Obscura Society

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Last Saturday a small group of us gathered at San Francisco’s historic Mission Dolores, for a look inside the oldest building in San Francisco and one of the very last cemeteries left in the city.

At first glance, the Mission Dolores cemetery is a nice example of an older (by California standards) cemetery with tombstones dating back into the early 1800s, a mix of simple slabs and beautiful tombs adorned with carvings of sleeping lambs or angels. The gently leaning tombstones were sufficiently creepy to make the little goth kid inside of us happy, and the replica of a Native American reed hut was equally intriguing for our inner 4th grader, the audience most historic sites cater to today. As with most of the tours we take, the story behind a the Mission and its cemetery brought a new perspective the tombstones we stood among and the ground we stood on.

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Once a massive cemetery that included most of the surrounding land, the Mission Dolores cemetery is now small with grave stones for only the newest and most important of its inhabitants. Standing in the pathway between marked graves it was hard to shake the notion that we were standing on the un-marked graves of many layers of San Francisco history, bodies buried several deep. I couldn’t help but wonder if how the sun bathers of Dolores Park would feel if they knew they were laying on top of the mass grave of unclaimed bodies. I imagine that at least some would shriek and run away.

Tomb of Charles Cora

As we walked around the cemetery our docent told us the stories of some of the men and women buried there.

Three headstones mark the graves of some of the victims of the Gold-Rush era “Commitee of Vigilance” citizens of the nascent city who took the law into their own hands. 

James P. Casey and Charles Cora were smuggled out of the city jail and hung by the committee on the same day in 1856. Casey was a city supervisor who shot a newspaper editor who had published rabble-rousing insults about his character, and Cora had killed a US Marshall who has insulted his girlfriend in the theatre. James Sullivan, on the other hand, killed himself while in custody out of fear of his fate in the hands of the committee.

We stood by the tomb of Don Luis Arguello and heard the ill-fated love story of his sister, Concepcion and her intrepid Russian love - who returned all the way to Russia to seek permission to marry her, but who died before they could be reunited. Concepcion never recovered from her loss, and lived the rest of her life as a nun. Their tragic tale has inspired books and operas. 

We left on Saturday evening with new people to research, Russian operas to find, and a greater appreciation of the little mission in the heart of our city’s landscape and history.


Flickr Set: Mission Dolores

More photos from Mission Dolores and other Obscura Society Expeditions 


Tours are available Mission Dolores. The Mission and Cemetery are located at the intersection of Dolores St. and 16th St. in San Francisco. They are both open to the public.



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