Stolen tombstone returning to Virginia City
A marble tombstone marking the grave of two young boys who froze to death in a Christmastime blizzard on Nevada’s historic Comstock is coming home 141 years later – after it was stolen, and then found, decades ago along a road in Northern California.
“Obviously we never thought we’d see that headstone,” Candace Wheeler, executive director of the Comstock Cemetery District, said Monday. “It’s just an amazing story.”
A dedication is planned for Saturday at the Gold Hill Cemetery to install the refurbished tombstone.
The grave marker and the tragic deaths of Henry Jones, 14, and his 9-year-old brother, John, are lore on the Comstock. Newspaper reports at the time said the boys’ father, Robert Jones, was a crusty sort who ordered the boys to move cattle from south Reno to his ranch at American Flat, just south of Virginia City, during a storm.
The boys’ frozen bodies were found Dec. 24, 1871, when “death wrapped them in a snowy shroud,” the tombstone reads.
A century later – sometime after 1974 – the headstone marking their final resting place at the Gold Hill Cemetery was stolen.
A hiker had taken a photo of the tombstone, and the image was used to make a replica of the original that became the logo for the Comstock Cemetery Foundation in 2001. Each year at Christmas, Comstock foundation members lay a wreath at the site that becomes a makeshift shrine buried beneath toys left by residents and others.
In 1978, hundreds of miles away near Petaluma, Calif., Jean Hood Mickelsen found a headstone near her mailbox. She contacted the late Rev. Henry Rankin, former pastor of the Two Rock Valley Presbyterian Church, who took the headstone to his church. Efforts to find where it came from were futile.
“The tombstone leaned in back of the church until the mid-1990s. At that time, my son-in-law said, ‘Why don’t we put it out in the cemetery?’ And there it sat,” said Melvin Todt, chairman of the Two Rock Church cemetery.
Fate took a turn last fall, when Todt was conducting a tour of the graveyard and met Brad Davall of the Forestville Historical Society.
Davall took an interest in the damaged headstone propped against the stump of a eucalyptus tree, and reached out to researchers across the region.
Early this year, Davall called Todt and told him to look at the website for the Comstock Cemetery Foundation.
There was the logo depicting the headstone of the Jones children.
The tombstone was returned to the Comstock foundation and has since been cleaned and restored.
“It was almost black with mold,” Wheeler said. “It took us about three months, and with a little Nevada sun, it looks brand new.”
But Comstock cemetery members were also in for a surprise. On the back of the original headstone were the names of four other Jones children who died. George, 6, and Cora, 4, both died on Sept. 29, 1877, possibly from a diphtheria epidemic. Alice, 2, and Diana, 14, died in 1878, the older girl of suicide, according to records from the time.
“We had not idea that was on the back of the stone,” Steve Frady, foundation chairman, said of the other inscriptions.
Wheeler, who has been researching the family since the rediscovery of the headstone, said she believes Robert Jones, the children’s father, may have gotten a bad rap in newspaper accounts as being mean.
She said Robert and his wife, Jane, were from England, and came to Northern Nevada in 1859.
The family had two ranches, one in what is now south Reno and the other at American Flat, roughly 20 miles away.
Wheeler said Robert Jones was in American Flat and sent his sons a note, telling them to come for Christmas and bring some cattle and horses with them – not an uncommon chore for youngsters in the 19th century.
While some records suggest Robert Jones was a hard and possibly abusive man, Wheeler said, “I don’t think he intentionally sent these boys out in a blizzard on Christmas week.”
She said records show the boys spent one night at Brown Station – now known as Damonte Ranch – when the storm blew in. The next day, thinking it had passed, they set out but chose a route over Ophir Grade near Washoe Valley, instead of the more populated area around Geiger Grade.
Records show that Robert Jones went searching for his sons and found their frozen bodies about four miles from the American Flat ranch.