Oak Hill Memorial Park
300 Curtner Avenue, San Jose, California 95125
Phone: (408) 297-2447
Officially Founded: 1847
Size: more than 300 acres
Number of interments: approximately 20,000
Founded on November 29, 1777, San Jose was the first secular settlement in Northern California. Its original purpose was to raise crops for San Francisco’s Presidio. The first settlers in the pueblo of San Jose were Spanish soldiers who came up from Mexico with Juan Bautista de Anza.
As early as 1839, pueblo officials had started burying their dead under oak trees on the northern side of the San Bautista Hills. By the time surveyor Chester Lyman and Captain William Fisher of Rancho Laguna Seca chose a tract nearby for an official graveyard, none of the original markers remained. Lyman measured 25-1/4 acres for the Protestant and Catholic cemetery, along with four acres for a potter’s field.
The first recorded burial in this graveyard took place on November 22, 1849 when one of the children of Captain Julian Hanks was laid to rest. That wooden marker is thought to have been destroyed when a grass fire swept across the graveyard.
The burying ground was simply called the graveyard until December 6, 1858, when it was finally designated Oak Hill Cemetery. The name changed again in 1933, when the city of San Jose sold it to A. J. Hocking. He renamed it Oak Hill Memorial Park. Under the Hocking family management, a crematorium and the Parkview and Azalea Terraces mausoleums were built and the Garden of the Apostles and Chapel of Oaks were added. The cemetery was sold to a private corporation in 1986. Throughout the years, land has been added several times. Currently, the cemetery encompasses more than 300 acres.
Ygnacio Bernal, grandson of Joaquin Bernal, was born on his grandfather’s Rancho Santa Teresa land grant in Santa Clara County in 1841. Ygnacio spoke four languages and fathered nine children with Jesusita Patron, who lies beside him now.
Maggie Caldwell Fox was the first child born to Anglo-American immigrants who came overland to Santa Clara County. She was born in a damp barn at Mission Santa Clara in February 1847 and died in 1885.
Representatives of almost every early emigrant party — Murphy, Townsend, Schallenberger, Reed, Donner, Branham, etc. — rest at Oak Hill, in the oldest secular burial ground in continual use in California. The first overland party brought Josiah Belden, Grove Cook, Peter Springer, and Charles Weber to the Santa Clara Valley in 1841.
Three years later, Dr. John Townsend led the first party of wagons to come over the Sierra mountains in 1844. He was the first licensed physician in San Francisco, where he also served as the city’s fourth alcalde (mayor during the Mexican era) before he caught Gold Fever. Townsend was also a founding member of the San Jose Lodge 10 of the Free and Accepted Masons. While nursing victims of a cholera epidemic in San Jose in 1850, he and his wife Elizabeth perished.
Several survivors of the Reed-Donner Party wagon train are buried at Oak Hill. James Frazier Reed was one of the party’s leaders, until he killed a teamster on the Humboldt River. The group banished him, so he went on alone to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, California. Once he heard the Donner Party was trapped in the Sierras by an early snowfall, Reed attempted to return to the party to resupply them, but was unable to reach them. He returned to the mountains the following February to help with the rescue. His wife and stepchildren survived the winter. After they settled in San Jose, Reed donated $34,000 in 1849 to provide a capitol building for the first State Legislature when the state capitol was San Jose. Reed’s daughter Patty, who was 8 at the time of the Donner Party rescue, took part in the 1918 dedication of the Pioneer Monument at Donner Lake.
George Donner Jr. was ten when his parents died in the Sierras during the winter of 1846-7. San Franciscans bought a lot for the boy, who grew up to be a grain dealer and joined San Jose’s volunteer fire department. He died in 1874 and is buried with his four-year-old son Albert. For many years, George’s grave was unmarked, but a large granite monument to the Donners stands there now.
Also formerly buried in an unmarked grave is Anna Maria Bascom, who came to San Jose with her husband (another physician) via wagon train in 1849. She sewed together sheets of denim to make walls for a school and a church. Later, she ran a boarding house where all the politicians stayed while San Jose served as the state capitol. The Bascoms brought the first piano to San Jose. Several sources describe how Native Americans and those of Spanish heritage stood around outside the house to listen to the piano being played. Bascom Road was named for them.
