Santa Barbara’s Forgotten Cemeteries

by Neal Graffy XNGH

Halloween brings us the images of ghosts, goblins, and of course cemeteries, where the ghosts and goblins live. While many homes, in decorating for the Trick or Treaters, line the lawn and walkways with tombstones, you’d be surprised at how many homes and businesses are actually on top of old cemeteries.

There are at least fifty known Chumash village sites in the Goleta, Santa Barbara and Montecito area. Not being immortal, they were prone to dying, and in due course were buried in well- marked and established cemeteries in or near the village sites. The villages were usually along streambeds or marshes.

One of the largest villages was “Syukhtun” at the head of West Beach (roughly between the beach, Bath, Montecito and Chapala streets). During the building of the Potter Hotel in 1902, a great number of skeletons were found here, and other burials uncovered over the years during later building construction.

Another thriving site was the Cieneguitas (the little swamps). Not to be confused with the Catholic cemetery of that name which we’ll uncover later, this was in the Hollister / Modoc area.

The Presidio Cemetery

While we tend to think of Mission Santa Barbara as the centerpiece for Santa Barbara’s early Catholic services, it was actually the chapel of the Santa Barbara Presidio that provided the first place for worship, baptisms, weddings, and burials. For the chapel, and its successor, Our Lady of Sorrows were the actual parish churches for Santa Barbara.

The Presidio Chapel in 1855

This cemetery dates back to 1782 with the founding of the Santa Barbara presidio. As it happens, when you get one or more people together, someone’s bound to die, and from this group of newcomers, misfortune favored Maria Antonia Quixada. Only two months old, she was buried at the presidio on December 29, 1782, the first entry in the Libro de Difuntos (Book of the Dead or Book of Burials). At the presidio, interments took place in front, inside, and to the rear of the chapel possibly as far back as Carrillo Street. However, according to mission historian Father Maynard Geiger, after 1806, with few exceptions, most of the burials for the presidio parishioners took place in the Mission Cemetery. The last burial at the presidio was in March of 1846.

“Block 103” Cemetery 

By the 1850s, the presidio chapel was in ruins, and in 1855, a new church, Our Lady of Sorrows, was built at the northeast corner of State and Figueroa. A possible cemetery for the church may have been located in City Block #103, which is framed by Laguna, Anapamu, Olive and Victoria streets. Bishop Thaddeus Amat, who by title was the Bishop of Monterey and Los Angeles (but in my book was also Santa Barbara’s first real estate speculator), obtained the property in 1856 from the city for use as cemetery and it was so noted on early maps. I’ve not uncovered any records to show if it actually got used for that purpose, but I have had a report of a skeleton or body being found under a house in that block.

Montecito-Ladera Street Cemetery

In the two and a half decades of Mexican Californian there were few cases of Protestantism. This was because if you wanted to marry or live here you had to a) learn the language, b) become a citizen of Mexico, and c) become a Catholic. The early “foreign” settlers of California, being driven by hormonal urges, quickly learned Spanish, were cured of Protestantism, and now that they could marry the beautiful senoritas, got families (and land), and thus they and their progeny were born, married, and buried in the Catholic way.

Under the US flag, religion was no longer a barrier to settlement, and with non-Catholics arriving and dying; it quickly became apparent to the city leaders a cemetery for “Protestants and Strangers” needed to be established. The exact location is unclear, but it appears that somewhere in the vicinity of West Montecito and Ladera Streets, the city established a Protestant cemetery.

“Block 186” Cemetery

In 1852, the town council decreed that two large lots “[be] set apart as, a perpetual reservation, to be used as public burial grounds”. The key word to me was “reservation”, for an 1853 map of Santa Barbara shows the key word “Reserve” on city Block 186, which is surrounded by de la Guerra, Quarantina, Ortega and Salsipuedes (Get out if you can – ha!) Streets.

Though this block may or may not have been used as a cemetery, I do know that there was a cemetery in this general vicinity. In the 1880s, homeowners in this area raised a number of complaints, as streets were being graded or wells dug and bodies were coming to light.

The Riviera Cemetery

Standing out on the barren Riviera, the coffin-shaped outline of the Catholic Cemetery can be clearly seen above the town. At far left the building with the dome is the “new” County Courthouse of 1873 at Figueroa and Anacapa. The long two-story building a little left of center is the Thompson Adobe at State and de la Guerra (now Paseo Nuevo).

The cemetery location is pretty much on and around the site of the former St. Francis Hospital and future condominium site (Poltergeist anyone?). The date it opened is (so far) unknown. It could have been the late 1860s or early 1870s. This cemetery clearly shows up in early photographs and a few photographs taken within the cemetery have been found. The high visibility of this cemetery, plus other problems gave the city fathers grave concern. The rocky soil of the Riviera led to graves being dug only two to four feet in depth. After a few rains, graves were exposed and “…in one case the effects of the decomposition of a body were plainly visible at the surface.” The Grand Jury declared the graveyard a “public nuisance” but it would seem Rev. Jaime Vila, the pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, ignored their complaint. Burials continued until at least the fall of 1873, when yet another Grand Jury issued a complaint to Father Vila.

