SUMMARY HISTORY OF THE CEMETERY
The original five-acres of the historic community cemetery founded as Odd Fellows Rural Cemetery in 1854 was acquired by Chemeketa Lodge No. 1 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) from the Reverend David Leslie, former Methodist missionary whose land claim extended south along the Territorial Road to encompass the area surrounding the location that is now the intersection of South Commercial and Hoyt streets.
The Methodist Mission in Oregon was founded by the Reverend Jason Lee in 1834 on the bank of the Willamette River ten miles north of present-day Salem. It was the first mission to Native Americans to be established in the Pacific Northwest. After the mission headquarters was movedto Chemeketa (Salem) in 1841, the mission was reorganized and subsequently disbanded. Rev. Leslie claimed land at the south edge of the Salem town site developed by former missionaries and settled there with his second wife, the former missionary Adelia Judson Olley. The Leslies and their two young daughters are buried in the original Odd Fellows plat on the claim, and Rev. Leslie's first wife, the former Mary A. Kinney, who had died at the mission, was re-interred in the Leslie family plot. The year of Mary's death (1841), thought to be the earliest date of death seen in grave-marker epitaphs in the cemetery, led to a briefly-held misconception, clearly incorrect, that the cemetery was founded as early as 1841.
Salem's Odd Fellows Rural Cemetery is among the oldest fraternal-society-sponsored burial grounds in Oregon. Such cemeteries usually were organized in fulfillment of the order's charter obligation to provide for last needs of the members. The initial plat of five acres on the east slope of a ridge one and a half miles south of the town center was enlarged by subsequent acquisitions of 1861 and 1890 that brought the burial ground to its full extent of 17.05 acres. The elevated site overlooks the city to the northeast in which the Capitol dome and Methodist Church spire are prominent features. The picturesque qualities that are hallmarks of the Rural Cemetery ideal fashionable in the eastern United States in the nineteenth century include this scenic view with its distant backdrop of the Cascade Range and the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Hood and Mt. Jefferson. The regularity of the narrow, elongated gridiron of burial plots was relieved by curvilinear carriage turn-arounds and side lanes that gave access to sections lying on either side of the central driveway. A scattered tree cover of native oaks, madrones, and conifers and thousands of monuments both stately and humble make up a funerary landscape that exemplifies the historic Rural Cemetery movement in Oregon's mid-Willamette Valley.
In the post-World War II period, when the Odd Fellows ceased selling burial lots and gave up their oversight long-delegated to a sexton, the cemetery fell into disrepair except where descendants of the pioneers were able to keep up the care of their family plots and graves. In 1949, the Salem Pioneer Cemetery Association was formed to seek public support for the cemetery's maintenance. The association appealed to the State Legislature to authorize joint stewardship responsibility to Marion County and the City of Salem. When, in 1953, the authority was assigned, though absent any allocation of funds, the association changed the place name to Salem Pioneer Cemetery and dissolved. Inevitably, occasional episodes of vandalism persisted and vigorous clean-up operations alternated with periods of inaction. Eventually, in 1985, when the Friends of Pioneer Cemetery was organized to promote and support regular public maintenance and restoration efforts, the City of Salem, through its Parks agency, agreed to become the cemetery's legal titleholder and permanent steward. In February, 1986, the deed was officially transferred to the City by Chemeketa Lodge No. 1, I.O.O.F., the mother lodge of Odd Fellowship in Oregon and founder of the cemetery. The place known as Salem Pioneer Cemetery today remains an active burial ground wherein the right to inter passes exclusively to descendants of the early plot or grave lot deed-holders.
The cemetery is a City of Salem Historic Landmark and a property listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its statewide significance as the final resting place of a significant number of founders and officers of Oregon government before and after statehood was achieved in 1859. The Salem town site that became the seat of County, Territorial and State government was less than ten years old when burials began in the Odd Fellows cemetery. Notables and citizens of every kind are represented in the permanent interments, including Chinese and Japanese-Americans, emancipated African-American slaves, churchmen, soldiers, laborers, craftsmen, tradesmen, explorers, educators, nurses, woman suffrage leaders, and newspapermen, to name a few. The cemetery is also the resting place of the indigent and virtually anonymous whose burials in County-owned lots, though recorded, often went unmarked. The cemetery contains in its grave-markers a wide representation of grave-stone and metal craft from the last half of the nineteenth century onward as well as a reflection of historical patterns of war, childbirth mortality, epidemic disease, and economic depression. Through its biographical database of interments, accessible from the home page “ Find a Record” link, this Web site offers complementary insight into the community's social history from the written record.
For a detailed description and historical overview of the cemetery, please For information on care of the cemetery's iron plot enclosures, please view Robert Dortignacq's Salem Pioneer Cemetery Metal Craft Repair, for the City of Salem, April 20, 2018