San Francisco National Cemetery
1 Lincoln Boulevard, Presidio of San Francisco
San Francisco, California 94129
Telephone: (650) 589-7737 or 1646
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.
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.
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.
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 CemeteryRegistry.us