History Blog

Grave Matters: History Lies Beneath Our Feet!

San Diego’s parks and open spaces abound with history underground!

Did you know that Henry Fitch, an early American sea captain and trader; Yankee Jim Robinson, a convicted boat thief;  and Father Antonio Ubach,  former religious leader for the Mission San Diego de Alcalá, are just a few of the thousands of people interred in San Diego’s earliest graveyards and cemeteries?  To most travelers, and residents alike, little is known of these individual’s lives or of their final resting place.  El Jardín del Reyes (King’s Garden), El Campo Santo Cemetery , and Calvary Cemetery respectively are names of the three final resting places that these three individuals are interred.  You would never know to look at them today because they are well manicured locations on public grounds.  Go visit one of them and you will be surprised that there is nothing to indicate that beneath your feet are the interred remains of thousands of past residents of San Diego, whose grave markings have simply melted into the surrounding environment, obscured by the passage of time and the elements, or have been covered over to allow for the expansion of the city.  Some locations have bronze plaques dedicating the location to those who are interred, but nothing describing how at one point, that was hallowed ground.  This can be a bit arresting for some who have picnicked or laid upon the grass on Presidio Hill in Presidio Park to learn of the human remains that could be found beneath them.

Without grave markers, maps, or charts indicating the physical location of those interred, we are left with a challenging dilemma.  How do we find out who is buried there and when they passed on?  Where can one go to examine the documents and historic records of these former burial grounds?  Are there resources available to allow our exploration of public parks and open spaces without physically digging up a site and destroying its historic integrity even more?

The History Center Archives is one of those repositories as our document collection has maps, diaries, journals, government contracts, even rare film footage to help fill the void.  Our photograph collection reveals what the area looked like at various times and can give us clues as to decisions made on land use, water issues, habitat protection, etc.  In the past, the History Center has been a resource to universities who would sponsor digs at the sites. By comparing their findings with written documents and descriptions from early visitors to San Diego, we begin to see a clearer picture of what things looked like and understand the story of our earliest beginnings here.

So what is beneath our feet in San Diego?  Let’s start by looking at the three locations previously mentioned.

El Jardín del Reyes or The King’s Garden

Presidio Hill in Presidio Park gives no indication that anything resembling a graveyard or burying place exists there.  Instead we see the maturity of the park plans laid out by George Marston and landscape planner, John Nolen who in 1929 gave the park to the city of San Diego for enjoyment of future generations. On that spot on Presidio Hill in 1769, Father Junípero Serra and military commander, Gaspar de Portolá established the first European settlement in Alta California.  Graves of early settlers were found in the floor of the original chapel as well as the surrounding churchyard immediately to the south of the chapel site.  Because the settlement maintained approximately 400 people over its lifespan from 1769 to 1839 when the last of the residents left Presidio Hill to build in Old Town, there are likely burials strewn across the hillside and around the chapel.  So who lies beneath?

Among those interred on the hillside, are indigenous people (Kumeyaay), Spanish soldiers, missionaries, Mexican residents, and even some former American citizens.  Although extensive records were kept by Father Serra, and the other missionaries of deaths of the residents in the earliest days, much of those records were lost in the fire at the new Mission site in 1775 when the local Indians attacked it.  Archaeological excavations at the site, led by teams of archaeologists from San Diego State College (1968) and staff members from the San Diego Historical Society, revealed not only the location of graves, but even unearthed the coffin of American sea captain, Henry Fitch,  who’s burial in 1849 is the last recorded burial on Presidio Hill.

Much has been written about the excavations and artifacts uncovered during the Presidio excavations in various editions of the Journal of San Diego History by the students, staff and faculty of San Diego State College, now San Diego State University.  The City of San Diego Park and Recreation Department houses many artifacts too.  Over the years, additional historical documentation has been found that connects the site to the individuals who used it and are buried there.  And although the physical remains of the deceased are still in their original place, only the recorded memories of Presidio Hill’s use as burial ground endures.

The Demise of El Jardin de Reyes:

King’s Garden was abandoned by 1839.  By then, Mexico had fully acquired the lands from Spain, and residents were moving off the former Royal  Presidio site to create a new life for themselves at the base of the hill in what is now Old Town.  As residents left the former fort, little concern was kept for the maintenance of the early residents’ gravesites, and little attention was paid to the churchyard or even the chapel.  In 1841 the chapel’s roof tiles were sold and removed.  Having been built of adobe, and exposed to the weather, rain soon wore away at the building and the graves within it.

