Ye Olde Cemeteries of SF, Part I: Yerba Buena

March 27, 2020

Yerba Buena Cemetery was the first public burial ground in San Francisco. It was located roughly between Larkin, Market, and McAllister Streets, in what is now Civic Center. The site was established in 1850, just one year after people from all over the world started flocking to, and dying, in San Francisco. Prior to the establishment of Yerba Buena, residents were using “impromptu” burial grounds, which are just as yikes as they sound. 

Alas, Yerba Buena wasn’t in business for very long. The land was valuable, and the topsoil was sandy and would frequently blow off, exposing coffins (NOT GOOD). Early newspaper articles report that 7,000-8,000 people were buried there when the city decided to move it. In 1860, city authorities raised $10,000 via tax levy to move the bodies, but reporters at the Daily Alta doubted that it was enough money to complete properly. According to the Chronicle, “The city was supposed to move the bodies to City Cemetery, near Golden Gate Park. It’s unclear whether officials shirked their duty or simply didn’t find the deep graves, but plenty of people got left behind.”

Steam shovel operator Joseph Bush posing with gravestone uncovered during excavation for Federal Building in Civic Center Mar 6. 1933 (image credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY)

And YEAH, did people get left behind. Archaeologist Stuart Guedon told the Chronicle, “All of the bodies presumably had been removed before construction started on the San Francisco’s original City Hall in the early 1870’s. It turns out that some corners had been cut, specifically the corner of McAllister and Hyde streets. . . They actually built City Hall right on top of these bodies.” That would be the original City Hall, built in 1870. The site later housed the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum, and pretty much every time work was done on those buildings, bodies and coffins were found. Newspaper reports from 1889 to 2001 detail these “surprise” discoveries. 

There’s no clear accounting of what happened to all of the folks buried at Yerba Buena. They were supposed to go to City Cemetery. City Cemetery reports 4,118 buried in 1882, after Yerba Buena was closed. But estimates put the total number of dead at Yerba Buena somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000, which means that roughly 3,000 bodies are unaccounted for. 

We know from newspaper accounts that plenty of bodies were left behind, a la Poltergeist,  because they kept popping up during construction. In 1889, the Daily Alta reported that seventy bodies were exhumed during the construction of the New City Hall. In April 1908 the Chronicle reported that workmen found 16 bodies while digging ground for the new library and placed them in a box to be picked up by the coroner’s office. THE SKULLS WERE STOLEN and “it is presumed that they were taken by medical students, or ghouls.” DO NO HARM, AMIRITE? I mean, I guess it’s better than using them for Halloween decorations

Construction work in the area in 1932 turned up a grave marker, and in 1934 workers found skeletal remains, pine coffins and old money. In 2001, builders found ninety seven bodies from the Gold Rush era when renovation work began on the Asian Art Museum - the third public building on the site. The remains were later interred at Cypress Lawn in Colma, after a stern warning from Rose Pak that vengeful ancestors would haunt that shit unless they were properly handled and recognized. 

Image: San Francisco Call, 1898

I gotta go with Rose on this one - we are still being haunted by our origin story. San Francisco a boom town. It grew out of a lawless dirt patch in a stampede for riches that left a trail of chaos and death in its wake. Every couple of decades the newest thing comes along and another boom cycle starts and busts, leaving some level of wreckage behind. Right now we’re dealing with a massive displacement of the middle class as the most recent cohort of tech companies strip mine this town for talent and real estate. Literal billions are being made overnight but Civic Center - the site of the old Yerba Buena Cemetery and now our city government -  is better known for its filthy streets and suffering homeless. We step over the people and needles and the shit on the streets just like we walk on the graves of the forgotten, while City Hall looks on.

OH, WAS THAT TOO DARK FOR YOU? Well just wait until we get to the next graveyard in the series - City Cemetery. The story of that removal makes this one look like a model of efficiency and morality, and as the skeletons grow in volume, so does my INSUFFERABLE PONTIFICATING. I’m sure you want to stay tuned for that one.

Header photo credit:  Goddard, George H. City and County of San Francisco 1869, borrowed from the David Rumsey Map Collection.


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