Deaths and Burials

Primary Source

—from Annals of San Francisco, 1855


Yerba Buena Cemetery

This is a melancholy subject for a chapter in our "Annals." The approaches of death are terrible every where, but especially in places like San Francisco. In his native land and own home, the sinking invalid is cheered by the sweet, loving attentions of the woman--it may be mother, wife, sister, or daughter--that is dearest to him, and the kind inquiries, visits and discourse of the friends of his youth or ripened years. He thinks that death has lost its chief terrors when he sees only gentle faces, hears soft and soothing tones, and knows that his worldly affairs are arranged, and that those dearest to his heart will be protected when he has gone. Few of such consolations attend the dying in San Francisco. It is so still; but that was more particularly the case in the times of the great immigration of 1849, 1850 and 1851. It is to these years, and especially to the first named, that the chief interest of the city attaches; and we are naturally inclined to dwell more upon the events of that strange time.

Although the climate of San Francisco is admitted to be unusually salubrious, the mortality which prevailed in the years mentioned was very great. Most of the immigrants had arrived in a state of body which was far from sound. The majority came by sea, and had been subjected to all the ills which a voyage of five or six months duration usually induces. The ships were generally small, old and inconvenient, having never been properly fitted to carry passengers; while all were crowded to excess. The provisions were in many cases scarcely fit to be eaten; and in all there was naturally a deficiency of fresh vegetables and meats. The general diet was of course quite unlike that to which the passengers had been accustomed. Salt, dry and stale food, bad water, want of exercise, and confinement for many hours daily in close, unaired cabins; all these things within half a year's time impaired the strongest constitution, and afflicted many with scurvy and kindred diseases. When such people landed at San Francisco those who were least sick thought they were well enough, for hope at the moment was strong, and buoyant. Those, again, who were confessedly unwell, found there was no suitable accommodation or sanitary treatment to be had. Both classes, while they now had fresh, and perhaps better food than before, had much worse habitations than when they lived on shipboard. Canvas-covered tents, with the bare earth for flooring, were miserable lodgings for sick people at any season, but when the heavy winter rains set in, they became only the abodes of disease and death. As if previous sickness, change of diet, bad lodging, exposure to excessive damp, and sometimes personal dissipation, were not enough to kill, disappointed hopes came in the end to blast the principle of life, and put an end to further misery.

While this was often the case with the newly arrived, the immigrant of a few months older standing had perhaps gone to the mines. There he had been unsuccessful or his already enfeebled constitution was finally broken down by the excessive fatigues of gold digging--and none but those who have tried that kind of labor know or can guess its severity; and he hastily returned to San Francisco, to mourn his crushed hopes, seek in vain for medical relief, and die. Even those who had gleaned a fortune at the mines, when they came to town to spend their gains, soon fell victims to over-excitement and continued debauchery. Gambling and intemperance slew many fine youthful spirits, that in their native land had promised to be great and good men, but who, left to themselves, quickly fell before the temptations and vices of San Francisco. The chief fatal diseases of the time were dysentery and inflammation of the lungs. Brain fevers were also common, induced by excessive excitement. Great numbers, particularly of the new-comers, had ulcerated bowels, as was shown on dissection of the bodies of many of those that died in the public hospital.

In early days, when the inhabitants knew or professed no faith but that of old Mother Church, when Yerba Buena had a civil existence, and San Francisco was still but young, the dead of these places were buried in the church-yard of the mission. Death then came seldom, for the population was scanty; and the loss of half a day was of little consequence at any time to the survivors. But when the great rush of immigrants happened, time became money, and deaths were numerous. Few men would then spare as much leisure as sufficed to accompany the corpse of a stranger--nay, even of a friend, to a grave in the mission burial ground; that is, if the deceased were a Catholic, or if of any other faith, to the public cemetery then established. The distance was considered great--a mile, or two, perhaps--and the way was difficult, and sometimes almost impassable. The usual custom of interring in consecrated ground was soon, therefore, unheeded, and the bodies of the dead were hastily put anywhere out of sight. There was no record of deaths kept by the authorities, and no examination, inquest, or inquiry whatsoever, was made by them. In the bustle of the place, and continual change of the population, the dead man was not missed, and nobody dreamed of seeking for the absent. He perhaps had gone into the interior, or home, or to the mines--any loose rumor satisfied the few inquisitive acquaintances of the deceased. Perhaps it might sometimes flash across their minds that their old mate had made a stranger journey still, one" to that bourne from whence no traveller returns;" then they would shrug their shoulders, mutter a "poor fellow" phrase, and apply to the more pressing affairs of the moment that engrossed all their thoughts. Friends at the distance of many thousand miles might write dozens of letters, but who could give them information of the missing, unheard of, unseen, unknown emigrant? To look for any individual among the motley, changing crowds of San Francisco was fruitless labor. Nobody knew; nobody paid any heed to the dying save the inmates of his own tent or if perhaps he dwelt alone in some small shanty, the dweller in the next adjacent.