Unintentional damage was done to the site with the preservation efforts of George Marston and John Nolen when creating Presidio Park.  Heralded as the site “where California began,” Marston was interested in preserving the withering remains of the adobe structures, but chose a rather unconventional way of doing so by covering the remains with mud and silt from the San Diego river close by.  This practice stopped the natural erosion of what remained, as much as the chipping away of the structures by visitors to the historic site before it was deemed a public park.  Marston’s efforts resulted in several feet of landfill being dumped over the existing ruins and the chapel graveyard.  Looking at the site today, one grasps the size of the church, by the protruding walls, but the shear depth to the original chapel floor is obscured by the thick layer of mulch and grass that has provided a picturesque scene, replacing the active center of this early settlement site.  The size of the original graveyard is also not known, as it is believed that the south wall erected by Marston to show the full size of the original presidio site seems short in comparison to the historic record.

What remains of El Jardin del Reyes is under layers of earth.  Perhaps in the future, additional interest will result in the unearthing of the graveyard once again.  Meanwhile it remains as one of a few burying places that leaves hundreds of untold stories of those long departed souls presently preserved under our feet.

El Camp Santo Cemetery (The Holy Field), Old Town:

Located a short distance from King’s Garden is the former Catholic cemetery, El Campo Santo or The Holy Field, set aside for the burgeoning community of Old Town in 1849.

El Campo Santo’s establishment represents America taking full possession of its newly acquired territory.  The creation of the cemetery, now located on the outskirts of town, is a transitional burying place from the traditional churchyard to the rural cemetery.  Mount Auburn Cemetery in Boston is the first established rural cemetery in the United States, and opened in 1831.  Mount Auburn is a garden cemetery with fountains, ponds, lawns, and a variety of horticulture providing a peaceful setting for quiet contemplation and an escape from chaotic city life.  El Campo Santo falls far short of that park-like atmosphere, but it does indicate that a mindset change had occurred, that former burial practices and places were seen as unhealthy, and potentially hazardous to the lives of the residents surrounding them.  With advances in understanding the health of the human body and discovery of illnesses brought on by contamination of water supply, the placement of El Campo Santo suggests that this knowledge of providing sanitary conditions had arrived in San Diego by the time this cemetery was opened for interment.

It’s surprising to note that, just like King’s Garden, well over 400 burials took place on the site during its use.  477 people in fact are interred at El Campo Santo, and their roles in the community’s development are as varied as the structures that line the plaza today.  Some of the city’s most notorious citizens are buried there including Yankee Jim Robinson, noted boat thief who was sentenced to death by hanging, and Antonio Garra, a Cupeño chief who was convicted in 1851 of inciting the local indigenous people to revolt against the Americans and to expel them from Southern California.  His sentence, death by firing squad, took place at his gravesite within the cemetery.  As he was shot, he fell backwards into his grave, and was subsequently buried.

Also hidden to the local passersby is the actual physical size of the original cemetery.  At first glance, the place doesn’t appear large enough to house 100 gravesites let alone four times that amount.  So what happened to all of the graves and markings?

The Demise of El Campo Santo Cemetery

In 1889, a north-south spur of the Santa Fe Railroad running from San Diego to La Jolla was proposed.  It would run through Old Town, and subsequently through the middle of El Campo Santo Cemetery.  At the time, little concern was given to the families interred there.  The grave markers were simply removed but not the physical remains.  The tracks were laid and the train cut through the cemetery on a daily basis until the 1940s when the city decided to expand the adjacent San Diego Avenue to allow vehicular traffic as well.  The new roadway simply paved over the gravesites of those previously buried there.  It wasn’t until the San Diego Historical Society began a restoration project of the cemetery that these additional graves were revealed.  While building an adobe wall on the western side of the cemetery, intact graves were found but on the outside of the cemetery.  The community’s reaction to finding the graves led to the placement of the Grave Site medallions embedded in the adjacent sidewalk and street outside the wall.   A plaque hung on the adobe wall at the cemetery entrance provides a visible map of the location of the graves marked on the surface with the medallions.

Pioneer Park

The harsh present conditions of El Campo Santo Cemetery compared to our third cemetery, Pioneer Park in Mission Hills, is dramatically different.  Pioneer Park is the former Calvary Cemetery established in 1870 as a divided cemetery with areas reserved for both Protestant and Catholic burials.  At its closure in 1968 it is estimated that between 1800 and 4,000 people are interred there.  But there are no gravestones scattered throughout the grounds to indicate this multitude.  Instead when you visit here, you will find a beautifully landscaped lawn, adobe walls along its perimeter and a variety of low growth flowering trees and towering Eucalyptus trees, which based on their shear height and size, must be some of the original trees planted here in 1870.

