I’ve known M. Parfitt since the late 90s, when she submitted a wonderful essay about dressing up as a little girl for an after-dark tour of Sacramento, California’s Old City Cemetery to my Morbid Curiosity magazine. You can read that story here.
The essay she submitted to Death’s Garden Revisited is about becoming a tour guide at the Old City Cemetery. Her dedication to the people she brings back to life on her tours is really inspiring.
M. Parfitt in mourning garb
Officially, M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings. You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery, or peering into an abandoned warehouse. Her collages incorporate photographs, bloodstained paper, and other unexpected materials.
What’s your favorite thing to do in a cemetery?
Take photos, look for “Mattie” on headstones, and (in the Historic City Cemetery) tell stories!
Tell me about your favorite cemetery.
Sacramento’s Historic City Cemetery is as old as the City of Sacramento and it’s the permanent home of more than 25,000 interesting people. It’s always been a city-owned cemetery, so it’s a very egalitarian place. When I give tours, I tell visitors that any color, any creed, any race, any religion, ANYONE could be buried there. The only color that mattered was green — if you could afford a plot, you could be buried there. There are still about a dozen interments a year, but if you want to spend eternity there, you better have a deed or proof that your ancestors bought a plot, because that’s the only way to get in now. That means I’ll never be buried there, but that’s fine — I just want a little bit of my ashes tossed in on a windy day so they scatter to different plots and sections.
Is there a cemetery or gravesite you’ve always wanted to visit?
I would love to visit Highgate Cemetery in London.
Do you have a favorite song about cemeteries or graveyards?
“Long Black Veil.” It’s been recorded a million times, but Johnny Cash’s version is my favorite.
I had a lot of fun putting together a playlist of cemetery songs recommended by the Death’s Garden Revisited contributors. You can listen to it here.
I hate to rate this book so low, since the author says she cracked ribs and got a concussion in the course of researching it. Unfortunately, the book suffers from trying to cover way too much ground, splitting California’s 58 counties into 10 sections and jamming them into 300 pages. Because it has so much to cover, everything ends up glossed over at speed. I often got the feeling that fewer stories, told in greater detail, would have been more satisfying.
The author chose to focus on the unknowns of history, which means she left out Levi Strauss, Phineas Gage, Emperor Norton…although she does include Wyatt Earp, who wasn’t a California pioneer. She does a very commendable job of including pioneers of color, including William Leidesdorff (although his name is misspelled), Mary Ellen Pleasant, and the Spanish and Mexican land grant owners. She also talks at length about some of the Chinese pioneers who made history in the state.
Rather than arranging each section by cemetery, the chapters flow through various members of each family — often switching mid-chapter to talk about burial grounds in other counties without mentioning they are hundreds of miles away from the area for which the chapter is named. I found it really confusing, even with flipping back and forth to the map to see where each digression took me.
There aren’t many photos in the book (always a complaint for me), but those that are included seem to be placed randomly. For instance, the cross remembering soldiers killed in the Modoc War (in one of California’s northernmost counties) is placed at the start of the Central Coast chapter. The Modoc War itself is discussed 110 pages earlier, in the San Diego chapter. (San Diego is one of California’s southernmost counties, more than 800 miles away.) If the event is important enough to be included, why isn’t it referenced in the appropriate geographic area?
Most disappointing, sometimes cemeteries are given a street address in the text, but often they aren’t. There’s no list of cemeteries mentioned (other than combing through the index), no suggestion of additional resources, no contact information.
I really wanted this to be a terrific book, especially since it was a gift.
If you’re a completist like me and you’d like a copy of the book for your collection, you can get one from Amazon: https://amzn.to/3HGEbPW
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.
411 Coombsville Road
Napa, California 94559 Telephone: 707-252-4727 GPS: 38.297821°N 122.271808°W Established: 1859 Size: 49 acres (only 30 of which are developed) Number of interments: More than 30,000
In 1841, California-born Don Cayetano Juarez received the 88,000-acre Tulucay Rancho from General Mariano Vallejo, the last governor of Mexican Alta California. Juarez used the land grant along the east side of the Napa River to ranch cattle. His 1845 adobe home still stands in the city of Napa and, after serving as a restaurant for many years, is currently being restored.
