Annals of SF_Yerba Buena Cemetery

San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries & Pioneer Burial Grounds

North Beach Burial Ground
c.1846-c.1855

Also known as the Powell Street Cemetery, the North Beach Burial Ground was one of the city’s first unofficial burial grounds. Around the mid-1840s people began using the block bounded by Chestnut, Stockton, Lombard, and Powell streets as a burial ground for the early pioneers and Argonauts of San Francisco. According to the Annals of San Francisco (1855), “no permission had been granted by the authorities for that purpose; but after one funeral had taken place, another and another quickly followed to the same quarter, until gradually it began to be considered a public cemetery (Soule, 592).”

No new burials were recorded at this location after 1847, but the cemetery existed until about the mid-1850s. As the city grew northward, the burial ground was increasingly considered an impediment to growth in North Beach. Beginning in the early 1850s, the graves were transferred to Yerba Buena public cemetery, which opened in 1850. The Annals registers about 840 graves located at the North Beach burial ground (Soule, 595).

Russian Hill Burial Ground
c.1848-c.1850s

The first known published references to Russian sailors buried on top of this hill are from a book and newspaper article, both published in 1850. According to Bayard Taylor’s 1850 publication Eldorado, or, Adventures in the path of empire…:

“…I used frequently to climb a hill just in the rear of the town, whence the harbour, the straight into Pablo Bay, the Golden Gate, and the horizon of the Pacific could all be seen at one view. On the top of the hill are graves of several Russians, who came out in the service of the Russian Company, each surmounted with a black cross, bearing an inscription in their language. All this ground, however, has been surveyed, staked into lots, and sold, and at the same rate of growth, the city will not be long in climbing the hill and disturbing the rest of the Muscovites (Taylor, ii, 223).”

A Daily Alta California newspaper article from the same year also indicates the “Russian Hill” name was already being used at that time: a fire destroyed “a grant of land on Russian hill (the high land to the north of the town)…(“Lieut. Duer,” Daily Alta California, February 12, 1850).” Another 1861 Daily Alta newspaper article claims that the soldiers buried on Russian Hill were from a Russian man-of-war ship that was docked in San Francisco harbor in 1848. The article goes on to indicate that, even by 1861, the bodies “have, we believe, never been disturbed (“City Items,” Daily Alta California, June 25, 1861).” The Annals of San Francisco claims there were about 25 graves on Russian Hill (Soule, 595).

Emanuel Hart Hebrew Cemetery
c.1849-1870s

Emanuel Hart Cemetery began operating around 1850 in Spring Valley (or, the Laguna Survey), the outlying “suburb” located beyond the western slopes of Russian Hill. The Hart Cemetery was founded by the Temple Emanu-El and served as the first Jewish cemetery in San Francisco. It occupied the area roughly bound by today’s Vallejo, Franklin, Broadway, and Gough streets. The growth of San Francisco’s Jewish community during the 1850s prompted the Temple to being looking for larger burial grounds. In 1860 the Temple Emanu-El purchased Mission Block 86 (and Sherith Israel purchased Mission Block 87 in 1861) and began relocating graves to its new Mission District location during the 1860s. According to one record, approximately 300 graves were relocated from the Hart Hebrew Cemetery to the two new Mission locations (Lewy, 5).

In late 1873 the San Francisco Board of Supervisors requested payment for the “removal of deceased persons from the [old] Jewish Cemetery, bounded by Broadway, Vallejo, Franklin and Gough streets…” indicating that the Jewish congregations had still not transferred all graves to the new Mission cemeteries in the 1870s (“Board of Supervisors,” Daily Alta California, September 30, 1873, 1:4).

Yerba Buena Cemetery
1850-c.1870

Yerba Buena Cemetery was the city’s first official public burial ground. In February 1850, the city Ayuntamiento staked out a large triangular-shaped plot of land between downtown San Francisco and the Mission Dolores “for the purpose of a public burial place (Soule, 593).” The public burial ground was surveyed along the lines of today’s Market, McAllister, and Larkin streets, and located near the Mission Road for general access. The Daily Alta notes that there were already about 50 bodies buried there when the city was surveying the site in early 1850 (Daily Alta California, March 21, 1850, p. 2).

Yerba Buena Cemetery officially opened in July 1850. Between 1851 and 1854, the City began removing and transferring graves from the various unofficial burial grounds throughout the city and consolidating them at Yerba Buena Cemetery. This included graves from the North Beach burial ground, Happy Valley burial ground, and the burial ground at Vallejo and Sansome streets (also known as the Telegraph Hill burial ground). In total, it is estimated that Yerba Buena held about 8,000 and 9,000 graves by 1859, the year the last burials took place (“Our Cities of the Dead,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 31, 1869, p. 1).

