Calistoga’s Pioneer Cemetery clings to a steep forested hillside with the same tenacity that the pioneers themselves displayed when they settled this Northern California area.
The recorded history of the Calistoga area begins in the 1840s when the Mexican government began making land grants for ranchos. Samuel Brannan, one of the most influential figures in the area’s history, arrived in San Francisco in 1846 as the leader of a settlement expedition. He engaged in numerous business ventures including the publication of San Francisco’s first English-language newspaper, the California Star, and he ultimately became California’s first millionaire. Brannan was fascinated by the natural hot springs in the Napa Valley and he purchased more than 2,000 acres (8 sq. km.) of land with the goal of developing a spa similar to the well-known Saratoga Springs in New York. According to legend, Brannan gave the town its name by accident in a public speech. Intending to say, “I will make this place the Saratoga of California,” he fumbled the sentence and instead said, “the Calistoga of Sarifornia.”
Available literature dates the cemetery’s initial creation to 1877 when Samuel W. Collins, a resident of Calistoga, and a veteran of the Civil War, established his own private cemetery on the land. Some of the gravestones list dates of death that are earlier than that, so these are likely reinterments from other sites. The site was surveyed and officially established as a cemetery in 1885. Among the notable people buried in the cemetery are veterans of the Civil War, and two survivors of the doomed Donner Party, which saw a trapped caravan resort to cannibalism before being rescued.
Upon Collins’ death in 1893, title to the cemetery passed to his youngest daughter, Anna, who was the wife of local building contractor Henry Lee Hopper. Eventually, the burden of maintaining the cemetery became too great and Anna conveyed the cemetery deed to the City of Calistoga on Memorial Day of 1936. The city has managed it since that time.
As might be expected, many of the cemetery’s records have been lost to history and as a result current burials are subject to considerable restrictions. Only inurnments are allowed, and those are restricted to persons who are related either by blood or marriage to the existing plot owners.