By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
In July, brothers Elmer and Milford Fonza visited for the first time the burial site of their former enslaved third-great-grandfather Nelson Bell at Pioneer Cemetery in El Dorado County.
Elmer Fonza said the journey to the site of the historic gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, 48 miles east of downtown Sacramento, was a “fact-finding mission” to learn about the family’s “past and beginnings” in California.
Nelson Bell arrived in Northern California from New Orleans as an enslaved man under the ownership of Robert Bell, who traveled to the state to mine for gold around 1850.
After a two-hour tour of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park that concluded with a visit to Bell’s grave, the Fonza brothers and nephews Trent Mure and William “Billy” Wooley were satisfied with what they learned. Mure made the trip from Phoenix and Woolery traveled from the Bay Area.
“We just got schooled on this whole thing about a year and a half ago. When we finally found out about it we made it one of the things on our list was to go (to Coloma) and pay homage to him,” Elmer Fonza, 71, told The OBSERVER. “This is our first time here but I don’t think it will be our last. We’re still learning about our history around (the Gold Rush) and in Coloma.”
Stuart Harmon, an award-winning filmmaker, accompanied the Fonzas. The excursion began with a production meeting at the Coloma Community Center in East Sacramento the day before the tour.
“Stuart is producing a documentary for PBS Television about my family’s beginnings in Gold Country,” Elmer Fonza said. Harmon has produced documentaries for PBS, A&E, CNN and MTV.
A Curious Probate Case
The Fonzas learned that Bell was freed and purchased land in El Dorado County as early as 1852. A marker in the state park shows where his house once stood. Bell, born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, around 1790, died in Coloma on Jan. 13, 1869, according to Findagrave.com.
The marker where Bell’s house stood states that “his belongings were sold at probate.” A court-appointed appraiser listed an inventory of Bell’s personal and real estate property in the form of “a dwelling house and land adjoining the town of Coloma,” according to Findagrave.com.
The website, which contains details about cemeteries and memorials for the deceased, states that a “probate file on the estate of Nelson Bell” revealed that he left “no heirs within the state.”
Now, 153 years after Bell’s death, family members are asking questions. The Fonzas said they hired a genealogist who traced their roots to Coloma, where they had an opportunity to stand and pray over Nelson Bell’s grave.
“Our next step is that we’re going to have to push the park and the state of California to show the actual records of how the property transferred over to the park,” Elmer Fonza said. “What I am understanding is that they don’t have that record saying how they acquired that land. I read the part where they had the probate sale. But they had the sale a couple of days after he died.”
The California State Parks has compiled historical research regarding properties once owned by African American families in Coloma. It has been working with descendants of pioneer families to actively listen to their stories, share information between parties, and expand interpretation.
That information has been incorporated into Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, according to its web page “Historic Properties Once Owned by African American Families in Coloma.”
“As we learn more, we will continue to assess and update the interpretation of Marshall Gold State Historic Park,” the state park service said. “California State Parks recognizes there are contributions of diverse people and cultures throughout California’s history that have been overlooked. We are committed to telling a thorough, inclusive, and complete history of our state.”
Jeff Lee, a local historian with deep knowledge of Coloma, toured the park with the Fonzas with state park rangers. Lee said that many of the Black people in Coloma and surrounding areas left the town for other job opportunities.
“There just wasn’t a lot of work,” Lee said during the tour July 12. “The gold rush waned after 1857 and a lot of people moved away. There were still a few Black families but when those kids grew older they moved on too. But Black people are a part of this history. They were well-respected.”
Elmer Fonza, who lives in Las Vegas, shared that searching his family’s background arrives at a time when land once owned by Black people in California is under critical observation.
Can Bell’s Descendants Get Back His Original Land?
On Sept. 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a landmark bill to return Manhattan Beach property to the Black descendants of the Bruce family who owned a beachfront resort in Los Angeles County before it was forcefully taken from them through eminent domain in the early 1920s.
Newsom said Black entrepreneurs Willa and Charles Bruce, who purchased the property in 1912 for $1,200, were “shamefully shut out by a history of racist exclusion.”
On May 28, Elmer and his 78-year-old brother Milford, who lives in the Los Angeles area, met in Oakland to attend a community listening session sanctioned by the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans.
As part of a two-year task force investigation, the community was urged to share information pertinent to correcting the injustices that prevented Black families from building generational wealth. Elmer said Milford had to “officially go on record” to declare that his family may have lost their land through unscrupulous practices.