The city’s westward and southward growth in the 1860s began encroaching on Yerba Buena Cemetery, prompting the City to start looking for another suitable location for a large public burial ground. Beginning in the late 1860s, Yerba Buena graves were transferred to Golden Gate Cemetery, a newly created public cemetery along the city’s western shore. The Yerba Buena Cemetery tract was re-graded in late 1870 and early 1871 as a site for a new future city hall, and during this time was temporarily referred to as Yerba Buena Park (“Yerba Buena Park,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 7, 1870, p. 3).

Vallejo & Sansome Burial Ground
c.1846-c.1847

This burial ground was a “fifty vara lot on the southeast corner of Vallejo and Sansome streets.” According to Eldredge, there were no burials in this location after 1847. It is unclear how many graves were located at the southeast corner of Vallejo and Sansome streets, but the graves were transferred to the North Beach Burial Ground in the late 1840s, and then later transferred to Yerba Buena Cemetery after 1850 (Eldredge, 591). There are also references to a “Clark’s Point Burial Ground” and a “Telegraph Hill Burial Ground,” but it is possible that these refer to the same Vallejo and Sansome location. Clark’s Point was Yerba Buena’s first pier located near Broadway and Battery streets, less than a block away from the corner of Vallejo and Sansome.

Happy Valley Burial Ground
?-c.1850s

Happy Valley was one of San Francisco’s early “suburbs” located south of today’s Market Street. Generally considered to be located between 1st, Mission, 3rd, and Market streets (Eldredge, 593), Happy Valley residents lived outside of the downtown Yerba Buena settlements in a small valley between the water’s edge and the high sand hills that began around 3rd street. The exact location of the burial ground in Happy Valley is unknown, but prior to 1850, there were approximately 75 burials “in the vicinity of Happy Valley (Soule, 595).” These graves were eventually transferred to Yerba Buena Cemetery.

Lone Mountain Cemeteries
1854-c.1941

  • Calvary Cemetery (1860-c.1941)
  • Masonic Cemetery (1854-1931)
  • Odd Fellows Cemetery (1865-1923)
  • Laurel Hill Cemetery (1867-c.1939)
  • Greek Cemetery (?-c.1890)

 

In the early 1850s, the city created a new rural cemetery in the Western Addition–an area of the city into which, leaders believed, the city would never extend. The “city of the dead” at Lone Mountain contained mostly private burial plots for families and fraternal organizations, and was modeled after the great American rural cemeteries of the 19th century, like Greenwood in New York, Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, and Mount Auburn in Boston.

A large crowd of San Francisco citizens gathered at Lone Mountain on May 30, 1854 for the cemetery’s official dedication ceremonies that included speeches by civic leaders, a choir, poems, and the reading of an ode by F. B. Austin. The sale of its first burial lots took place the following month, and Conrad Carpenter was the new rural cemetery’s first burial on August 3, 1854.

"New Lone Mountain Cemetery," Daily Alta California, November 27, 1853, 2:4.
“The New Cemetery,” Daily Alta California, November 27, 1853, 2:4.

 

The Lone Mountain rural cemetery, located “between the presidio and the mission,” originally contained about 320 acres of land and at the time was considered “a more suitable cemetery than Yerba Buena (Soule, 596-597)” due to its rural setting away from the city’s main commercial and residential neighborhoods. Lone Mountain is the small mountain atop which the University of San Francisco’s Lone Mountain Building sits today. Eventually, investors bought up parcels of the Lone Mountain property for private interests and societies. Calvary Cemetery (1860-c.1941) served as a Catholic cemetery; the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery (1865-1923) was a private fraternal organization cemetery; the Masonic Cemetery (1854-1931), dedicated as a separate cemetery in 1854, was another private fraternal cemetery; the Laurel Hill Cemetery (1867-c.1939), likely named after Philadelphia’s famous Laurel Hill Cemetery, was originally part of Lone Mountain but was partitioned off and sold to a group of investors in 1867 (Hart, 2); and, according to the 1894 Handy Block Book, there was also a Greek Cemetery (?-c.1890) located at the southwest corner of today’s Turk and Parker streets (Handy Block Book index).

