San Francisco History

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Dates of Existence: 1776 to present (last burial in 1888?)
Location: near Mission Dolores; Church, Dolores and 16th streets
Number interred: unknown
"A NEW CEMETERY.— The Catholic Cemetery at the Mission Dolores being nearly tenanted with graves, a new burial place has been selected in the neighborhood of the Red House, beyond the Mission, on a piece of property recently donated by Mrs. Burrell to Archbishop Alemany."

Source: Daily Alta California, 6 January 1858.

"The Cemeteries of San Francisco. . .THE MISSION GRAVE-YARD. The oldest burial ground in the city of San Francisco is that connected with the Church of the Mission. This cemetery was, no doubt, consecrated in 1776, soon after the establishment of the Mission, and it was the only burial ground for Catholics, until within two years. Among the persons buried there, are many Spaniards, French, Portuguese, and Catholics from other countries. A few Catholics have lots, which have been consecrated according to the rites of the Church, in Lone Mountain Cemetery."

Source: Daily Alta California, 22 July 1862.

"MISSION DOLORES. The Cemeteries Now Ready to Be Transferred to the City.  The removal of the bodies lying in that portion of the Mission Cemetery at Mission Dolores through which the Sixteenth-street extension will pass was commenced on the 8th day of April, and yesterday the workmen engaged in the task disinterred the last three bodies that will be taken up until such time as the $2000 appropriated by the city for the purchase of the property is paid.

Two bodies still remain to be moved, and they will hold the ground as a cemetery until the purchase is made complete.

The property abandoned has a cash valuation of $25,000, and the purchase was made partly through the efforts of the Church-street Improvement Club and partly, because the Archbishop, realizing that sooner or later the transfer must be effected, threw himself into the cause with a "hearty goodwill and interposed no difficulities, choosing rather to suffer a pecuniary loss through letting the property go at a figure far below its value than to hinder by opposition a feature in the city's improvement that must necessarily enhance the value of the property in the neighborhood.

Ten of the bodies have been interred in Mount Calvary Cemetery; 40 at the cemetery of the Holy Cross in San Mateo County; 1, that of Senor Peralta, has been sent to Oakland; 1, named Murphy, sent to Vallejo; 2 children sent to Odd Fellows' cemetery, and the remainder, in number 446, have been reinterred in another part of the Mission Cemetery.  One of these is Thomas Ford, a former stock-broker and society leader, and Senor Diaz, an old Spaniard Don.

The three bodies disinterred yesterday were found beneath the roots of cypress trees that had been planted upward of thirty years ago.  In every instance, except two or three recent interments, there was nothing to be found except a few bones, or badly corroded coffin plates.  These, as a rule, were placed in new boxes.  There was no mixing of bodies.  When they were unknown, a simple cross marks the place of reinternment, upon which is inscribed "unknown," or sometimes the number of the lot or grave from which they were taken.  This, however, has seldom been necessary as most of the remains were localized by a slab or tablet.

The line of the street gives but scant margin to the church in passing, but strikes the school-house in such a manner that it will have be moved back several feet.  This will be done, and a new building will also be erected for the use of the priests in the same yard with the school-house.  These improvements will be made as soon as the street passes into possession of the city."

Source: San Francisco Morning Call, 8 June 1889.

"FALLEN INTO DECAY.  Neglected Condition of the "Dolores" Cemetery.  Graves Left Open and Tombs Hidden by the Thick Undergrowth -- "Yankee" Sullivan's Grave Found.

"Are you afraid of ghosts?"

It was so very unusual a question that no reply was give, though the inquirer, a policeman, stood with one foot already on the first of the short steps leading into the Mission Dolores Cemetery with the expectant and hesitating air of one whose next movement is to be governed by the answer.

The CALL reporter, to whom the strange words were addressed, laughed in response and prepared to follow the guardian of public peace and morals.

"Well, if you are not afraid of ghosts, at least take a care to your steps as I am leading you into a place that has gone to decay."

At the very outset the scene was uninviting on being approached from the Dolores-street side.  Some time since, it will be remembered, this street was continued through from Sixteenth to Seventeenth street, and to do it many bodies had to be exhumed.  Commencing at a point near the old mission chapel the coping that banks the dirt of the cemetery across its entire front serves to divide the present from the past civlization.  On the one side of the coping are the fine stone walks, the well-laid cobble-stone gutter and graded street, on the other is a space of unfilled graves for about twenty-five or thirty feet, then an undergrowth that chokes up and hides from view many of the stones that mark the last home of so many people.