I have no records (yet) showing bodies being dug up and moved to newer cemeteries as they opened. Before Saint Francis Hospital was constructed, the Quisisana (“Here you get well”) Sanitarium, built around 1905, was on the site. They may have dealt with whatever remains they uncovered, but even so, bodies do show up occasionally at that site. Not that long ago (a relative term in my book), work on a parking lot was being done at Saint Francis, and a body was found during the excavation. Obviously, the lids not closed on this one!

The Cieneguitas Cemetery

Father Vila acted fairly quickly after the second Grand Jury complaint. A new Catholic Cemetery was established on six acres of land along Hollister Avenue just past Atascadero Creek. The exact date is unknown. The first burial may have been Jose Rodriquez on November 17, 1873. Or was it? At this time, the property belonged to Thomas Hope, of Hope Ranch. And, it wasn’t until two years, two days and 152 burials later that Hope sold the six-acres to Bishop Amat for $1. Four days later, Josefa Kays was buried, the first official burial after transfer of title. Ironically, Thomas Hope died two months later of stomach cancer.

The entrance to the cemetery off Hollister. This is the only know photo of the cemetery.

There were 1,223, recorded Catholic deaths between November 17, 1873 and August 30, 1896. When the new Calvary Cemetery on Hope Avenue opened (coincidentally Josefa Kays’ husband, John Kays was the first to be buried at Calvary). Not all of these were buried at Cieneguitas. Some were sent out of town and occasionally, some lucky stiff got buried at the Mission Cemetery. Few graves had stone markers. Most had wooden crosses or planks of wood, so fires and the elements soon eliminated those markers, and thus the gravesites were lost and forgotten as the years passed. After Calvary opened, some – maybe a couple dozen have been recorded – were moved from Cieneguitas to Calvary.

New headstones for the veterans at the Cieneguitas Cemetery

In 2000, Ed Strobridge, a man whose mission in life was to locate the graves of Civil War veterans who had no headstones, discovered that some twenty veterans of the Civil War – all Spanish speaking members of the famed Company ‘C’ of the First Battalion of Native California Cavalry and one vet from the Mexican-American War, were buried somewhere at Cieneguitas. Members of a highly secretive historical organization – E Clampus Vitus – approached the Archdiocese (who still owned the cemetery) with a plan to clean up the property, build a small fenced enclosure within the acreage, and install proper military headstones as a memorial for the former soldiers. After three years of meetings and planning, and several weekends of trash and debris removal, the construction was completed, the headstones installed and the cemetery was rededicated by Bishop Thomas Curry. Ed, by the way, got well over 100 military headstones installed for Civil War veterans before he died in 2008, and got one for himself.

Above – the Cieneguitas Cemetery just after the rededication in 2002

The Montecito Cemetery I

According to historian David Myrick’s book on the history of Montecito, there was a cemetery near the original Mt. Carmel Church of 1857, which was in the same location as the present day church.

The Montecito Cemetery II    

From around 1881 to 1918, some 60 to 70 Montecito Catholics were buried at a cemetery along East Valley Road. Their names reflect the early Spanish and Mexican settlers of Montecito – Cota, Romero, Ayala, Lopes, Juarez and many others.

In 1987, overgrown and forgotten, it was discovered by a young Boy Scout named Jay Pion, who attempted to get permission from the church to clean it up as a scout project. His request was denied. Things were better in 2001. After the representatives from the Archdiocese toured the Cieneguitas Cemetery, they went to the Montecito Cemetery. Soon afterwards, a new fence was built, the trees trimmed and much garbage and debris were removed. Volunteers from time to time clean up around the few stone headstones that remain. Like the Cieneguitas Cemetery, most of the markers were wooden, and lost to fire and the passage of time.

One of the many Cota’s at the Montecito Catholic Cemetery

The Pauper’s Cemetery (aka Potter’s Field Cemetery) 

In the early 1900s, the Santa Barbara County Hospital was located along Salinas Street. Adjacent to the hospital was a “potter’s field” for patients who had no known family or were just too poor to be buried anywhere else. From July 22, 1892 to April 3, 1904, one hundred souls were buried here. In 1917, they were dug up and moved way out to the boonies near to what is now Cathedral Oaks Road by the County Administration Offices.

The remains were reburied in little 2’x2’x2′ redwood boxes and the sandstone headstones placed at the head, so the new graveyard looked like the Oz Munchkins had all been buried there. In the common theme for these plots, it became overgrown and forgotten, save for an occasional article in the News-Press when some hiker stumbled across it.

Before the clean-up

In 1997, the Santa Barbara Genealogical Society received permission to clean out the graveyard. Volunteers spent the day removing the weeds, piecing together the broken headstones, and recording the name and dates.

Summing it up…

It’s funny how much time people are willing to spend at a place that no one wants to be at permanently.

There are more “forgotten” graveyards throughout the county, and probably some here in town that we haven’t uncovered. So now that you know what might be under your house … that “knock-knock” you’re hearing might not be someone wanting in…but someone wanting out!

Happy Halloween! – Neal!

Best Bet for the Halloween Weekend     

David Petry is the author of “The Best Last Place” – an excellent book on the history of the Santa Barbara Cemetery. This Saturday and Sunday (Ocotber 30, 31, 2010) , he’ll be giving walking tours of the cemetery. The tour costs $15, and it’s the best fifteen bucks you’ll spend this weekend (the best ten bucks you can spend is on my street names book). It’s a marvelous tour, be sure to reserve a spot!


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