Cemetery of the Week #119: San Francisco’s Russian Hill

View from the crest of Russian Hill

View from the crest of Russian Hill

Russian Hill
Vallejo between Taylor and Jones Streets
San Francisco, California
Founded: early 1800s?
Size: 1 acre remaining
Number of interments: unknown
Open: always

In the earliest days of the town of San Francisco, non-Catholic people were often buried where they fell, with sand simply scooped over them. One of the exceptions to that was the Russian graves atop what would come to be called Russian Hill in their honor.

Looking up at the crest of Russian Hill from Ina Coolbrith Park

Looking up at the crest of Russian Hill from Ina Coolbrith Park

“The Russian sailors buried their dead at the crest of [what would later be called] Vallejo Street, because the hard clay remained firm, unlike the sand on the summits of other hills,” reports Hills of San Francisco, published by the San Francisco Chronicle in 1959. It goes on to say that the dead men were seal hunters who had died aboard a ship commanded by Count Rezanov.

That would put their deaths early in California’s written history, as Nikolai Rezanov reached San Francisco’s Presidio on April 8, 1806. The modern biography on the National Park Service’s Presidio site says that he wasn’t a fur trader as much as a bureaucrat, trying to establish trade with the Spanish in California in order to resupply the Russian outpost in Sitka, Alaska. The Spanish refused to trade, but as negotiations dragged on, Rezanov fell in love with the Spanish Commander’s 15-year-old daughter, Concepcion Arguello. Her parents agreed to let them marry and Rezanov returned to Russia to secure permission of the Russian Orthodox Church. He died of pneumonia before he could return. Concepcion became a Dominican nun in Benicia, California, where  she remained until her death in 1857.

There are old pioneer reports of Russian crosses on the hill. Because it is so steep, the hill remained a goat pasture, covered in wild mustard, for many years as the city filled in around it.  This is San Francisco by Robert O’Brien describes the site during the Gold Rush era: “The top of this hill then was grass, bleached in the summertime, and rock and mustard.”

Local historian Michael Svanevik said in a lecture at Cypress Lawn Memorial Park that he believes the bodies are still beneath the surface of Russian Hill. Where, exactly, is a matter of conjecture. Some historians vote for the end of Vallejo Street, where it deadends into a bulkhead above Jones Street. Doris Muscatine, in her book Old San Francisco: The Biography of a City, reports that: “the exact site is now a ramp and staircase on the corner of Jones and Vallejo; during its construction, the work crews unearthed several skeletons.” John W. Blackett second that on his San Francisco Cemeteries website, mapping the Russian graveyard “at Vallejo and Jones Streets, overlooking Ina Coolbrith Park,” but he means Taylor Street, which lies alongside Coolbrith Park. I suspect the graveyard spanned the whole crest, from Jones to Taylor.

Rhoads_RussianHill_0969A bilingual plaque placed by the Russian government at the peak of the park says that “Russian Hill was named for the graves of several sailors of the ‘Russian-American Company,’ who died here in the early 1840s. During the Gold Rush, the 49ers found their graves, marked by wooden crosses, at the top of this hill and added graves of their own. The graves were removed or built over during the 1850s.”

Closeup on the English side of the plaque

Closeup on the English side of the plaque

It is possible that both stories are true: that the graveyard was used as early as 1806 and was still being used by the Russians during the early years of the Gold Rush. The whole truth probably will never be known, unless archaeologists get a chance to exhume any remaining skeletons and examine them. If they find a skeleton with a handful of dated coins, the whole story can be laid to rest.

Blackett believes there were never more than 30-40 graves here and that they — most of them, anyway — were moved to Yerba Buena Cemetery, where the Asian Art Museum and the Main Public Library now stand. Most (though not all) of those graves were exhumed in 1871 and moved out to the new Golden Gate Cemetery where the Palace of the Legion of Honor now stands.  Most (though not all) of those graves were exhumed in 1907 and moved to the new graveyards in Colma, California. However, more than 300 — and perhaps as many as 800 — skeletons were found when the Legion of Honor was retrofitted after the 1989 earthquake.  It’s generally accepted that many of the 16,000 pioneers buried here remain in place, with only the headstones being moved.

Perhaps some of our mysterious Russians lie among them.

Useful links:

National Park Service retelling of Conception & Rezanov’s love story

The San Francisco Chronicle has updated the Hills of San Francisco Russian Hill essay

There are plenty of used copies of Hills of San Francisco on Amazon.

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About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. My science fiction trilogy begins with The Dangerous Type in 2015. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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3 Responses to Cemetery of the Week #119: San Francisco’s Russian Hill

  1. coastalcrone says:

    Very, very interesting! Another mystery.

    • Loren Rhoads says:

      I find the whole thing really strange, since San Francisco is really young as cities go. The Spanish knew where they’d planted everyone, but once they left and the Americans took over from the Mexicans, bodies seem to have been lost all over town. It’s hard for me to understand how that happened.

      I always love to get your comments!

      Loren

  2. Pingback: Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World | Transformational Cemetery Design

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