As a rule the immigrants were comparatively poor, and could not afford to pay the extravagant fees charged for medical aid; while the dying, disappointed, returned miner, had often no funds to purchase even the daily necessaries of life. There were several private establishments for the sick, but their charges were enormous, and put it beyond the power of ordinary folk to gain admission. The city paid four dollars a day for each patient in their public hospital, and to be received there cost trouble and the aid of friends. At the same time, there was naturally a strong feeling of repugnance to enter such a place. By the majority, its door was regarded as the certain gate of death, and not altogether without reason. Notwithstanding, the city hospital was filled to overflowing, and was the scene of much loathsomeness and misery. But most of the deaths happened in private places. Often the corpse of some unknown was discovered lying in a retired spot, behind some thicker bush than usual, perhaps, or in a remote tent, or at dawn in the public streets. How he had died, whether slain by his own hand or by that of another--whether struck down by sheer hunger, exposure, or disease, could often be scarcely ascertained. The man was dead; and that fact was generally enough for the most curious.

It might be said, that almost in every case the hapless sufferer was neglected and alone; and so he breathed his last. The nature of his latest lament, his pangs of mind and body, his horror and despair, faith, fear, and hope of a hereafter, few had opportunities of learning. His fellow-lodgers, in the tent at night--for during the day most such dwellings were deserted--or the nearest neighbors, or first noticers of the corpse, to rid themselves of a nuisance, dug a hole in the ground behind, or near the tent or where it happened to be found, and there they buried the body. Coffins and shrouds were luxuries which the dead needed not, and the living could not spare. Sometimes the more intimate acquaintances of the deceased, with a lingering regard for his remains, would bear the corpse up to Russian Hill, on the summit of which was a small unenclosed space that many years before had been made use of as a burying ground by the Russian settlers of the town and bay. Or, if they happened to be closer to Clark's Point, they would inter the body on the rising slope of Telegraph Hill, in a dreary spot, which, by common tacit consent had been set apart for such purposes. A thin, flat piece of board, painted white, with a few black letters on it, or a rude wooden cross, stuck in the ground, alone marked the place where the body was deposited and even these memorials were of rare occurrence. Generally, however, the deceased was buried near the place where he died and when the dry, sandy soil, that covered the tomb was levelled by the winds and rains, no monument told what lay beneath.

During this period, a piece of ground near the North Beach was used as a regular graveyard. No permission had been granted by the authorities for that purpose; but after one funeral had taken place, another and another quickly followed to the same quarter, until gradually it began to be considered a public cemetery. It was unenclosed, and to the eye seemed only a bleak and dreary common. Here the same rude style of interment was observed as elsewhere over the bounds of the great encampment forming the city; with perhaps this difference, that the small painted grave-boards and wooden crosses might be a little more common. But all this while, occasional burials in different portions of the city were continuing. People could not be troubled to walk slowly and reverently half a mile, in those busy times, to inter a dead stranger. A shallow hole in the nearest open space served the purpose just as well as the grandest mausoleum would have done. In grading the streets, sinking wells and digging the foundations of houses in after years, the bones of such as had been buried in this fashion have been repeatedly brought to light. In vain may the loving mother and fond sister, the tender wife, affectionate children, and dear friends, on both sides of the distant Atlantic, be still mourning the absence, and continued, unaccountable, cruel silence of the long-gone adventurer; in vain they may patiently wait and tearfully hope for his return with the treasure for which he had perilled ease and life. Like the mother of Sisera, who had gone forth to conquer, they may sit watchfully at the window, and moan aloud--Have the chariot wheels ceased to turn ? And why tarry the fleet steeds ? Has he not sped and divided the prey ? Alas! The proud, hopeful wanderer has fallen. The secret of his death, its time, place, manner, and all its bitter circumstances, will never be revealed!

In February, 1850, the ayuntamento set aside a large tract of land situated nearly midway between the town and the mission, for the purpose of a public burial place, which was called "Yerba Buena Cemetery;" but the distance, the approaching rainy season, and other causes, hindered this piece of ground from being used immediately to any great extent for the ends to which it had been appropriated. For a while, people preferred the other irregular places we have mentioned for burying the dead.

But at last the property near North Beach became desirable for building purposes, and the bodies there buried were exhumed and removed. A proper feeling of reverence for the remains of human beings began to revive. Gradually therefore the irregular interments ceased, and most of the dead were now laid in the public cemetery of Yerba Buena, which began to fill up with a rapidity almost incredible.

A mile farther to the west lies the burial-place of the mission, densely packed with the bodies of such good Catholics as preferred being buried in ground consecrated by their own church and who left money and friends to carry their wishes into effect. Those interred here were chiefly natives of the country or Europeans. The space is small, but the graves are numerous. Scarcely can one find the inscriptions on two adjoining tablets in the same language. Here one is Spanish; the next may be Italian, French, German, Portuguese or English.

Prev. Document Next Document