Regrettably Calvary Cemetery has been drastically changed and looks nothing as it did when first opened for burials.  Infer red scanning of the grounds today indicates the location of the remains of deceased individuals buried their decades before.  However, on the surface there is only a low lying copper plaque towards the eastern side of the Park, divided into 6 separate sections that list the names of the 1800 known individuals to be buried there.  Beyond that plaque is a row of tightly fitted gravestones grouped together by civic clubs, religious sects, and prominent families who shaped the region’s history.  But many more individuals will be forever lost to time, as the record of their burial no longer exists, and neither does their grave marker.  But who are some of the individuals that are still interred there?

The grave marker of Father Antonio Ubach, religious officiant of the Adobe Chapel in Old Town, and overseer of the Indian school at the Mission San Diego de Alcala in the 1840s and 1850s, is one of the leading individuals buried there.  Father Ubach was a lifelong supporter of the indigenous people left with the mission when it was secularized during the Mexican period.  Father Ubach’s gentle demeanor and unwavering support of the Indians would be captured and recast as Father Gaspara in the romantic 19th century novel Ramona published in 1885 by Mrs. Helen Hunt Jackson.  This casting made Father Ubach rather famous and many people would come to San Diego on a quest to find the beloved Father Gaspara.  Ubach would also be instrumental in working with Reverend Mother Mary Cummings in the establishment of St. Joseph’s hospital that once stood in Hillcrest, now torn down, and affiliated with Scripps Mercy Hospital today.

Additionally, the gravestone of Cave Couts and his loving wife Isadora Bandini still remain.  When Helen Jackson came to San Diego to do research on the living conditions of the Mission Indians as a representative of the Department of Indian Affairs, she was taken to Rancho Guajome to visit with Cave Couts and Ms. Bandini.  Upon that visit she learned the story of Juan Diego and Ramona Lubo, the real life people who inspired her Allesandro and Ramona characters in her novel dealing with the US Government mistreatment of indigenous people.  Cave Couts is often misquoted as being the justice who oversaw the court proceedings of the shooting death of Juan Diego, a Cahuilla Indian living in northern San Diego County and sheepshearer by trade, by Sam Temple, a white cattle rancher.  Although Couts was involved in Indian Affairs in his career, he did not oversee the Temple trial.

Fortunate we are that these two unique yet inexplicably connected stories could be reclaimed from the utter destruction that would befall Calvary Cemetery.  In its stead, we find the beautiful Pioneer Park. How did this happen?

The Demise of Calvary Cemetery

Calvary Cemetery had its first interments in 1870 and the last was in 1960.  With the opening of Holy Cross Cemetery, a new Catholic Cemetery in 1919, interest and use of Calvary began to fade, and eventually peter out altogether.  Attempts to rehabilitate the cemetery were undertaken during the Depression to keep people working as public parks were part of the WPA program.  Regrettably by 1968, due to lack of any internments since May 1960, the city listed the cemetery as abandoned. The cemetery was raised in 1969 after claims that it posed a health hazard to local residents.  Headstones and footstones were pulled up without concern to whether the families of these individuals might still be somewhere in the city.  The stones were mounded into trucks and taken to a ravine in Mount Hope Cemetery where they were thrown into heaps.  Many of the stones were severely damaged, while others were separated from their bases or groupings as they were at Calvary.  The destruction may have been quickly brushed away had it not been for the trolley running past the gravestones that were discarded.

Commuters on the trolley began questioning where the stones had come from, and how it was allowed that they could be tossed so haphazardly in the ravine. Public outcry led to the city rethinking its action, and set to work on salvaging stones in both Mount Hope and Pioneer Park.  These stones were not placed in a long line at the farthest reach at Pioneer Park until 1988.

After review of these three examples it is evident that today’s society looks at the burial places of individuals from decades, even centuries before as something more to be forgotten.  Regrettably, as a result, the stories of individuals and their contributions to the community are threatened to be lost to time.  Although there are attempts to at least secure deteriorating cemeteries, neglect and vandalism continue to plague this unprotected places in our communities.  Perhaps it is that our attempts to remove ourselves from the inevitability of death, and not visiting these final resting places regularly, we lose sight of the significance of them in telling our community’s story.  Each of the people buried in these places had a marker placed at their gravesite in the hopes that they would not be forgotten.  But if we don’t look more closely to their preservation and care, then they are certain to journey into obscurity.

Welcome to the San Diego History Center Blog

Welcome to the History Center’s new blog! Posts will explore topics relevant to San Diego’s past, present, and future. Each week, discover new stories about our community mined from our vast object, document, and photo collections.

This October, join us as we explore San Diego’s evolving attitude towards death in our series, “Grave Matters: San Diego’s Relationship with Death.”

While death itself has remained a constant in life, attitudes surrounding death and ways of interring the deceased have changed over the course of time. Views and traditions of death may have shifted, however, like all cultures of the past, San Diegans must still confront our physical contact with the dead, funeral rites, and interment practices, and how we grieve and memorialize those gone before us.