San Francisco History

Yerba Buena Cemetery

Dates of Existence: February 1850 to 1871
Location: thirteen to fifteen acres, triangular plot bounded by Market, McAllister and Larkin streets
Number interred: seven to nine thousand
Moved to: probably City Cemetery
"YERBA BUENA CEMETERY We are informed by the city surveyor that he has staked out this cemetery upon the town reservation and that there is no difficulty in the way of using it as a place of sepulchre. It is situated upon the Mission road and is not difficult of access. He also informs us that already some fifty interments have been made upon the spot. There is enough town property in that locality to make a cemetery sufficient to accomodate the dead of the city for the next half century--at least such is the opinion of Mr. Eddy, and as he had surveyed the lands we presume him to be a good judge of the matter. The great object of having an abundance of ground reserved for the important purposes of burial should not be overlooked and we trust that other localities belonging to the town will also be reserved for this sacred purpose."

Source: Daily Alta California, 21 March 1850. 

"PIONEER CEMETERIES. . .here and at the old Mission Dolores grave-yard were most of the interments made until February, 1850, when the triangular plot of ground bounded by Market, McAllister, and Larkin streets, embracing thirteen acres, was procured. During the sickly season which followed, this new City of the Dead almost kept pace in population with the then distant city of the living. From the time that the Yerba Buena Cemetery was consecrated until the opening of the Lone Mountain cemetery, the number of burials amounted to seven thousand. Here lie, side by side, the rich and the poor no stately obelisk marking the resting-place of the former, but to the living world, reposing as obscure as the latter. This grave-yard is a most forbidding spot to all who take a melancholy pleasure in seeing the homes of the departed, beautiful by reason of natural scenery, and beautified by the hands of the faithful mourner. The cemetery is situated in the midst of sand-hills, and surrounded by sand-hills, through the ravines of which the bleak western winds sweep terrifically during a great part of the year; the only vegetation, the stunted oak or dwarfish chaparral, scarcely less repugnant than the sand itself.

The gigantic strides which the city has for a number of years made in this direction, were so vividly apparent to the city authorities, that an act authorizing a special tax of ten thousand dollars to be levied, for the purpose of removing the remains of deceased persons interred in the Yerba Buena Cemetery, was passed during the Legislative session of eighteen hundred and sixty. The amount was duly raised, and now lies in the City and County Treasury, subject to disposition according to the terms of the act. But is is now stated that it is very doubtful whether the above named sum will be sufficient to disinter all bodies buried in this ground; but, at all events, the money will go far towards effecting their removal, and a commencement should be made at once, for houses peopled with living tenants already cast their shadows down on these subterranean cabins of the dead. The opening of the Market Street Railway has given a wonderful impetus to improvements hereabouts, to remove these remains are the busy hand of enterprise invades the sacred precincts of the tomb."

Source: Daily Alta California, 25 June 1861. 

"The Cemeteries of San Francisco. . .YERBA BUENA CEMETERY. In March, 1850, the people resorted to Yerba Buena Cemetery. For more than four years it was the only burial place for Protestants, and 7,000 to 8,000 corpses were buried there. The place looks very desolate now, but in 1854 there were some beautiful little spots within it. The soils is a pure sand, with an undulating surface covered by small evergreen oaks and bushes. When the undergrowth was cut out, the crooked trunk and limbs of their oaks gave a romantic appearance to the cemetery. Under the shade of the trees, were handsomely ornamented graves."

Source: Daily Alta California, 22 July 1862.

"Bodies Exhumed. Ten more bodies have been exhumed by workmen excavating for the western wing of the New City Hall at San Francisco. This makes seventy that have been exhumed since the work begun. Several Chinese bodies were found. This land was formerly used for cemetery purposes."

Source: San Joaquin Valley Argus, 9 March 1889.

"Sixteen More Graves Discovered on Site of Yerba Buena Cemetery.  Nine more bodies were uncovered by workmen excavating for the Methodist Book Concern's new building on City Hall avenue and McAllister street yesterday, on the site of the old Yerba Buena Cemetery, one of the oldest burial grounds in the city of San Francisco, now in the heart of the great down town district.  This makes a total of twenty-five graves that have been discovered on this site since excavation was begun last week.  The first grave was discovered on Friday afternoon, with a well preserved headstone erected in 1851.

When it became known that the workmen were excavating on the site of the famous Yerba Buena Cemetery, a great crowd collected to watch the uncovering of the graves.  Many rotted coffins were discovered, but in every case, the bodies had completely decomposed, owing to the damp and sandy nature of the soil, and only a pile of bones remained to tell that a human being had once been interred there.

By Tuesday night the workmen had uncovered the remains of sixteen bodies and these were placed in a little box and left for the Coroner.  No one was sent form the Coroner's office on Tuesday night, however, and when the workmen went to work yesterday morning all the skulls in the collection had been stolen.  It is presumed that they were taken by medical students, or ghouls.  What remained of the sixteen bodies was taken away by the Coroner's deputy yesterday afternoon, and the bones will be reburied to remain until, perhaps, the advance of civilization once more unearths them in the midst of a populated district.


Both the United Irish Societies and the Society of California Pioneers have applied for permission to take the tombstone found last Friday and inscribed, "Sacred to the Memory of Michael O'Leary, late of the City of Cork, Ireland, Who Departed this Life October 22, 1851, Aged 32 Years.  Requiescat in Pace."

