Ellen Meloeny was searching for her missing calico cat in a vacant lot near her Woodland Hills home last week when she stumbled across something that stopped her cold.
Protruding about five inches from the ground was a moss-covered tombstone, with the crudely lettered inscription "Mom T."
Meloeny, a self-described California history buff, was intrigued by the find. So much so that she forgot about her cat, Maggie, who had been missing for three days.
Meloeny, who is eight months pregnant, got down on her hands and knees, found a stick and began to dig. Soon, she uncovered more of the tombstone.
Died in 1846
"Born 1811, Died May, 1846. Lay in peace," read the rest of the inscription. There were two small crosses carved in the bottom corners of the rectangular sandstone slab.
With the help of a neighbor, she unearthed a second headstone, which had partly worn away. It bore what looked like "E.K. Cuppe," with the words "Born 1811" inscribed beneath.
John Parker, director of UCLA's Regional Archeological Information Center, said the headstones are a rare find. He plans to have the graves registered as a state historical site.
Parker said sandstone and simple carving methods were used in that era.
"They didn't have professional headstone cutters in those days," he said. "If somebody died in your family, you were the one that had to go out and find the rock and write on it. You had to do it all yourself."
Parker said Meloeny's Woodland Hills neighborhood was part of the old San Fernando Mission district, where Spanish settlers raised crops to help support the mission. The district, which flourished in the early- to mid-1800s, extended 15 miles in every direction from the mission.
The headstones may mark the graves of Spanish settlers, Parker said. More likely, however, the stones mark the graves of Anglo settlers who began moving into the area after the demise of the mission system in the 1830s, Parker said. The priests who ran the mission may have begun auctioning land to other settlers to make money, he said.
"By 1848, the mission was probably already declining, and Anglo people were probably moving into the area and taking up residence," Parker said.
"A whole bunch of people who moved into California in the late '30s and '40s before the Gold Rush even started," he added, "living side by side with Spanish people and the mission system."
Elza Meline, curator of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society, estimated that about 300 people were living in the Valley in the mid-1840s.
Meloeny, 32, is a housewife who long has been interested in California history. Her cozy cabin-style home has copies of "The California Trail, 1841-1850," and "San Fernando Valley Past and Present" on the coffee table.
Building Permit Required
Her find may have more than historical significance. According to city officials, Meloeny may have "opened up a Pandora's box" for the owners of the lot in the 4200 block of Elzevir Road, said Lou Robbins, assistant office manager for the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
Meloeny said she recently spoke to a young couple who said they bought the lot, and they told her they plan to start building a house in mid-November.
However, Robbins said his department has not received an application for a building permit on the lot. It will investigate if a permit is submitted, Robbins said.
Donna Berti, a real estate agent who handles the property, said she had no knowledge of the gravestones and "would like to research" their discovery. She said an offer for the lot has been accepted, but she would not disclose who made it or the nature of any building plans.
Parker hopes the graves remain where they are. So does Meloeny, who plans to investigate further by researching San Fernando Mission archives.
"If they were old pioneers, we should do everything we can to save them," Meloeny said of the graves. "I would hate to see them put up a stucco house there."