In December 1858, at the first meeting the new cemetery committee, Don Cayetano donated almost 50 acres of his land to the people of Napa for Tulocay Cemetery. (Apparently, the spelling was changed in the process.) In return, Juarez received a token payment of five dollars. Upon his sudden death in 1883, he was buried not far from the cemetery’s gate. His wife Maria Higuera Juarez joined him in 1890.
A little more than a mile away from the Juarez adobe, the cemetery stands east of downtown Napa on Coombsville Road. Called “one of Northern California’s most beautiful final resting places,” the cemetery spans Napa Valley history from the Mexican government through the Gold Rush and into the modern wine-making era.
Salvador Vallejo, sometimes called the Last Conquistador, was the brother of General Mariano Vallejo. The General gave his brother two land grants in Napa Valley, on which Salvador built three homes. As the head of the militia in Sonoma, Salvador served as his brother’s assistant. They were both captured during the Bear Flag Rebellion in Sonoma in June 1846 and imprisoned for two months at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. Salvador died in 1876 and was buried in Tulocay with his wife Maria Luz.
The Coombs mausoleum stands in the shadow of the Tulocay Memorial Mausoleum.
Nathan Coombs, who came to Napa Valley in 1845, purchased some land from Salvador Vallejo. Coombs went on to found the city of Napa in 1847. He was the first of four generations to serve in the state legislature. He owned a stagecoach line with Sam Brannan and also raised racehorses. When Coombs died of consumption in 1877, 150 carriages rode in his cortege and 50 local pioneers marched. He was buried in the Coombs family mausoleum, beneath the statue of an angel called Resurrection. The angel had been imported from Italy for $1000.
Tulocay’s most important permanent resident is Mary Ellen Pleasant. Despite having been born enslaved, she went on to become a millionaire known as the Mother of Civil Rights in California. After she came to San Francisco in 1852, Pleasant owned several successful boarding houses and laundries and served as the terminus of the Underground Railroad, providing jobs and housing to people escaping the South. Pleasant was one of the financiers of John Brown’s attack on the Armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859.
In addition, Pleasant supported the 1863 Right of Testimony bill that gave blacks the right to testify in California courts. In 1868, she sued the Northbeach and Mission Railroad in the California State Supreme Court for the right of blacks to have equal access to public transit. Her house at Octavia and Bush was known as the Black City Hall. Toward the end of her life, she lost her fortune after testifying in the divorce proceedings against millionaire senator William Sharon. He called her “Mammy” Pleasant in the press. That disparaging nickname stuck, despite Pleasant’s protests.
Although she died in poverty in San Francisco in 1904, Pleasant was buried in a friend’s grave plot near Tulocay’s front fence. A group now called the San Franciscan African American Historical and Cultural Society placed an impressive marker by R. Alan Williams there in 1965. The metal sculpture depicts “a forceful stand, holding a body of purpose,” according to the artist. The white Sierra granite slab was added in June 2011.
Other historic figures at Tulocay:
In 1846, scout and mountain man James Clyman warned the Donner Party not to take the Hastings cut-off over the Sierra Nevadas. Clyman noted that the route was barely passable on foot and the wagons would never be able to make it. Unfortunately, he was right. Clyman kept a diary, which has survived.
Lilburn William Boggs, former Governor of Missouri, came to California in a wagon trail in 1846. He served as alcalde of Sonoma, then went to the California state constitutional convention as a delegate in 1850. Panthea, his second wife, was a granddaughter of Daniel Boone’s. Boggs died in Napa in 1860.
John Patchett came to Napa in 1850. He planted grapes and became the first commercial winemaker in the Valley in 1858. That first year, Patchett used a cider press to extract the grape juice. Somehow, the title of first winemaker was given to Charles Krug (who had apprenticed in Patchett’s winery). Patchett’s last vintage was 1865.
The Sloopers monument
A tall monument marked with a sailing ship marks the graves of Jacob and Serena Anderson. Jacob Anderson Slogvik served on the sloop Restauration, which brought the first group of Norwegian immigrants to the US in October 1825. (Norwegian Americans consider it the Norwegian Mayflower.) Traveling on the Restauration was 11-year-old Serine Tormodsdatter, who married Jacob six years later. They came to California in 1854 by wagon train. The monument was placed on their graves in May 2004 by their descendants. The Norwegian stone honors them as the “Sloopers” who came the farthest west.