The Irish societies lay claim to the relic, as it is sacred to the remains of one of their kith, and the Pioneers want it for their museum.  It is undecided yet which society will take it away.

What the law is on the subject is a matter of doubt.  R. C. O'Connor and T. P. O'Dowd, representing the Irish Societies, appeared yesterday on the site of the excavations to take charge of the tombstone, but were refused permission to take it away, until the matter has been settled.

The Yerba Buena Cemetery was bounded by Market, McAllister and Larkin streets, and was one of the oldest burial grounds in the city of San Francisco.  The remains of many men famous in the early history of the State were interred there.  No one knows just when it was established, but it was a recognized cemetery when the surrounding country was sand dunes and the city was a village on the shore line at Montgomery street.  When the burial ground on the property bounded by Broadway, Vallejo, Gough and Octavia streets was established, the Yerba Buena cemetery was nearly filled with bodies.


The Yerba Buena Cemetery was abolished by the city hall act, passed by the State Legislature of 1869-70, providing for the removal of the cemetery and the erection of a City Hall on the property.  The validity of this act was fought long and hard in the courts, on the ground that the tract was sacredly dedicated as a cemetery, and the fight was carried to the Supreme Court of the State in the case of San Francisco vs. P. II. Cannavan, who was at that time a member of the Board of Supervisors.  The act was upheld, however, and the cemetery was removed in 1871.

That portion where the bodies are being found was one of the lowest spots in the cemetery, and it is probable that the graves which are being unearthed may have been covered by sand before the cemetery was removed.  The graves are from twelve to twenty-five feet below the surface."

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 9 April 1908. 

"Old Cemetery Site Revealed.  Argument on S.F. Burial Ground Settled.  San Francisco's old timers have been enjoying debate as hard to settle as the comparative generalship of Grant and Lee, until workmen started clearing the Civic Center site of the new $3,500,000 Federal office building.

The argument related to the site of the old city cemetery.  Test borings have revealed the building site is the location of the old Hall of Records.

The old city cemetery site is located east of the Federal building excavation.  Yesterday workmen on the Leavenworth street extension to Market street, uncovered a marble grave marker bearing the name, "John Connelley, 38, Launceston, V.D.L., Died May 5, 1851."

Nobody now knows who John Connelly was, but he evidently flourished among the first of the pioneers.

Final plans of the Federal building are being drawn in the offices of Arthur Brown Jr., San Francisco architect, and will be completed in about five months."

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 9 June 1932. 

"S.F. Excavators Unearth Remains of 3 Pioneers.  Ancient Gold Pieces Also Discovered by Workers.  Workmen excavating for the new Federal building yesterday unearthed the skeletal remains of three early San Francisco settlers and several gold and silver coins, apparently buried with them in what was probably the city's earliest burial ground.

The remains were found in a spot near the corner of McAllister and Hyde streets, about 15 feet below the present street level.  They had been buried in pine boxes about 2 feet wide and 6 feet long, although little remained of the boxes.

According to H. C. Hall, civil engineer in charge of the work, more than 20 graves have been uncovered during the course of the excavation, some of them with headstones.  Ball said the remains will be left where they were found.

The coins found included two $10 gold pieces dated 1843 and 1847.  Five Spanish coins of the years 1700, 1733 and 1849 were also found, as well as two of Peruvian money."

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 8 March 1934.

"A foundation of bones/Asian Art Museum building site covers a corner of 19th century cemetery.

"As a giant excavator dug a new foundation for the Asian Art Museum, Stuart Guedon stood in the dirt holding a little trowel and looking for pieces of an old one.

"... There are a lot of things buried beneath that skeleton, but nobody expected to find any real bones. Then one day last month, elevator operator Al Richey noticed a white bone in the dirt, uncovered by an overnight rain.  ...Guedon, the on-site archaeologist, got down with his trowel and started digging. When he was finished, a complete human skeleton was uncovered lying face up, hands folded over his chest.

"...'That would be 1893 right there,' he says while looking at a layer of exposed brick that was terraced like an ancient pyramid. Looking at the old maps, Guedon deduced that this was the old City Hall's foundation beneath a row of windows on the northeast McAllister wing. Guedon's job got more interesting when the excavator dug three or four feet deeper than the City Hall foundation to make room for a sub-basement.

"Some of the remains uncovered had been undisturbed for 150 years. The coffins have been reduced to just pieces of wood and a few nails, but the skeletons are remarkably preserved. The other day one was uncovered with three molars showing in his skull and a wooden button on his midsection. He was estimated to have died at 19. Guedon found another one with a vest still on and a coin in the pocket. They are studied, measured, cataloged, photographed. Then the bones are sent to the coroner. ..."

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Sam Whiting, 13 May 2001.

"97 pioneers' remains to be laid to rest again/Asian Art Museum may hold rite for souls.

"The remains of 97 Gold Rush pioneers that lay hidden in the earth for well over a century as the city of San Francisco built over them -- twice -- at long last are being sent to their final resting place.

"...They were unearthed beginning in the late 1990s during the construction of the new Main Library and the Asian Art Museum.

"...Not much is known about the bodies that were found in rotting wooden boxes laid in rows. A forensic pathologist at the morgue has not been able to identify any of them...

"...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 were left behind. ...

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Suzanne Herel, 19 February 2004.


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