During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dan Bieltz, a Beaverton resident, was looking for ways to fill time after being furloughed at his job. With an interest in history, Bieltz, 41, started visiting Oregon’s pioneer cemeteries with a camera and began uploading videos to Youtube.
“I knew I liked history, and I knew I liked cemeteries, and something—I don’t know what it was, I don’t know if there’s any spiritual things out there—but something in the back of my head said just film cemeteries and tell the story,” he said during an interview in Gales Creek. Bieltz was on his way to visit Hayward for more information on the out-of-the-way pioneer cemetery there.
For his first video, Bieltz took a camera to the Union Cemetery in Cedar Mill in unincorporated Washington County and turned it on.
“Union Cemetery of Cedar Mill – No idea what I’m doing,” the video title reads on that first video, published Apr 3, 2021.
He’s racked up 53 videos since then as of this story, publishing videos of cemeteries largely in the northwest area of Oregon, including around two dozen in Washington County. Locally, he’s made a visit to cemeteries in Gales Creek, Buxton, Cherry Grove, North Plains, Pumpkin Ridge, Mountaindale, Hillside, and more.
“I had no clue how to use a camera when I first started,” he said.
“It kind of became an obsession all of a sudden, diving into the history and a lot of the stories seem like they’re almost lost forever,” Bieltz said.
In his videos, Bieltz shows views of the cemetery, and then focuses in on stories and history involving a handful of those buried there. He films with a GoPro camera, and then edits the videos with additional images. His research includes online resources, old books, and talking with people familiar with local cemeteries.
At the Gales Creek cemetery, one tale he told was of Green Swinney, a former Confederate soldier in the civil war buried in the cemetery. Veterans of both sides of the Civil War are buried in Gales Creek. According to Bieltz, Swinney served under the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Vincent “Clawhammer” Witcher, a violent confederate guerilla fighter known for his brutal tactics, massive losses of his own men, and war atrocities.
In his Buxton Community Cemetery video, Bieltz talked about the split in Protestant and Catholic burials.
Bieltz generally visits cemeteries established before 1900.
He’s found that some of the cemeteries are in disrepair, whether due to vandalism or the elements, and that those who have cared for them are aging and struggling to keep up with the demands that come with maintaining a cemetery.
“Some of these older [cemeteries] are pretty community driven and once those people have passed on, finding someone else to take over the reigns is kind of rare,” Bieltz said.
“I felt it was important to document, tell people’s story before it’s too late.”
His channel, Forgotten Cemeteries of the PNW, can be found on Youtube.