. That little speck of land confined within the fencelines remained a part of the past, forgotten and neglected. The first cemetery I passed was the Odd Fellows Cemetery, while the second was named Pilarcitos Cemetery. After finding a parking spot nearby, I walked up the sidewalk to the entrance of the abandoned cemetery and curiously opened the gate to enter this "forgotten land."

Wandering around the cemetery, among the dry overgrowth of weeds, it appeared the ground was cracking and splitting all around the area. Cement plots were broken in half, probably due to uneven earth underneath, while monuments had either fallen or been broken on purpose by vandals.  Trash along the backside of the fenceline along with a tent farther back showed signs of homeless making camp in this forgotten place. I took several photos of the headstones and graves at both cemeteries and eventually went on my way to Moss Beach for the evening.

After returning home from my trip, I continued to think about that cemetery and all the forgotten people buried there. I started to do some research on the interments at the Pilarcitos Cemetery when I came across this haunting photograph of a woman, Petra de Jara Johnston.  The story surrounding Petra seemed to be something out of a mystery novel, intriguing me even more. Years ago, her headstone was vandalized or broken in half, and the top portion literally disappeared. For years it seemed that no one knew where or why it was taken, until recently.


Petra de Jara was born on October 23, 1833, in Mexico, but at some point moved to the Bay Area of Northern California. By the time Petra was 19 years old she became the young bride of successful San Francisco saloon proprietor, James Johnston on April 10, 1852.

A native of Melrose, Scotland, Johnston was born on October 7, 1813, and immigrated with his family to the United States in 1818. After first moving to Pittsburgh, PA, the family later settled in Gallopolis, Ohio, where James would be raised.  By the time the Mexican-American war had begun, James enlisted. He later traveled to California to start a new life in San Francisco, being one of the millions of "49'ers."

It is stated that James went into the mining industry at first, and after striking it rich he found himself co-owner of the El Dorado Saloon in San Francisco, quickly making a name for himself. He eventually started investing in various properties including his purchase of 1,162 acres of the Miramontes Rancho de San Benito land grant that he purchased from the heirs of Juan Jose Candelario Miramontes. He later convinced his brothers to join him in the area, thus the Johnston family name soon became familiar in the Half Moon Bay areas history.

It was on that land that James had the beautiful saltbox styled house constructed that would soon become the family home, now known as The James Johnston House or The White House of Half Moon Bay. Construction on the house began around 1853 but was not completed until 1855, when the family finally moved in. The young family of four consisted of James, Petra, James Jr. (1852), and Alice (1854). While living in the home Petra gave birth to three more children, John (1856), Francis (1859) and Adelaida (1861).

Sadly, on November 16, 1858, their eldest daughter Alice passed away at the age of four years. It is unclear what ailed the young girl, but she was laid to rest at the Pilarcitos Cemetery. I can imagine that Petra never fully recovered from the loss of her child. In 1861, while giving birth to her 5th and final child, Petra suffered complications. The baby, Adelaida, passed away either during birth or a short time after. Petra followed soonafter as well, and both were buried next to Alice at the Pilarcitos Cemetery.
Photo Credit: Maude

It seems that the loss of his wife was too hard to bear, so James left the children in the care of Petra's mother, Ursula. James then moved back to San Francisco for the remainder of his life, and his children were raised by their grandmother at the home in Half Moon Bay. The 1860 Census had shown James to be one of the wealthiest in the County, having a value of over $100,000 in real estate and personal property at the time.

Not even twenty years later, James had managed to lose his fortune completely, while his brothers seemed to find success and go on to prosper within the area. Sad and indigent, he chose to take his life in a hotel room on October 2, 1879. He was buried in his family plot at the Odd Fellows Cemetery which is literally separated by a fence, adjacent to the Pilarcitos Cemetery.

Part of the Mystery Solved

Last October, a contributor who goes by the name "RCH" on Findagrave, posted a remarkable photo on Petra's memorial. It was the missing piece of Petra's headstone! It ended up at the Green Valley Cemetery in Sonoma County, a whole 100 miles away!  How he found it and the answers as to who put it there is still unknown. I had reached out to "RCH" but received no reply. I spoke briefly through email correspondence to "Maude" the person who originally posted Petra's memorial but was unable to reach her to do an interview on this matter.

I really wanted to see that Petra's headstone be brought back to where it belongs, at Petra's grave site. I made a few emails to the Sonoma County Historical Society, where I was finally able to contact Mr. Jeremy Nichols. Thankfully he was able to get in touch with the cemetery and make plans to return the headstone back to Half Moon Bay.

Photo Credit: RCH
Recent Plans!

After speaking to Dave Cresson with the Half Moon Bay History Association, who was happy to hear from me, it seems apparent that the effort to bring back Petra's headstone may be able to happen after all. Hopefully with the combined effort of Mr. Cresson and Mr. Nichols, along with the Half Moon Bay Review, and quite possibly the Johnston House Foundation, they will be able to save, restore and preserve this piece of local history once more. I have had a blast researching the life of this woman, and trying so very hard to get the right people in touch with one another to make sure that Petra can have her headstone back in one piece again. It would be such a lovely thing if this also could bring the community together and possibly inspire others to make an effort to restore the Pilarcitos Cemetery alltogether. It is such a beautiful, small cemetery and it is such a shame to see it in the condition it's in today.

I will keep everyone posted on any updates and if and when Petra's headstone makes it way back home!

UPDATE:  The Half Moon Bay Review did an amazing piece "THE MYSTERY OF PETRA'S GRAVESTONE" on this story in their paper on August 5, 2015. (CLICK HERE TO GO THAT ARTICLE)

Thank you to Dave Cressom (Half Moon Bay History Association), Jeremy Nichols (Sonoma County Historical Society) Clay Lambert (Half Moon Bay Review), John Ryan at the James Johnston House (Johnston House Foundation), "Maude" (Dayna) and "RCH" on Findagrave.

Photos: from Findagrave (Maude & RCH)

(Copyright 2015- J'aime Rubio)

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