By Fred Allebach — It is said Mariano Vallejo deeded the Sonoma’s Mountain Cemetery to the city in the 1830s. However, according to local historian Peter Meyerhof, “I have never found any primary document that would suggest Vallejo established the cemetery in the 1830s, or ever gave it to the city…. Although there might have been burials as early as the 1840s, Vallejo actually purchased part of the future location of the cemetery from the city in 1850, and later sold these city lots to other individuals (as seen in purchase deeds). Other Sonoma residents purchased city lots in this area too. Eventually the city acquired all these lots and established the Mountain Cemetery, but exactly when I do not know. There were certainly burials on the privately-owned lots before the city acquired the land.”
Said city historian emeritus George McKale, “I was doing some research at the County Recorder’s Office a few years ago and wanted to pull Vallejo’s gift to the City, assuming it would be in the mid-1830’s or -40’s, but nothing to be found.”
Exact origins aside, locals and visitors alike are taken by the authentic historic atmosphere of what is essentially an enchanting city park. Here in our back yard, the fabric of the town’s rich history is hidden right in plain sight.
The cemetery is a gateway to multiple access routes to the Overlook Trail, via the Veterans Cemetery, and the Second Street East back entrance, all leading to either the Overlook Trail main kiosk entrance, or to the Toyon Trailhead within the cemetery. With a little route-finding experimentation residents can discover many fun cemetery paths.
The original inhabitants of the cemetery reflect a town of immigrants, here to secularize the Mission, and later for trade, fortune, fame, great climate, and excellent farmland. Later came the children of the immigrants, and other travelers through life.
A free self-guided cemetery walking tour can be found in the brochure box at the Overlook Trail kiosk. Those wanting to dig further can visit the Sonoma Valley Historical Society’s archive facility at the Marcy House and ask to look at the Bates and Evans funeral records. Here details about the people whose names are on the headstones and crypts can readily be found. Such a search can be the gateway for larger local historical research projects.
Gravesite construction materials and styles indicate the period during which Sonoma residents were interred. The oldest graves, and retaining walls, were made by master stone masons. Different basalt cutting techniques and mortar joint styles mark an age of craftsmanship gone by. These same stone working styles can be seen on Plaza buildings, downtown stone walls, and the Nathanson Creek Bridge on First Street East. The oldest gravesites are also marked by ornate metal fencing. As the first generations of Sonomans passed, new gravesite styles came into fashion and to a trained eye, a succession of generations and their burial styles can be seen quietly at rest.
Sonoma had its Natives, then missionaries, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo Californios, Gold Rush and Manifest Destiny immigrants, Civil War refugees, and a Second Great Wave of Immigration from southern and eastern Europe from 1880 to 1910. Then came various immigrants on into the 20th century. All of these are represented in the Mountain Cemetery. There is not much if any room left now in the upper, older section but Sonomans can still have their cremated remains in the lower, newer section.
Interestingly, Sonoma is known for its Tuscan and Swiss-Italian immigrant history, yet the cemetery shows many, many German-speaking immigrants. Why isn’t Sonoma known as a place of German immigrants? Public sentiment against Germany from WW I and WW II forced German immigrants and their descendants to downplay their rich contributions to Valley and Bay Area history. In fact, there was no “Germany” when the original German-speaking immigrants came to California.
The Mountain Cemetery is set on the side of Schocken Hill where a large series of basalt quarries flourished for around 30 years, ending in 1910 with the ascendance of the automobile. The quarry hill was circled by wagon roads to take the cut stone and block, and street pavers down to port at the Embarcadero, now on Sonoma Creek at the site of the Larson Winery. The stone was then taken by sail, and later steam ships to the core urban areas of the Bay. Later, rail networks transported the stone, until a Scotsman named McAdam invented a road surfacing technique better suited to cars.
With the quarry closed, and with the importation of coal, and the use of other fossil fuel sources, forest cover grew back over the cemetery and quiet began to engulf the hillside. Within this quiet atmosphere of the cemetery lay all the people who wove the fabric of early Sonoma.
Cemetery residents are unable to do much maintenance work, and many gravesites are in a state of ill repair. Citizen interest in the cemetery waxes and wanes, and many volunteers take it upon themselves to clean up. By frequenting the cemetery one will discover a community of cemetery-focused people. For example, the Sonoma Valley Historical Society has a Digital Landscape Archive project, conducted by Jameson Reeves. The project, said Reeves, “will analyze degradation of the cemetery over time to target and prioritize future maintenance needs.” As well, “the project hopes to publish an online space where people can remotely explore the cemetery.”
Anyone interested in cemetery and gravesite maintenance, particularly of headstones and masonry, should contact the Society. Volunteer stone workers and masons sure could be used to reassemble some of the old rock retaining walls. The families won’t mind.
The city has a cemetery fund deficit of over a million dollars, yet has taken steps to stop the deficit from growing any larger. At various times studies have been done, and talk of privatizing has been brought up, and shot down by public opinion. There are tensions with how different interest groups see the cemetery.
The fact is, cemeteries lose and do not make money, and they monopolize land cities may need for future growth. Cemeteries in San Francisco have had all graves disinterred and moved to other locations to make room for development. Respect for generations past sometimes is not strong enough to defend the final resting places of ancestors. This could be cultural or pragmatic. For example, white people and archeologists seem to have an easier time disturbing graves than Native Americans.
The upshot is that with a historical jewel like the Mountain Cemetery as an integral part of city public lands, used heavily by the public for recreation, city parks maintenance should be done as a routine matter, and not seen as an extra burden. The Mountain Cemetery is the best city park of all. After all, the town’s previous residents paid their dues, in good will, and do not expect to have their social contract abandoned by current residents and city administration.
I met a woman, in her 90s, Helen Vukasin. She was a descendant of wagon-train immigrants who were friends of Vallejo. The immigrant’s land is now where Armstrong estates sits, and south to MacArthur. A few of their planted walnut trees remain, bracketing the Catholic Cemetery on Napa Street East. I went to picnics with Helen and visited the gravesites of her ancestors. Helen’s own headstone now says, under an oak tree overlooking the Valley towards the Bay, “I am not here, I am the wind.”