Stories From The Grave
Dr. Willard Leonard Sears
(Final Resting Place Row 3, Plot 23)
Dr. Sears has a modest gravesite just past the impressive Curtis Crypt in row 3 of the IOOF Cemetery in Sonora. The grave itself is enclosed by a short fence displaying his name, but there is no headstone or dates to be found. Why would a doctor have such an ordinary grave? This interested me and I wanted to learn more, but finding complete information about his adult life in Connecticut was difficult. I was able to piece together significant events from Ancestry.com and the Tuolumne County Genealogical Society.
Willard Leonard Sears was born in September 1814 in Connecticut. In his early days Willard was a painter and later became a doctor. On a summer day in June 1834 Willard Sears married Elizabeth Ann Smith. The couple was living in West Haven Connecticut when their marriage ended tragically April 21, 1835. Elizabeth died at the young age of 18 shortly after giving birth to their daughter, who passed away as well. Both mother and child were laid to rest in the Christ Episcopal Cemetery in New Haven.
After learning of Willard's sudden loss I wondered if his grief would motivate him to go west, but that venture would not take place for another 18 years. Willard married his second wife Eliza Maria Hall on April 29, 1838. They lived in New Haven and would have two daughters, Ellen Maria born in 1841 and Eliza W. born in 1843. Sadly, nine days after Eliza was born Willard’s 2nd wife died at the age of 22. Her cause of death is not recorded. Is it possible that she also died as a result of childbirth? Death in childbirth was rather common in the 19th century and many women regarded pregnancy with dread.
Willard Sears married his 3rd wife on June 9, 1844 in Guilford Connecticut. On that day Jane Sophia Hill became Mrs. Sears and a step mother to Willard’s young daughters. The following year his wife became pregnant with their first child. Four months before Jane Sears gave birth to a son, little Eliza W. died at the age of two. No cause of death was found. It is hard to believe that Dr. Sears would suffer so much pain in the first 30 years of his life.
Jane and Willard Sears would have four children together, Benjamin Willard in February 1846, Mary Ann in 1847, Charles Leonard in 1849, and John Franklin in 1851. Benjamin Sears would grow up to become a well-known artist in San Francisco. You can find several of his paintings on display at the Tuolumne County Museum.
Willard Sears was attracted by the reports of the day and traveled to California in 1852, four years after James Marshall’s discovery of Gold in the Mother Lode. After achieving his reasonable need in 1857, Willard returned to his family in Guilford Connecticut.
Evidently domestic life in the East did not suit the doctor; by the end of 1861 he left again for Sonora. The following year his three boys, Ben, Charles, and John, came to California to live with their father. They made the trip to Sonora via Panama. His wife and daughter remained on the east coast. His oldest daughter Ellen Marie had since married. Willard and Jane would eventually divorce and Jane would remarry. Willard Sears never married again.
During the California Gold Rush Sonora was a booming city. Willard Sears practiced medicine and he had a paint and hardware store for several years. He became a well-known physician with offices in the brick building on Washington Street opposite the Eureka Engine House. He devoted the remainder of his life to his medical profession and he was always ready to help a patient in distress regardless of their status. With a kind heart and warm compassion he maintained a steady practice. Reasonable in his demands with the rich or the poor Dr. Sears became to be known as the “poor man’s doctor”.
Willard Sears took great pride and interest in the Odd Fellowship. He joined the Order in 1840 and was one of the oldest Odd Fellows in the State. Dr. Sears filled various offices at the Sonora Lodge. At the time of his death he was Deputy Grand Patriarch for his district.
Willard was also a member of the Tuolumne Reunion Association which was founded in 1868. Its objective was to give a picnic each year so that the residents of Tuolumne County could gather for their mutual improvement and gratification.
Two weeks prior to his death Dr. Sears had a severe attack which involved his brain and it was doubtful that he would live. However he promised to recover and within a week appeared to be quickly regaining his health. He was optimistic and said he felt better, but that night Dr. Sears had another attack and his right side was paralyzed. He would remain unconscious until his death on the evening of November 30, 1885. Dr. Sears quietly passed away and Sonora lost one of its old and respected citizens.
With my research complete I realize that many of my original questions about Dr. Sears have gone unanswered. Where he attended medical school and why he became a doctor are no longer relevant. Today when I walk by Dr. Sears well-manicured grave I smile inside knowing that his life had a purpose despite the misfortunes and heartbreaks he encountered along the way.
Written by Denine Urquhart
The Society of California Pioneers
History of American Women
Note: Laverne Maszk adopted Dr. Sears Grave. Here are the before and after pictures.