Tag Archives: San Francisco Presidio

Beth Winegarner’s San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries

One of the things that I am absolutely fascinated by is the way cities are built up over their dead. In long-lived cities like Rome or Paris or London, it’s inevitable that cemeteries from the past have been built over and forgotten. In San Francisco, which isn’t even 250 years old, the shortness of memory is more surprising.

Journalist Beth Winegarner shares my obsession with cemeteries. Her newest book is “San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History,” which comes out today. In the book, she looks into the cemeteries that used to lie beneath the Presidio Parade Ground, the Asian Art Museum, what’s now a Target, and much more.

I asked her to tell us about it.

“San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History”

by Beth Winegarner

San Francisco is famous for many things: tech companies like Twitter and Uber, the cacophony of sea lions at Pier 39, the Painted Ladies houses, major earthquakes. It’s also known, especially among locals, for not having any cemeteries. 

But what if I told you that settlers established nearly 30 cemeteries in San Francisco between the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the 1770s and 1901, when city leaders banned any new burials within city limits — and that, in the process of moving 150,000 graves to Colma in the early 20th century, tens of thousands of graves were left behind? 

My new book, “San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History” traces the history of these burial grounds, from one at Mission Dolores where headstones still mark the grounds, to a pet cemetery hidden beneath a freeway overpass in San Francisco’s Presidio. It includes many graveyards where bodies still rest beneath the ground while residents, workers, and tourists unknowingly pass over them every day.

Writing is one of my favorite ways to connect with the history of a place, and with the place itself. In my first book, “Sacred Sonoma,” I wrote about unusual places in Sonoma County, in Northern California: Locations where people reported ineffable (or chilling) experiences, or hauntings. I dug into local history, including indigenous and settler history, and created a kind of travel guide to these sites, which remains popular to this day. 

After almost 20 years living in San Francisco, I felt like I wanted to get to know this place better, and a friend connected me with an amazing digital archive of local newspapers. Out of curiosity I looked for articles about San Francisco’s cemeteries, and began to discover just how many there were, how badly mismanaged they were in the early years of the city, and how many were forgotten. 

As San Francisco and its population expanded, graveyards were pushed farther and farther out from the city center. And with so many people coming and going, especially after the Gold Rush, the city had very little institutional memory. A cemetery would be decommissioned, its grave markers (usually wood) removed and sometimes its burials relocated, only to be rediscovered when a new generation wanted to dig sewer lines or build something. Many crews fled job sites because of what they found beneath the soil. 

After San Francisco banned burials, residents voted to move the graveyards south to a small town just outside city limits. The majority of burials, probably about 75%, were relocated, but about 25% remain in place. They’re beneath the Lincoln Park Golf Course, the Legion of Honor Museum, the Asian Art Museum, the University of San Francisco, and residential neighborhoods of the Golden Gate Park panhandle, among others. 

I became fascinated by these discoveries, and moved by the existence of so many abandoned dead. Once I started learning, I couldn’t help but write, in the hope of sharing this history with others and remembering what so many people had forgotten. It’s helped me understand San Francisco better, and I hope readers find meaning in it, too. 

“San Francisco’s Forgotten Cemeteries: A Buried History” by Beth Winegarner (trade paperback, 172 pages, 60 photographs), with a foreword by Roberto Lovato, author of “Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and the Revolution in the Americas,” is being published by The History Press on August 28, 2023. You can order a copy  from Amazon or directly from The History Press.

To find out more and to see dates for local and online events in connection with the book, click here.

You can also follow Beth on Instagram, where she’s posting images of the old cemeteries.

I am excited to announce that Beth will chat about all things cemeteries with me on October 27 at the San Francisco Columbarium: RSVP here.

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 CemeteryRegistry.us