Joseph E. Rucker and his brother drove 200 cows from Missouri to California in 1852. The cattle, which they’d bought for $10 a head, sold for $150-200 each in California. Joseph invested his earnings in real estate. His son Samuel, also buried here, served in the California legislature and was elected mayor of San Jose in 1889.
Mountain Charlie, whose real name was Charles H. McKiernan, built most of the early roads into the Santa Cruz Mountains and ran a stagecoach line between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz. He controlled lumber mills, orchards, vineyards, and raised sheep and cattle. On May 8, 1854, Charlie got between a mama grizzly bear and her two cubs. Although she crushed the front of his skull in her jaws, he survived the attack. For the rest of his life, he wore his hat pulled low to disguise this disfigurement. He died of stomach cancer 38 years after the attack. Charlie’s grave is a California Registered Point of Historical Interest. The plaque remembers him as the “most colorful of all characters in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”
Belle Butler, who staked the claim for the Mizpah Mine — the richest silver mine in Nevada — sold her stake for $338,000. She is buried under a large heavy granite pillar with her daughter Lotty. During her life, Belle was known as the Angel of Charity.
In 1852, Frenchman Charles Lefranc planted grapes along the Guadalupe River on land that became New Almaden Vineyard. His vineyard combined cuttings he’d brought from France with cuttings from General Vallejo’s vineyards north of San Francisco. By 1862, Lefranc was producing wine commercially. In 1887, he came out of his cellar to find a team of horses running amok. While trying to stop them, he was trampled. His injuries led to his death several days later.
Paul Masson emigrated to the US in 1878. He worked in Lefranc’s vineyards and married Lefranc’s daughter Louise. Masson and his brother-in-law Henry experimented with bubbling wines. By the end of the 19th century, Masson was America’s premier champagne producer. The Paul Masson winery in Saratoga is now known as the Mountain Winery, which offers an annual summer concert series.
Jacob Rich, native of Poland, came to San Jose in 1853 and opened a tailor shop. In 1877, he established a public horsecar line. Sixteen years later, he controlled 17 miles of electric streetcar lines. He helped to organize Temple Bickur Cholin, San Jose’s original Jewish synagogue.
Judge David Belden moved to San Jose in 1871, in time to be appointed to the new Twentieth Judicial District. He presided over the trial of bandit Tiburcio Vasquez in January 1875. Afterward, Belden served on the State Supreme Court until his death in 1888.
German immigrant Henry Rengstorff owned six farms and orchards around Santa Clara County. He raised grain, hay, and fruit. The thoroughfare in Mountain View that bears his name used to run to Rengstorff’s Landing, one of many landings along the bay. His monument combines a gothic aedicule over a shrouded urn.
Charles H. Harmon came west at the age of 15 and soon began to paint. His panorama of the Santa Clara Valley orchards in bloom was displayed at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Some of his paintings have been collected by the San Jose Historical Museum.
Internationally known painter Astley D. M. Cooper painted Native Americans and Western scenes. His huge canvases adorned saloons during the 31 years he lived in San Jose. Several paintings are in the collection of the San Jose Historical Museum. His painting “Trilby” sold for $62,000.
Frank H. Holmes and his brother Arthur were the first to drive an automobile in — and back out — of Yosemite. They made the trip in 1901 in Frank’s Stanley Steamer. Frank built automobiles in San Jose until the 1906 quake destroyed his factory. After that, he concentrated on growing and packing prunes.
Mary Ward became California’s first registered female embalmer in 1890. She and her husband William established their mortuary in 1888. She died in 1937.
Mrs. Catherine Smith advocated suffrage for all adult citizens, regardless of gender. She founded the San Jose Woman’s Club in 1894 and served as its president for ten years. She died in 1904. Her family monument is a square monument topped with a shrouded urn.
Buried in an unmarked grave is Carrie Stevens Walter, who wrote and edited the Santa Clara, a monthly magazine of short stories and essays. In 1900, she was the only woman on the Save the Redwoods Committee of the newly formed Sempervirens Club, which established Big Basin State Park and saved redwoods throughout the state. She lies beside her 19-year-old son in the Walter family plot.
In 1909, Charles David Herrold opened the world’s first broadcasting station in San Jose. His station took the call letters KWQ in 1921, before becoming KCBS. He died in 1948.
Much of this information was inspired by from A Walk Through the Past: San Jose’s Oak Hill Memorial Park. My review is here. You can buy your own copy on Amazon here.
Just a pretty view in Oak Hill, with the hills south of San Jose in the distance.