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An important part of each of the California missions was the cemetery, or graveyard, where the dead were buried.  Today, some two hundred years later when many of the original mission buildings have crumbled away, most of the cemeteries are still marked and protected.

The mission cemetery (the camposanto, in Spanish) was located at the side of the church, outside of the mission compound. The entrance to some of the cemeteries was through the church building. A skull and crossbones above the door marked it as the door to the cemetery.  Sometimes the skull and crossbones were actual bones; other times they were carved from stone or wood.  Many cemeteries also had entrance gates in the outside wall.

Very soon after each mission was built, there was need for a cemetery. The Spanish padres and soldiers who came to California brought with them from Europe and Mexico diseases that were previously unknown in California. Measles, chicken pox, and smallpox were not necessarily fatal to the Europeans, who had developed immunity to these diseases. For the Native Californians, however, who had never encountered these diseases before, they were deadly.

Adding to the unhealthy situation for the native people were the living conditions at the missions. The crowded quarters, with no separate place for those who were sick, caused disease to spread rapidly. Sanitation facilities (toilets, clean water) were often inadequate. Diseases like smallpox and measles reached epidemic proportions, spreading rapidly among the native people.

In general, the mission padres were not noted for their healing skills, and an infirmary or hospital was not a part of each mission. Though the death rate was high at every mission, it was particularly high at Mission San Francisco de Asís (Mission Dolores). Perhaps the damp San Francisco climate added to the health problems of the people at this mission.

One of the padres noticed that the weather across the bay to the north was much sunnier and warmer, because the land was sheltered from the ocean by mountains. Mission San Rafael Arcángel, established there in 1817, provided a better place for people to get well. Father Gil y Taboada, who had more medical knowledge than most of the padres, served at Mission San Rafael Arcángel. Sick people from many of the missions were sent there, and some of them did get better.

Still, throughout all the mission years, the death toll for Native Californians was very high. Thousands are buried in each of the mission cemeteries. At Mission Dolores, it is recorded that over 5,000 native people are buried in unmarked graves. Mission San Gabriel’s cemetery holds the bones of about 6,000 Native Californians. A document reporting on the “State of the Missions on December 31, 1832” (after 63 years of the missions in California) lists total baptisms of 87,787 and total deaths of 63,879.

The Native Californians at the missions were often wrapped in their blankets for burial, without a coffin. Wooden crosses marked the graves in the mission cemetery. Over time the wood decayed. Some of the wooden crosses were replaced with stone markers, still visible today, indicating who was buried in that spot.

In many cases the individual names of those buried have been lost, and a common memorial of stone or a statue marks the area where hundreds of Native Californians are buried.

At Mission Santa Bárbara, more than 4,000 Indians are buried in the cemetery. One of these is Juana Maria, the Indian woman who lived alone for 18 years (1835-53) on San Nicolas Island. A marker on the wall of the cemetery tells about Juana Maria. The book Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell is a story based on her life.

Native Californians were the first to be buried in the mission cemeteries. During the mission period, there was a higher death rate among the native people than among the Europeans. However, padres and soldiers also died at the missions. The bodies of mission padres were often buried inside the church, under the floor of the sanctuary. At Mission San Diego, the first of the California missions, five Franciscan priests were buried in the mission church. Father Serra, founder of the mission chain, was buried in the church at Mission San Carlos Borromeo.

The cemetery at Mission San Miguel was the burial place for eleven murder victims.  In 1848, William Reed and his family were living in an apartment in the mission, which was no longer being used as a church.  The Reeds gave shelter to five sailors one day.  William Reed made the mistake of bragging about how wealthy he had become. Later that night, the visitors returned, hoping to steal Reed’s money. Unable to find the money, they killed Reed and his family. A marker in the San Miguel cemetery shows where the Reeds are buried in a common grave.

As more settlers from Spain and Mexico moved into California, the mission cemeteries became the graveyards for the entire community.  Dysentery, fevers, and pneumonia were common among the soldiers and the new settlers, causing many early deaths.

At Mission San Francisco de Asís, the Native Californian graves in the cemetery were joined by the graves of Spanish captains, Spanish and Mexican civil officials, Irish-Americans, and other immigrants. It is said that much of San Francisco’s early history is recorded in the tiny cemetery at this mission. Francisco de Haro, the first mayor of San Francisco, is buried here, as is Luis Antonio Argüello, the first governor of Alta California under Mexican rule. Many graves are from the gold rush days.

In the cemetery at Mission Soledad is the grave of one of California’s Spanish governors, José de Arillaga.

A visit today to a California mission cemetery is a somber reminder of the many people whose lives were altered by the mission system.

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