Monthly Archives: February 2013

Cemetery of the Week #91: San Francisco National Cemetery

San Francisco National Cemetery

San Francisco National Cemetery

San Francisco National Cemetery
1 Lincoln Boulevard, Presidio of San Francisco
San Francisco, California 94129
Telephone: (650) 589-7737 or 1646
Founded: 1846
First known burial: 1854
Size: 28.34 acres
Number of interments: 30,000
Open: Daily from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Of the two official graveyards remaining in San Francisco, one is a military cemetery with a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The cemetery, part of the 1480-acre Presidio, provides a link to the earliest European history of the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1776, the Spanish founded a garrison here to guard the mouth of San Francisco Bay.

In 1922, 38 skeletons—believed to be the remains of Spanish conquistadors—were discovered in an isolated area of the Presidio. The U.S. Army transferred them to a mass grave inside its post cemetery.

In fact, the American history of the Presidio began in1846—four years before California became a state—when the U.S. Army took it over from Mexico. The Presidio became a Union outpost to prevent Confederate seizure of the gold fields during the Civil War. In the 1870s, the Presidio served as a staging center for the Indian Wars. Later, the Sixth Army used it as their headquarters as they fought World War II in the Pacific.

Looking toward the San Francisco Bay

Looking toward the San Francisco Bay at the Visitor Center

The original American post cemetery covered nine and a half acres. In 1851, the hillside on which the graveyard stood was all sand dune and scrub. Prior to the discovery of marble in the Sierras, graves were only marked with wood. Galen Dillman of the National Parks Conservancy told me, “The wind would come up in a storm and send headboards flying all over the place.” Consequently, most bodies lost their identification. Dillman said, “The Army re-interred those that they’d lost track of, plus the original Indian, Spanish, and Mexican burial grounds, in front of the visitor center.” Now a monument to the unknowns labels the mass grave, saluting the valiant dead of past conflicts.

In 1866, Congress established six all-Black regiments to patrol the remote western frontier and fight in the Indian Wars. Although the pay was only $13 a month, many African Americans enlisted because the Army “offered more dignity than typically could be attained in civilian life,” according to the Park Service brochure. Legend has it that these soldiers became known as Buffalo Soldiers because Native Americans thought their curly dark hair resembled a buffalo’s coat. 450 men from the all-Black units are buried inthe San Francisco National Cemetery. Some graves are proudly labeled “Buffalo Soldier.”

In 1884, by order of Lieutenant General Sheridan, the Presidio’s post cemetery became the first national cemetery on the West Coast. The graveyard expanded as needed until it now covers almost thirty acres.

After its rise in status, a lot of the burials at the San Francisco National Cemetery came from re-interments. As the U.S. Army closed its forts in the west, they refused to leave their dead behind. Also, when San Francisco evicted its public cemeteries early in the 20th century, any military personnel unclaimed by their families were brought to the Presidio.

Despite its status as closed since 1992, burials continue in the San Francisco National Cemetery.

Looking past the headstones at Alcatraz Island

Looking past the headstones at Alcatraz Island

Among those buried in the Presidio is Archie Williams. In 1936, Williams ran the 400-meter at the Berlin Olympics, winning the gold medal. Adolf Hitler snubbed Williams and his teammate Jesse Owens, refusing to shake their hands because they were African American.

Upon graduation from the University of California in 1938, Archie Williams had trouble finding work because, Dillman explained, there was so little call for black engineers. Williams became interested in flying and entered the Tuskegee Institute. The quota system of the time guaranteed that if one hundred white pilots graduated from flight school, only ten black pilots could graduate from Tuskegee. Williams made the cut and flew in World War II and Korea.

After his retirement from the Air Force, Williams taught high school mathematics in San Anselmo, not far from San Francisco.

Toward the end of our tour, Dillman pointed out one final trailblazer. The San Francisco National Cemetery is the resting place of Congressman Philip Burton, who wrote legislation to create the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The 75,500-acre national park stretches from south of the city in the San Francisco Watershed (which includes the lakes resting atop the San Andreas Fault) north across the Golden Gate past Point Reyes Station and along Tomales Bay. The park spans redwood forests, beaches, marshes, and grassy hillside meadows. Hawks, deer, and seabirds live there, along with an occasional mountain lion, bobcat, and eagle. Whales visit. The park, a haven for city dwellers, has thirteen million visitors a year.

A clause in Burton’s bill said that if the Army ever pulled out of the Presidio, the land would be turned over to the National Park Service. When the bill passed into law in 1972, the Army claimed it would never leave. However, in 1989, budget measures closed the base. Transfer to the Park Service occurred in 1994.

