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The City Journals

Stories of the Dead

Oct 27, 2016 03:28PM ● By Cassie Goff

Historic Committee Chair Max Evans welcomes attendees to the presentation. (Cassie Goff/City Journals)

By Cassandra Goff | [email protected] 

Cottonwood Heights

Many Cottonwood Heights residents drive past the Union Pioneer Cemetery on 1533 East Creek Rd. without paying too much attention to the small piece of land. Once in a while, residents wonder who is buried there. The Cottonwood Heights Historic Committee decided to answer some of these absentminded ponderings during their presentation on Wednesday, Oct. 12.

At 5:30 p.m., attendees were seated in a semicircle around the informational plaque near the entrance of the cemetery. Current historic committee members, former historic committee members, additional historians, residents and the entire Cottonwood Heights City Council along with some of their family members were in attendance.  

The Union Pioneer Cemetery presentation was the third annual historic presentation. The first was presented by Historic Committee Vice Chair Gayle Conger “in my backyard,” she joked.

Her historic home is located on Danish Road, so the first presentation was about historic Danish Town. The Cottonwood Heights City Council enjoyed that first presentation enough to request an annual occurrence.  

Historic Committee Chairman Max Evans began the Union Pioneer Cemetery presentation by introducing the speakers for the night. All three of the speakers had stories to share about the people buried within the cemetery grounds. 

Karen Forbush told the story of Rufus Francis Forbush, who was born in 1788. He married Susannah Clark and they had 10 children together. They were baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints in 1837 and moved to Kirtland, Ohio to participate in the Church with Joseph Smith. Eventually, they followed Brigham Young to Utah in August of 1847 and settled in Little Cottonwood Creek to run a farm. In 1851, Polly died. Rufus knew the only graveyard was far away in Salt Lake so he “chose the highest spot of ground on his farm and buried her there,” Forbush said. 

“There seemed nothing to do but turn the land over to the community for a cemetery,” Rufus wrote after returning to the plot of land in the spring and finding additional graves.

Dellis Rueben Forbush, Karen’s father, was the first to build an “outdoor swimming pool in a pasture that was surrounded by horses,” Karen said. One of the attendees raised his hand excitedly, revealing that he had swam in that pool as a boy. 

The arch that identifies the entrance of the cemetery was also built by Dellis and his grandsons, Jeff and Rick Larrabee. It has been named 18 Union Pioneer Memorial 51 as a tribute to Polly Clark Forbush. 

“It has been my privilege to be here today to tell you how Rufus, Polly and my dad are connected,” Karen concluded. 

Conger told the story of a man who was buried in the cemetery. Peter Van Valkenburg was born in 1812 in New York. In 1832 he married Margaret, after which he joined the LDS Church. The couple moved to Nauvoo, Illinois where they had six children. In 1848, the family moved to the area in Utah known as Union. In 1856, Peter married took another wife. Her name was Eliza and she had four children. Together, they had five children. In 1862, Valkenburg was appointed the justice of the peace for Salt Lake County. 

On Feb. 18, 1874, Alva Tanner found Valkenburg’s body lying on the road from Union to Sandy. After a coroner had examined his body, it was inferred that Valkenburg had experienced trouble with his wagon and was shot with a dozen balls from a gun and killed while trying to repair it. 

After inquest of Valkenburg’s murder, William Kelly and Thomas Fox, step-sons-in-law of Valkenburg’s, were arrested. Kelly escaped from Salt Lake County Jail in 1875 to Illinois. 

A trial was held in February of 1875 for Philip Shafer, a blacksmith who admitted to being present at the murder. At the trial, Fox revealed that on the day of the murder, he witnessed Kelly borrow a horse from Shafer. Later that day, when he was traveling on Union Road, he noticed two men sneaking through sagebrush toward Valkenburg’s wagon. One man signaled to the other and two gunshots were heard. The man with the wagon fell. The two men who shot noticed Fox, who recognized them as Kelley and Shafer. 

Mr. Gray, a neighbor, testified that he had loaned his shotgun to Kelly with both barrels loaded. Kelly told Gray that he needed the gun for hunting. 

The jury found Shafer guilty of first-degree murder and gave him a choice of method for his death sentence: hanging, shooting or guillotine. Before the sentence was carried out, the trial was appealed to the Utah Supreme Court. On Feb. 11, 1875, he was tried again and sentenced to 10 years in the Utah State Penitentiary. 

On April 20, 1876, a trial was held for William Kelley. With his trial, the defense was very aggressive and produced a new witness. He had seen a man on a horse and a man with a gun who appeared to be rabbit hunting. A wagon pulled close to the men and stopped. A man got out of the wagon with a pitchfork in hand and headed toward the other men. The men shot at him in self-defense after he would not stop. Even with this witness, Kelley was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. 

After Conger finished her story, Darius Gray stood up to discuss the history of his family in the Union area. He began by telling the story of Green Flake, one of the three black slaves who was part of Brigham Young’s company of pioneers that arrived in July of 1847. He is also buried in the cemetery. 

Gray then told the audience how he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1964 and went to BYU in 1965. “There weren’t a whole lot of blacks then,” he said. “I felt pretty alone.”

One of his friends once asked him how he survived as a person of color in Utah. “Knowing others had survived gave me strength,” Gray had told him. 

“I’ve always had a love for history,” recalled Gray. His father was born in 1896 and his grandfather was born in 1859, so he didn’t have to go back too many generations to discover history. He wants people to enjoy history. “These aren’t just names on stones; these are stories.” 

Gray pointed to the birth and death dates on a tombstone and described how they illustrated the thumbnail of life. “It’s all about what happens in between.” 

He then turned to face the members of the historic committee. “I’d like to join my relatives here — not too quickly,” Gray joked, “but my family is buried here.”

All the members of the historic committee agreed in unison. 

After the storytelling presentations, Evans thanked everyone for coming out and invited the attendees to walk around the cemetery and observe the tombstones that were standing. He also recommended the attendees look at the original wooden and stone tombstones that were preserved on a stone slab at the entrance of the cemetery.    λ