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The Maiden’s Grave: A story of hope, loss and mistaken graves

(Last Updated On: November 20, 2020)

Located on Highway 88 a few miles west of Silver Lake and Tragedy Spring, is a grave that symbolizes “broken dreams and hope” and a story that draws thousands of visitors to this location every year.

This final resting place has become a monument known as the Maiden’s Grave, but there’s a catch, this is not the real site of the young girl who was believed to be buried there.

Instead, her real grave has been found a few miles east and the mystery of the pioneer buried there has been solved.

The Legend of the Maiden’s Grave

For many generations, the story of the Maiden’s Grave begins with a wagon train coming from Iowa to California in 1850 with the hopes and dreams of striking it rich.

By now, the whole country, and even Europe, had heard about gold being discovered in California. This finding sparked the largest immigration of people into one location in American history.

Hundreds of thousands of people “rushed” to California to find gold and build up a wealth that would last for generations to come.

At that time, people either traveled by sea from the East coast or overland by wagon train if they lived in the Midwest.

In 1848, a group of 45 Mormons blazed a trail from near Placerville all the way over Carson Pass and eventually into Utah. Their efforts became known as the Mormon Emigrant Trail or the Carson Mormon Trail.

It was this trail that the family of Rachael Melton had taken in 1850. As they crossed over the Carson Pass and down towards Silver Lake, a young Rachael fell ill.

Rachael had been described as “loved by everyone in the camp.” And, when she fell ill, the camp banded together to collectively try to save her.

Unfortunately, on October 4th, the journey into California was too much for the young girl to handle and she died. Her family and friends overcome with grief.

A very difficult decision was made to bury Rachael alongside the trail. A grieving mother searched through the wilderness to find a suitable spot for her daughter’s final resting place.

She ended up choosing a serene location in a meadow under a large fir tree and vowed to return one day to bring her daughter home.

1920s or 1930s postcard of the Maiden’s Grave

How Old was Rachael Melton?

The answer to this question might never be known. Some historical accounts say she was a young girl while others claim she was 16 years old.

In the early 1900s, newspaper articles continued to perpetuate the back and forth story of Rachael’s age. It really just depended on which version of the story the author was repeating.

If we were to go by the popular legend, then Rachael was a young girl. If we’re to go by the word “maiden” then it would lead us to believe she was 16 years old. For, the word maiden is defined as an unmarried girl or woman. That’s certainly not a term that anyone would use for a child.

However, if we are to go by early 20th century newspaper accounts, that Rachael’s mother came back around 1908-1909, then she would have been at least in her mid-70s if Rachael was a little girl in 1850.

However, if Rachael was 16 years old in 1850, her mom would’ve been at least 32-36 years old then, which would’ve made her in her mid-90s when she returned in the early 1900s. I have a hard time believing that a woman in her 90s could make the cross country trip at that age.   

A Mother Returns to Search for Her Daughter

Sacramento Bee July 17, 1915

In 1915, an article in the Sacramento Bee dated July 17th, said that six years prior an older woman went into the Silver Lake district and “told the people of the neighborhood she came looking for the grave of her daughter.

This lady described the spot where her daughter was interred including details about the pile of rocks and the giant fir tree. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful in her quest as the article described this sad tale as follows:

“She looked in vain for the grave, and was obliged to go away unconsoled. She came to have the tiny bones of her daughter removed from the mountain-side and taken to the old family home in the East. It was the dearest wish of her life, but could not come true, because she could not find the grave.”

A 1913 article in the Sacramento Bee dated February 26th said that the woman “went sorrowfully away, disappointed, leaving no word of her name or residence.”

Sadly, nobody took down the name of this lady or where she lived. If someone did have the foresight to ask her name then it has been lost in history.

A Headstone is Placed

Between 1908 and 1909, visitors and residents of Amador County decided to honor the “maiden” by placing a marble headstone at the site of the grave.

By now, the legend of the Maiden’s Grave had been passed down for generations. It had become part of the lore and romance of the region.

The headstone is dated 1908, but some sources date the headstone as being placed in 1909. It’s entirely possible that the headstone was created in 1908, but not placed until 1909.

In all likelihood, the headstone wasn’t there when Rachael’s mom came back to town. More than likely, the grave was located again and a headstone was placed after Rachael’s mother wasn’t able to find her daughter’s burial. Longtime residents also remembered that this grave used to have a wooden cross as a marker and the name “Melton” inscribed on it.

1908 Maiden’s Grave headstone

A Historical Landmark

On August 1st, 1932, the Maiden’s Grave became state historic landmark #28. This historic landmarks program became state sanctioned in 1931 and, within a year, the believed grave of Rachael Melton was officially added.

The Real Grave is Found

The story goes that in 1986 Steven Ferrari found the real grave for Rachael on his land roughly two miles northeast of where the historic Maiden’s Grave is located.

However, after digging through the archives, that’s not entirely accurate. The real grave was discovered 70 years prior, but for some reason it was ignored and/or forgotten for the next several decades.