Sad, indeed, was the scene as the equinoctial storms, which elsewhere blow in gales but here are more gentle and fitful, swept through the trees and undergrowths, shaking the rain-drops from their crooked limbs and distorted branches into the decomposing bowl of leaves beneath, then to be followed by a dash of rain, than a stray ray of sunlight that made the pendant tears glisten as they played along stem to branch, branch to limb, limb to hole, thence to the ground.  While the scenes underfoot and overhead were wild in the cemetery proper, it was hard to cast off the effect those empty graves first had on the mind.

"In the night," said the policeman, "those empty graves look like shadows only.  By all means the front part of the cemetery should be leveled, the graves filled, the steps mended and, perhaps, a high fence built.

"Whether a fence is needed in front is a question some people will be disposed to argue, for some people like to look at unkept graves.  With them a well-kept cemetery would never cause a comment.

"This cemetery contains hundreds of graves representing welath and poverty, power and weakness, the ruler and the subject, and many of its tombstones mark the graves of the fathers of the first families in California, yet it is left to fall into decay.  One tombstone has the inscription:

Remember, man, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be;
Prepare for death, and follow me.

And for that reason it seems the living would care more for the homes of their dead, where they too, will soon be.

"This is a favorite resort of mine," continued the policeman.  "When off duty I often come here and sit on a tomb and meditate.  One night I came in here and was walking back to the grave of an uncle of mine.  As I went down the path my hat struck against the overhanging branches of a weeping willow.  I felt a thrill travel down my body, my heart paused in terror, my hat left its place and my hair seemed to bristle with electricity.  I was scared for the second time, then I had to laugh.  I thought a thousand things in a second, yet I didn't think at all, for I seemed to comprehend all the terrors in existence.  That is the reason I asked you whether you were afraid of ghosts.  Whenever I get sad or think too much about some difficulty in life I come here and ponder over it, so naturally I take the greatest interest in these graves.  I know many of them, and can correct popular mistakes."

"For instance, it is generally supposed that the once notorius pugilist 'Yankee' Sullivan—John L.'s namesake—who died in 1856, was among the exhumed, but that is a mistake.  I searched several times for the body during the past year, and found it at last about 100 feet back and quite near two large tombs that may easily serve as guides for future searchers, as they are the largest tombs in the cemetery.  The stone was erected by James Malley, one of Sullivan's admirers, in the year 1858.

"In contrast with 'Yankee' Sullivan's life and his end there is one to cause much reflection on the other side of the cemetery.  It is the grave of James P. Casey, who was hanged by the Vigilantes.  Over his grave the members of Crescent Fire Company, No. 10, of which he was foreman, erected a sandstone monument of a peculiar design but it is 'chipping' away and partaking of the common ruin.  He was hanged on May 22, 1856, when but 27 years of age, for the killing of James King of Wm.  Even in death his tomb reflects a sarcasm in the prayer: 'May God forgive mine enemies.'  This grave is one of the most frequented and best known for the violence of the man's career and the manner of its ending."

Close to the plot in which are the remains of Casey is a tall monument, a broken marble shaft which tells a tale of heroism. It marks the last resting-place of Thomas Murphy, a member of Columbian Engine Company, No. 11, who died while endeavoring to save life at a fire.  The shaft was erected by the city of San Francisco, a tribute to the fireman's worth and heroism.

The next grave visited was that of the first Governor of Upper California under Mexican rule.  It is marked by a big modern shaft of pure milk-white marble, and stands near the mission chapel.  Being in so conspicuous a place and less incumbered with undergrowth and climbing foliage, it is one of the best known.  The inscription is in Spanish, as follows:

Aqul Vacen los Restos del Captain
Don Luis Antonio Arguello
Primer Gobernador del Alta California bajo el
Gobierno Mejicano,
Nacio en San Francisco, el 21 de Junio, 1784,
y Murio en el Mismo Lugar el 27 de Marzo, 1830

"Right near the Arguello tomb," pursued the policeman, "there is a vault, on the door of which is a tablet with the name 'J. G. White.' That man was buried there twenty years ago and was not embalmed, yet to-day his body is in a state of rare preservation, as a dozen people who have seen it can testify.  My folks saw the remains three years ago, and they were then merely browned a little, like a mummy, but no so dark, and his hair and beard were very long, having been growing since he was first entombed.  It is more than a local superstition, as too many people have seem him for that."

Source: San Francisco Morning Call, 6 March 1891.


Return to San Francisco Genealogy
Public Commons License