An island in the midst of parkland, the National Cemetery itself does not belong to the Park Service. It continues to be overseen by the Department of Veteran Affairs. Still, if you’re looking to hear a few stories in a peaceful green oasis, I encourage you to check out the National Park Conservancy’s web site. Its calendar will let you know when you can link up with Galen Dillman’s tour. Ask him to tell you about the Buffalo Soldiers, the Union Army’s female spy, and the daring rescue from the submarine. He brings those stories to life.

Dillman’s next tour is scheduled for March 16, 2013 from 10 a.m to noon.

Useful links:
History of the San Francisco National Cemetery

Department of Veteran Affairs page on the SFNC

Tours of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, including the National Cemetery

Someone else took Galen Dillman’s tour

Park Service brochure about the Buffalo Soldiers at the Presidio

An earlier post about the San Francisco National Cemetery on Cemetery Travel

GPS information on

Cemetery of the Week #65 redux

I hate to do this, but I’m on a short deadline to finish editing the text of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two, which is coming from Damnation Books in April.  I can’t shift gears enough to write a Cemetery of the Week post tonight, so I refer you to one of my favorites:

Manhattan’s newest National Park, the African Burial Ground National Monument.


Cemetery of the Week #90: Braddocks Point Cemetery

Condos overlooking the Braddocks Point Cemetery. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Condos overlooking the Braddocks Point Cemetery. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Also known as Harbourtown Cemetery
1 Spinnaker Court at Lighthouse Lane, Sea Pines Plantation
Harbour Town, South Carolina 29928
Founded: 1861
Size: 1 acre
Number of interments: unknown. Some may lie under the adjacent golf course.
Open: unknown. It lies inside a gated community and one source says you have to purchase a day pass from the gatekeeper in order to visit.

Beginning today (2/6/13) and lasting through the month of February is the Hilton Head Gullah Celebration. Details are available here.

Hilton Head Island is the largest sea island off the United States’ coast from Florida to New Jersey. The island lies off just the coast of Beaufort County, South Carolina. It’s 20 miles north of Savannah, Georgia, and 95 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina. It served as a seasonal home to Native Americans for hundreds of years before being discovered by a Spanish expedition in 1521. William Hilton, captain of the Adventure, named the island after himself in 1663. He spent several days there, restocking his ship from the island’s sweet water.

Modern granite gravestones amongst the historic graves.  Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Modern granite gravestones amongst the historic graves. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

The island became important to the American Sea Cotton trade in the 1800s. During the Civil War, the largest American fleet assembled stormed the island and occupied it. Afterward, it served as the base for Union naval blockades of Savannah and Charleston.

Escaped slaves flocked to the island, where they could own land and attend school while living in government-supplied housing. They stayed on after the war to start a new life. The Gullah culture survives today in food preparation and herbal medicines, in basket weaving, dancing, and worshipping. The Gullah dialect, mostly spoken by elders, combines African pronunciations with European words.

Hilton Head Island has several historic African-American cemeteries. Among them are Amelia Cemetery, Joe Pope Cemetery, Lawton Cemetery (no longer used), Pinefield Cemetery, Spanish Wells Cemetery, Talbird Cemetery, Union Cemetery, and the Braddocks Point Cemetery at the renowned Harbour Town in Sea Pines. Another historical cemetery, although not African American, is the Zion Chapel of Ease.

The Braddock’s Point Cemetery is reputed to contain graves of slaves, but these are unmarked. The oldest surviving headstones date to the Civil War. Descendants of those already interred there continue to use the graveyard to this day.

Handmade gravestone for Edward with a round indentation where a plate used to be. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Handmade gravestone for Edward with a round indentation where a plate used to be. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Charles L. Blockson, professor at Temple University, is quoted in Lay Down Body: Living History in African American Cemeteries: “ African American island tradition places great importance on burials taking place on ‘home ground.’” He continues to say, “Many who once lived on the islands believed that a person is composed of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. When the body dies, the soul departs, but the spirit remains behind and is capable of doing good or mischief to the living. As in West Africa, graves in the sea islands traditionally have been adorned with belongings of the departed and with charms designated to contain or placate the spirit of the person buried there.”

Bare ground and a gravestone with a plate inset. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Bare ground and a gravestone with a plate inset. Photograph by Kathleen Rhoads.

Some of the handmade cement gravestones in the Braddock’s Point Cemetery had or have ceramic plates pressed into them. These represent the last plate used by the deceased and are believed to give them something to eat from in the next world.

Another unusual feature of the graveyard is its bare sandy ground. African tradition emphasizes keeping the grave clean by plucking out all the vegetation. Of course, in the humid island air, this is an ongoing battle.

Useful links:

Gullah History and Lifestyle

Of Graveyards and Things’ post on the Braddock’s Point Cemetery

Photos of the handmade gravestones

Findagrave has a map to the Braddocks Point Cemetery

Basic transcriptions of the Hilton Head African American cemeteries

GPS information at