In 1919, articles published in the Stockton Daily Evening Record and The Grizzly Bear, Volume 25, state that the real “Maiden’s Grave” was on the Ferrari’s property and not down the road where they placed a headstone.

L.H. Cook, who founded Cook’s Station around 1862-1863, which still exists to this very day, was quoted as saying “The real maiden’s grave is the one at Ferrari’s cabin.”

Stockton Daily Evening Record Aug 9, 1919

Nick Ferrari corroborated Cook’s statement by saying he talked with a Mr. Yokes who, was a pioneer from the Midwest, made that overland journey during the Gold Rush. Mr. Yokes confirmed to him that the real maiden’s grave was in the Ferrari’s meadow.

Clarence E. Jarvis, who was a past Grand President of the Native Sons of the Golden West, was touring the route, modern day Highway 88, with a group of interested parties of the Native Sons as they were deciding which locations would be marked for historical significance by the order of the Native Sons.

Jarvis was asked for his opinions on the topic of the Maiden’s Grave in the same article as Cook and Ferrari. Jarvis said that he agreed with what the other two men had to say. Furthermore, Clarence went on to say the following about Rachael’s mother:

“A few years ago, I am told, an aged woman came up over this road searching for the grave of her daughter, who had had died while she, her husband, and a party were en route to the coast. The old woman was taken to the grave marked by stone, but she said that was not her daughter’s grave. She was buried, the mother said, in a meadow farther on.”

Because of this conflict of information, the Native Sons didn’t mark the “Maiden’s Grave.” It wasn’t until the state’s new historic landmark program in 1932, as mentioned above, that this grave was marked for historic preservation and protection.

However, those 1919 sources weren’t the first to document a second grave. In 1915, the Sacramento Bee stated in an article dated July 22nd, that a second grave existed a mile away and noted that the people who erected the marble headstone marked the wrong grave.

A few days prior, the Sacramento Bee published on July 17th that the real maiden’s grave was found in 1913 by a foreman working on the state road. Apparently, this same foreman knew about the Maiden’s Grave and even saw the “aged woman” who came in search of her daughter’s grave.

Although most sources nowadays credit Steven Ferrari’s finding in 1986 as when Rachael’s real grave was found, historical articles show that was not the case. In fact, it seems as if the pioneers of the late 1800s knew where the real grave was located all along.

The real “maiden’s” grave is located on private property. Permission to go on the property will be needed before you can visit the burial site. 

The Maiden’s Grave looking North across Highway 88

Who is Buried in the First “Maiden’s Grave”

It should be clear by now that the historically marked site of the “Maiden’s Grave” is not really the grave where Rachael Melton is buried.

Instead, this grave belongs to an Allen Melton. In the 1915 Sacramento Bee article referenced above, it was noted that a grave at this location was marked by the tail-board of a “prairie schooner” which was the type of wagon that Melton’s party was traveling in. The board had his name carved into it.

However, more evidence has been uncovered since then that this grave belongs to Allen. In the Annals of Iowa, Volume 3; Volume 8, published in 1908, a man named William Edmondson wrote the following details in his journal on October 4th, 1850:

“After traveling 6 miles we came to Tragedy Springs…After traveling two miles further, we came to a trading post about noon where we camped having come 8 miles today. A young man from Henry County named Allen Melton died at this place during the night.”

Despite it being known in the early 1900s by local pioneers like L.H. Cook and the Ferrari family, the citizens who raised funds to place a headstone at the grave for Rachael, seemed to ignore the details and put it at the site of Allen Melton’s grave.

After this point, it appeared that Allen became forgotten and even had his name changed to Rachael for the sake of the local legend of the Maiden’s Grave.

Today, there’s a marker that details this overzealous mistake made in the early 1900s and properly denotes that the Maiden’s Grave is the final resting place of Allen Melton and not Rachael.

A Maiden, A Mystery, A Memory

170 years later, the historic location of the Maiden’s Grave has become more than just a burial site. It’s a beacon of hope, a heralding tale of California’s early days, and a chance for visitors to let their emotions and imaginations run free.

Another stone marker was placed at this site that has an inscription which perfectly closes this article:

“Those of you who visit this grave carry a torch of love and hope (which this young girl lost) and pass it on, to generations unborn.”

Location: 38° 37.908′ N, 120° 10.274′ W

The Sacramento Bee: July, 17th, 1915

The Sacramento Bee: July 22nd, 1915

The Stockton Daily Evening Record 1919

The Grizzly Bear, Vol. 25
Annals of Iowa, published in 1907, Page 535 (Journal of William Edmondson)





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After many years of being a full time freelance writer, and a long time resident of this state, I've decided to turn my full attention toward California by exploring all that it has to offer. My goal is to inspire you to get out there and explore this amazing state. Please follow my adventures and news content by visiting Calexplornia daily or clicking on one of my Social Media accounts below.

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