The state was able to take control of the property in the late 1940s after a lengthy court process, hence turning nearly all of Coloma into a state park. Court documents show 22 families listed as defendants trying to keep their land.
“Historians told us at the park that (Nelson Bell) owned 11 acres,” Elmer Fonza said. “We also found out, through court records, that Black and Asians families were the only ones who lost their land (during the court proceedings).”
Jonathan Burgess and his twin brother Matthew said Nelson Bell probably owned more than 11 acres. They explained that Bell changed his name to Rufus Burgess Sr. to avoid being captured as an enslaved person and sent back to Louisiana. Robert Bell gave Nelson his freedom after the enslaver settled a debt, the Burgess family says.
State Parks’ website says the Burgess family “owned approximately nine acres of property.” Lee told The OBSERVER he has records that it was 11 acres.
The twins have said publicly that Nelson Bell is their great-great grandfather and the land he once owned was about 80 or more acres. Bell purchased the property after mining for gold.
“There are so many different narratives told and continuous secrets up there (in Coloma),” Jonathan Burgess, a Sacramento firefighter, said about a month after the Fonza family toured the site. “One thing we do know is that it is Burgess property. I have documents and deeds as proof.”
Fonzas and the Burgesses admit it is not conclusive that they are bound by blood. But both families have an informational timeline from genealogists that nearly lines up with the existence of Nelson Bell’s family tree.
“My mother was Blossom (Josephine) Bell (born in 1913), her mother was Ethel Bell (b. 1898), the daughter of William Bell (b. 1869), the son of Phillip Bell (b. 1838), who was the son of Nelson Bell (b. 1790),” Elmer Fonza said verbally by memory. The brothers’ mother Blossom (her maiden name is Yokum), was born on March 28, 1913 (died in 2012), in Colfax, Iowa. She was married to Hallie Hezekia Fonza (1905-1966).
At some point, Nelson Bell was sold after his first owner died in Virginia. Bell later ended up in New Orleans before traversing to California with his enslaver, Robert Bell, according to Elmer and Milford Fonza.
The position of where Nelson Bell’s house once stood is a short distance from the marker that lists where Nancy Gooch and the Monroe family’s property was located.
Land Taken From Black Pioneers
Peter and Nancy Gooch were brought to Coloma as enslaved persons during the gold rush and later freed when California became a free state in 1852. She saved enough money to purchase the freedom of her son Andrew Monroe and his family. Her son was sold as an infant to the Monroe family in Missouri.
The Monroes arrived in California from Missouri to reunite with Gooch in the mid-1860s with their sons Pearly and Grant. Peter Gooch died in 1861. His wife was able to purchase up to 400 acres in Coloma that proved a prosperous orchard of pears, apples and peaches.
The Fonzas said they were amazed to learn the history of the Monroe family and of the indigenous people who roamed the area long before the gold rush. The Fonzas took the liberty to visit their burial sites at Pioneer Cemetery with Pearly Monroe’s great-granddaughter Dawn Basciano. She tearfully testified in front of the California Task Force for Reparations in September 2021.
“I’ve been looking over court documents and researching my family’s history for over 20 years,” said Basciano, who lives in Sacramento. “There is a lot of history about (Black life) here. I just think about the generational wealth we lost. We could have owned orchards, wineries, and lumber.”
Elmer Fonza said there are more questions than answers about what took place before and after the few Black families lost property in Gold Country. The Burgess family said Black people were “whitecapped” from their land. Whitecapping is an act of removal by intimidation and violence.
“I would like to know if (Nelson Bell) died of natural causes or was he killed,” Elmer Fonza said. “If it circles down to exhuming the body for a forensic examination, yes, I would like to see what he died of. It’s also interesting that they collected, reviewed and ruled on his assets two days after he died.”
The Fonza family walked around the state park and Pioneer Cemetery on July 12 wearing looks of curiosity and joy. Milford Fonza, after learning where Nelson Bell dwelled on the property, said, “It’s like I am walking in the same footsteps of my great grandfather.”
Elmer Fonza also made an interesting observation about Black life during the gold rush and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park’s current status.
The 2020 U.S. Census reported Coloma’s population to be 519, with no Blacks or African Americans. Coloma’s White population is 97%.
“To visit a place where my (third great)-grandfather lived has been heartwarming,” Elmer Fonza told The OBSERVER. “To see where he came from and to see where it is now opens your eyes to a bunch of different things like where are the African Americans now. Why isn’t there more emphasis put on the Black people that were here, I ask. Just a couple of markers around the park doesn’t say a whole lot. You could bring more African Americans to the park if you had more of a Black presence.”