COLUSA, Calif. — John Rufus Thompson — a Confederate Civil War veteran buried in Arbuckle Cemetery — received a new headstone with a ceremony conducted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans on Saturday.
"The (headstone) there was just, like, a rock," said John Morton, the Colusa-based historical and genealogy researcher who, along with Colusa County Veterans Services, helped organize the ceremony.
The ceremony — in which the nonprofit organization Sons of Confederate Veterans participated — included a 21-gun salute, the reading of Thompson's biography, and the playing of taps.
Morton has played a large part of seven such ceremonies for Colusa County Civil War veterans, beginning with Robert Todd Powell in 1997 at the Colusa Community Cemetery. Over the course of the past seventeen years, Morton has helped organize ceremonies for four more soldiers at Colusa Community Cemetery, including John Fletcher Rich, James Benjamin Hutchins and Edward Augustus Garrison — who all fought for the Confederacy — and John Wesley Van Horn, who fought for the Union. Morton also helped organize a ceremony for James Washingon Foster, who is buried in the College City Cemetery.
Morton and now-retired assistant veterans services officer Carol Pearson got some of those ceremonies together of their own accord. Other times, the families of veterans came forward and asked for their assistance in getting a new headstone and conducting the ceremony.
In the case of Thompson, the Arbuckle man's great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter was the one who set the events in motion — and for that woman, Lori Auteri, it was about a lot more than just the ceremony. It was another step toward learning about her biological family.
"The ceremony was beautiful, something I will always treasure, and I know my kids and grandkids will always treasure as well. (It) is extremely meaningful to myself, children, and grandchildren. They are proud to know that they had this family," Auteri said.
A Native-American, Auteri's mother died young from cancer when Auteri was just 7 years old. Because Auteri had an absent father, her mother's death left Auteri and her siblings essentially orphaned. Auteri was adopted but always longed to have a connection with her biological family, about whom she knew little.
Auteri's mother had been separated from her own siblings after they were taken away from their mother. Auteri's mother, the eldest, was old enough to live on her own and go to work, but her brothers and sisters were all adopted and lost contact with each other.
Just before Auteri's mother died in 1962, she asked a young Auteri to make her a promise.
"One of the last things she said to me was to find her brothers and try to keep my family — my brothers and sisters — together. And I have kept that promise to her," Auteri said through tears.
Since she turned 18, Auteri, now 59, has been on a mission to reconnect her mother's family.
"It was not only my dream, it was my mom's dream," Auteri said.
She found one of her uncles in the Los Angeles area almost immediately.
"My husband took me down there to find my uncle because he knew how important it was for me. About a year later, I found another uncle, who was in the military. It wasn't until he came back to the U.S. that I got to know him," Auteri said.
A couple years ago, Auteri found an aunt, Lynn, who she says has been "the catalyst for bringing all this together." One of her aunt's jobs was with the Red Cross, where she helped reconnect families after tragedies. After meeting and connecting with her aunt, Auteri was exposed to new tools for looking into her family's genealogy, and her search expanded.
Auteri said she is still searching for the rest of her mother's siblings.
Most recently, Auteri was brought to the site where Thompson is buried in Arbuckle.
She had learned that Thompson, her many-greats-grandfather, entered the Civil War while her many-greats-grandmother and her family had moved to California to escape the conflict altogether. After the war, Thompson went in search for the woman who would become his wife. He would find her, settle down in California with her, lose her to an untimely death, remarry and eventually make his way to Arbuckle with his children.
"I was doing some genealogy research on my family because I grew up not knowing who my biological family really was. Through the process, we realized that they were a great part of California history," Auteri said. "I went through the process of trying to locate every one of his children and their families, which included a number from Arbuckle."
During her initial visit to the cemetery, Auteri met John Lauppe, the caretaker there. Auteri asked Lauppe if he knew of any historians in the area. Lauppe referred her to Morton, and Morton introduced her to Pearson.
"If it wasn't for that, none of this would have been possible. I have to give Mr. Lauppe and John Morton credit for getting this together," Auteri said.
The ceremony and the process leading up to it have given Auteri some of the familial connection she has been seeking for over 40 years.
"I think it is important for anybody that is adopted and doesn't know where they come from," said Auteri. "The first time I saw the picture of (the Thompsons), I thought, 'Hey, she looks like me.' I printed it out, took it home, and my kids, without me saying anything, said, 'Mom, you look like her!' There was a moment of belonging. I knew where I came from, where my gene pool came from."
Auteri was happy to see many older individuals at the ceremony from the Arbuckle area, some of whom were able explain who Auteri was distantly related to in the community.
"I was kind of surprised at all these different family members I didn't know I had," Auteri said. "In the process of this, I have met some really good distant relatives and opened their eyes about the history of California and the part we played in it. It's part of their geneology, too, that they weren't aware of. They've been instrumental in dedicating pictures and letters that they had stored away."
Lori Auteri's daughter Paige, a journalism major going to college in Sacramento, inherited her mother's passion for learning more about their family lineage. With a little help from her mother, Paige Auteri is in the process of starting a nonproft organization called Stories Unearthed.
"She's very dedicated to that. She (recently) switched her major to journalism to learn how to tell the stories correctly. I think she's kind of an extraordinary individual," Auteri said. "She has the support of her community. She has a nonprofit board filled with people who are super historians. It's just been a wonderful experience."
The organization aims to provide scholarships for individuals who might not qualify for conventional aid and, centrally, tell the untold and lost stories of history.
"What she wants to do is tell stories — go to cemeteries for example. To name one, the last living member of the Lewis and Clark party is buried in Franklin (south of Sacramento), and nobody knows it. She wants to tell those stories."