Search remains elusive for Buchanan Cemetery in hills above Lake Whatcom


Henry Buchanan traveled to Colorado in the hope his tuberculosis would go away, but, as death drew near, he returned to his parent's farm above Lake Whatcom.

With their 23-year-old son ailing, Joseph and Sophia Buchanan set aside part of their 160-acre homestead to bury Henry.

The year was 1890, the beginning of Buchanan Cemetery, a family burial plot that soon became the final resting place for other settlers, too.

Henry Buchanan's brother William was buried there two and half years later. Only 21, William drowned while working on a log boom at a logging camp. Nobody saw it happen.

Their mother died in 1912 at the age of 75. She'd been suffering from rheumatism.

The last person buried at the cemetery was Joseph Buchanan, himself, in 1917. He passed away at his Silver Beach home. In his 80s, he hadn't been feeling well, and some people wondered if he overdid it when he spent several hours digging potatoes the day he died.

Records list more than a dozen people buried at Buchanan Cemetery, but the number could be much larger. How many there are, no one is sure.

The lack of evidence above ground doesn't help. The cemetery's metal fence is long gone, as are any wooden or stone grave markers. And some people might have been buried without a marker.

Given the lack of evidence below ground, the precise location of the cemetery also remains a mystery.

To be sure, some neighbors and old-timers had heard about the cemetery. Among them is former County Council member Ward Nelson, who grew up in the vicinity and still lives there.

"My dad had always talked about seeing a cemetery," Nelson said. "I remember seeing headstones there."


Someone who is trying to locate the cemetery, and track down descendants of people buried there, is Phil Dyer, equal parts history buff and Whatcom County real estate agent.

Dyer became interested in the cemetery because he represents people who want to sell 93 wooded acres north and west of Agate Bay. The land includes part of the 160-acre homestead where the Buchanan family logged, farmed and built a house and other buildings, starting in the 1880s.

"They were loggers," Dyer said. "That's how they made their money."

Joseph and Sophia Buchanan were married in Illinois and moved to Nebraska before setting out for the Northwest. Joseph was a Civil War veteran, having served in the Indiana infantry.

Whey Dyer heard about an old cemetery on the property, he began searching records and contacting local historians. With scattered bits of information to guide him, he explored the property and came upon a flat area that's partially cleared, with a few old trees but mostly younger ones.

He pulled out a set of divining rods - "L-shaped" metal bars made from clothes hangers - and began walking the property. Dyer was introduced to divining, also called dowsing or witching, when he was in the U.S. Coast Guard.

When held in capable hands, the rods cross when the person holding them walks above soil that has been disturbed, Dyer explained. During a recent visit to the site, he demonstrated while walking where he believes up to 55 people may be buried. The rods crossed and uncrossed as he walked.

"When you get to where it is, they just cross," Dyer said. "Three foot, boom! Three feet, boom!"

Based on his dowsing, Dyer calculates there are several rows of graves, with seven to eight bodies per row.

"There's the head," he said as the rods crossed. "There's the foot," as they uncrossed. "That's six feet."

In similar fashion, Dyer said he has divined the perimeter of the Buchanans' house, outbuildings and a root cellar. He hasn't yet found remnants of the buildings, but said a large hole in the earth could have been the entryway into the root cellar, and several chunks of granite scattered on the ground nearby might be remnants of material used for grave markers.

Under state law, if evidence is found that confirms the location of the cemetery, then arrangements can be made to have the grounds cared for. Such cemeteries aren't required to receive formal care, but they must be left undisturbed, said Stephenie Kramer, assistant state archaeologist with the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.

Dyer hopes to find such evidence, but said the passage of time, plus the simple materials used for coffins a century ago, means any evidence may now be dust.

"You may find everything intact," he said. "You may find nothing."


Phil Dyer firmly believes that people can use diving rods to locate unmarked graves.

William Whittaker remains unconvinced. A researcher for Iowa's Office of the State Archaeologist, Whittaker has studied the effectiveness of dowsing (also called divining or witching) for graves.

He studied 14 cases in Iowa since the mid-1980s in which both dowsers and archaeologists looked for graves. In 12 cases, dowsing failed to find graves or other archaeological features. In the other two, the results were ambiguous.

Whittaker wrote his report in 2005, and continues to follow the issue.

"I haven't seen anything to change my mind," he said.

Whittaker believes that dowsers make slight adjustments in their posture and pace when they see or anticipate something interesting, and those adjustments prompt the rods to cross.


People with information about Buchanan Cemetery can contact Phil Dyer at 360-739-9900 or

Dyer is trying to locate descendents of people buried at Buchanan. Known adults buried there include (by last name):

Buchanan: Henry, Joseph Fuller, Sophia Jane, and William.

Jensen: Andrea and Wolff.

Larson: Ole.

Lombard: George R.

Reach DEAN KAHN at or call 715-2291.

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