Emanuel Manasse, a German immigrant, joined Napa’s B.F. Sawyer Company in 1871. At the time, the company only used the sheep’s wool and wasted the sheepskins. Manasse pioneered a process for tanning sheepskins which made them waterproof. Later he developed a process to waterproof cowhide. Manasse’s so-called Napa Tan process revolutionized the tannery business.
John Greenwood was a retired sea captain who had a ranch in Napa. In February 1891, robbers attacked Greenwood and his wife Lucina, killing her. When the thieves were eventually captured, Billy Rowe, the murderer, was hanged in Napa’s Courthouse Square in 1897. Supposedly, Rowe haunts the Old Napa Courthouse at night. Lucina’s ghost has been blamed for computer glitches at Doctors Insurance Company, which stands on the site of her former home.
Re-enactors stand beside the Grand Army of the Republic monument in Tulocay Cemetery, June 2015.
The Grand Army of the Republic (Union veterans of the civil war) purchased a lot in Tulocay Cemetery in 1914. The Ladies Relief Corps, the women’s auxiliary group, paid for the monument, which was dedicated on Memorial Day 1915, the 50th anniversary of the end of the war.
Another Civil War veteran is buried beneath a marker labeled “Here Sleeps the Brave.” Lt. John Tuthill served in the Ram Fleet on the Mississippi River, using a heavily armed steamboat to ram Confederate ships to clear the Mississippi for shipping. Tuthill developed tuberculosis (called consumption in those days) and came to California for his health after the war. He died in 1868.
William Franklin Brandt was the last Civil War veteran buried in Tulocay. He died in Napa on April 9, 1937. After he was born in 1842 in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, his family moved to Iowa, where he enlisted at the age of 20. He served in Company F, 12th US Infantry for three years, fighting at Gettysburg. He met President Lincoln on a battlefield at one point and was lavish in his praise of the president afterward. Brandt was discharged in Richmond, Virginia in 1865 and brought his family to California in 1884, farming first in Sebastopol, then in Napa.
A historic plaque was placed in June 2012 to remember Eino Lindquist, a Finn who survived the sinking of the Titanic. After working in the Pennsylvania steel mills, Lindquist came to California, where he suffered from schizophrenia. He lived at the Napa State Hospital, where he succumbed to a stroke on Halloween 1958 at the age of 66. The exact site of his grave isn’t known, but he’s buried alongside other patients from the psychiatric hospital in the potter’s field section of the cemetery.
The cemetery contains casualties of both World Wars, victims of the Spanish flu pandemic, and Chinese laborers. In fact, Tulocay has a large Chinese immigrant section. If the graves were ever marked, their temporary wooden monuments have either deteriorated or burned in one of several fires to sweep the cemetery.
Tours of Tulocay were hosted formerly by Napa Valley Landmarks. These often drew between 150-200 attendees, but were discontinued when historian Nancy Berman retired. Her work continues in the series of self-guided walking tours at http://www.tulocaycemetery.org/cemetery-tours.
I’ve been curious how many of the old Spanish missions still have their original graveyards. This book provided some guidance through its photographs (because, let’s face it, old graves are picturesque), but for the most part, the graveyards didn’t rate much mention in the text. My search will have to continue.
That said, the photographs in this book are really lovely. They capture the interiors of the old churches and the details of their decorations. Sunlight paints the rooms. Outside, the skies are always the luminous Californian blue. Flowers nod and trees drowse and things seem very peaceful. Where appropriate, the museums or recreated cells of the padres are staged as carefully as a photo shoot. This book, whether a spur to exploring California’s Spanish — and Mexican — history or as a souvenir after such a trip, is beautiful to page through.
It falls down in the text, unfortunately, The same details are repeated over and over: the fathers select the mission site. The natives help build a church. It floods. There’s an earthquake or a fire. The soldiers molest the natives. There’s an uprising. Spain hands the missions over to Mexico, who doesn’t want the bother. The missions are sold, then mistreated, then almost destroyed. Rinse, repeat. There’s really little point in reading the whole book cover to cover, as I did, because the story is the same every time.
I would have liked to know more about the native tribes and what they lost. I would have liked to know more about daily life in the missions. I would have liked to know more about those mission churchyards and who is buried there. Who marked their graves and why? How many forgotten Native Americans lie there and what’s been done to perpetuate their memory?
There’s still room for a definitive guide.
I bought my copy at one of the bookstores in San Francisco — probably Green Apple — but if you’re out of town, it’s also available on Amazon.
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