As the city grew into the Western Addition and the Outside Lands in the late 19th century, a movement grew to remove these cemeteries, again viewed as “public nuisances” that hindered growth, decreased property values, and that were perceived as public health risks. The Greek Cemetery was closed and moved in the early 1890s. The Odd Fellows Cemetery was closed and removed to Colma around 1923. The Masonic Cemetery closed and was transferred to a new location in Colma between 1923-1931. St. Ignatius College (UCSF) quickly purchased the old Masonic cemetery grounds. Laurel Hill Cemetery was removed between 1939-1941 and about 35,000 graves were transferred to Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma. The Calvary Cemetery was closed and removed between 1939-1941, and about 55,000 graves were moved to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, with some moved to Cypress Lawn or other private cemeteries (Hart; Proctor). One of the few surviving structures from the Lone Mountain cemeteries is the old Odd Fellows’ Columbarium, which is managed today by the Neptune Society (Sellars, 62-63).

Golden Gate Cemetery
c.1870-c.1909

In 1868, the City set aside 200 acres in the Outside Lands, a tract of land “commencing at Thirty-third avenue and Clement street” and overlooking the Golden Gate, for the creation of a new public burial ground. As San Francisco grew westward and southward in the 1860s into the Western Addition and the Mission District, the old Yerba Buena Cemetery was viewed, much like the North Beach Cemetery in the 1840s, as a public health risk and an impediment to future growth. This prompted city leaders to find a location for the public cemetery as far out of the way of future city growth as possible.

The Outside Lands location, today’s Lincoln Park in the Outer Richmond district, offered Supervisors ample space with spectacular views in a part of the city that was only slightly populated. The public cemetery was surveyed “in accordance with the rules of English landscape gardening,” while also incorporating elements of the American rural cemetery style (“Board of Supervisors,” Daily Alta California, November 28, 1871, 1:2). Graves were transferred from Yerba Buena to Golden Gate Cemetery starting from 1870 to 1871, and the public cemetery contained plots for various private benevolent societies, a Chinese burial ground, and a Potters’ field for the indigent dead. The City also set aside 11 acres in 1877 for a “Jewish section (Lewy, 5).”

By 1887 San Francisco Supervisors were already discussing the possibility of moving the cemetery to yet another location, this time outside of the city limits. As the Daily Alta California reported:

As the district known as Richmond is fast becoming settled and the close proximity of the cemeteries is becoming undesirable and obnoxious, a proper regard for public health should prohibit all future burials in these cemeteries. Burial-grounds should hereafter be located outside the city and county. The City Cemetery should also be discontinued (“The Grand Jury,” Daily Alta California, December 18, 1890, 6:3).”

This sentiment began the movement to relocate all graves and cemeteries outside the city and county limits and ultimately into the town of Colma, located just south of San Francisco. The Jewish cemeteries were first to relocate to Colma, beginning in the 1890s.

In 1892, the Federal government condemned about 54 acres of the Golden Gate Cemetery in order to build Fort Miley. The last burial within Golden Gate Cemetery took place in 1898, and in 1905, the City purchased 25 acres of land in San Mateo County for the purpose of establishing a city cemetery. On December 9, 1908, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors recommended the Golden Gate Cemetery be closed, and in early 1909, all graves began being transferred to the new city cemetery location in San Mateo County, now referred to as Colma.

Home of Peace Cemetery & Hills of Eternity Cemetery
c.1860-c.1896

With the overcrowding of Emanu-El’s Hart Cemetery in the 1850s, the Temple and the Eureka Benevolent Society jointly purchased Mission Block 86 in 1860 for a new and larger Jewish cemetery. Bound by 18th, 19th, Dolores, and Church streets, Mission Block 86 was located near the old Mission Dolores church in the then-remote and bucolic Mission District suburb. Soon after, Sherith Israel and the Hebrew Benevolent Society purchased the adjoining Mission Block 87 for the Hills of Eternity cemetery (Voorsanger, 138). These two adjoining blocks are the site of today’s Dolores Park.

The new Home of Peace Cemetery was dedicated at Mission Block 86 on July 25, 1860:

“The burial ground at the Mission Dolores was dedicated yesterday with the customary imposing formalities on such occasions. The audience, which was very numerous, gathered about the platform, on the northern side of the ‘house for the dead’ […] The Cemetery is pleasantly located on a side hill, a few minutes walk from the depot of the railroad. It contains 10 ½ acres, of which 6 ¾ are included in Block No. 86. It is substantially fenced in, and has a handsome gateway (“City Items,” Daily Alta California, July 26, 1860, 2:1).”

The Hills of Eternity cemetery, after originally considering a location in the Potrero settled on the lot adjoining the Home of Peace Cemetery, was dedicated in May 1861. With a real estate boom in the Mission Dolores neighborhood during the 1860s, the Jewish cemeteries almost immediately faced calls for their removal to more distant locations.

"Removal of the Hebrew Cemeteries," Real Estate Circular, October 1869. From the Internet Archive.
“Removal of the Hebrew Cemeteries,” Carter’s Real Estate Circular, October 1869. From the Internet Archive.

In 1886, President of the Temple Emanu-El reported to the congregation on “the necessity of acquiring larger accommodations for the suitable internment of the dead (Voorsanger, 139).” Around the same time a petition was filed with by several citizens requesting the closure of the cemeteries as public nuisances (“Board of Supervisors,” Daily Alta California, March 15, 1887, 8:1-2).

By resolution of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the Jewish cemeteries in the Mission were officially closed to further burials after January 1, 1889. The Jewish congregations acquired about 300 acres of land in Colma to transfer their burials, and the congregations fully abandoned the Mission Dolores cemetery sites sometime in the mid-1890s.

Mission Dolores Church Cemetery
1777-c.1890

The historic burial ground at the Mission Dolores church goes back to very earliest days of Spanish colonization and settlement in San Francisco. The first known burial took place in 1777, and the Mission Dolores church burial ground includes some of earliest governors and settlers from the Spanish, Mexican, and American eras, as well as a number of Ohlone and Miwok Native Americans who lived as subjugated laborers in the Mission Dolores neophyte “rancheria.”

The city vastly reduced the size of the Mission Dolores church grounds in the 1890s when city supervisors extended and widened 16th and Dolores streets through the Mission District. In 1889 the City exhumed about 400-500 graves from the Mission Dolores church grounds in order to extend 16th Street westward beyond the Church (“Mission Dolores Cemetery,” Daily Alta California, May 31, 1889). In 1890, in order to widen Dolores Street, the City had to exhume a number of graves in front of the Church along the line of Dolores Street (“The Old Mission Cemetery,” Daily Alta California, June 18, 1890). These graves were transferred to Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma. A number of historical graves remain at the Mission Dolores Church, which represents one of only three places where cemeteries still exist in the City of San Francisco (the San Francisco National Cemetery; the Neptune Society Columbarium; and the Mission Dolores Church).

Other Lost or Unconfirmed Burial Grounds

Ohlone Burial Ground

A short blurb in a historical newspaper article is the only mention of a possible Oholone burial ground at the site of the Marshall Elementary School in the Mission District. According to the article, the property where the school is located was originally donated to the city by John Center in 1859 and that previously “it had been an Indian burying ground (“Mayor Bids Pupils Pursue High Aims,” Daily Alta California, January 7, 1910).”

Bush Street Graves

An obscure newspaper reference is made to a coffin being uncovered “beyond Bush Street,” but no other mention of this burial ground has been uncovered (“A Coffin Found,” Daily Alta California, 2:4).

Yerba Buena Island (Goat Island) Graves

A Chronicle article references “the island graves” on the eastern side of Yerba Buena Island, know historically as Goat Island. The “two little mounds of earth” contained graves of a father and son who died in the 1840s and 1850s, respectively, as well as of a British sailor who died in San Francisco in 1870 (“Goat Island,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 1, 1870, p. 3).”

 

Note: The header image is a lithograph showing Yerba Buena Cemetery from Soule’s Annals of San Francisco.

 

REFERENCES

Daily Alta California.

Eldredge, Zoeth S. The Beginnings of San Francisco. San Francisco: Zoeth S. Eldredge, 1912. 2 vols.

Handy Block Book of San Francisco, Showing Size of Lots and Blocks and Names of Property Owners… San Francisco, Calif. : Hicks-Judd Co., 1894.

Hart, Ann Clark. Lone Mountain: The Most Revered of San Francisco’s Hills. San Francisco: Pioneer Press, 1937.

Lewy, Jeff. “San Francisco’s Disappearing Cemeteries.” ZichronNote: Journal of the San Francisco Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society. Vol. XXVIII, No. 3 (August/September 2007): 5.

Proctor, William A. Location, Regulation and Removal of Cemeteries in the City and County of San Francisco. [San Francisco, Calif.]: Dept. of City Planning, City and County of San Francisco, [1950].

San Francisco Call.

San Francisco Chronicle.

Sellars, Peter V. The History of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in the City of San Francisco. [S.l.]: [s.n.], 2007.

Soule, Frank. The Annals of San Francisco. New York: Appleton, 1855.

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