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The Complete History of the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery 18?? – Present

Written by: Joseph & Judie Palmer

Although the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery’s original name, founding, or first burial are currently unknown, it is the oldest known cemetery in the County and considered to be one of the oldest in California. The history of the Cemetery and its Potter’s Field is both convoluted and partially unknown. Its eight plus acres can be found on Carquinez Scenic Drive with its Potter’s Field (three acres) located west of the main entrance at the bottom of the hill. The property resides within Don Ygnacio Martinez’s 1823 Rancho El Pinole land grant and its first burial might have occurred as early as 1829.

Front Gate of the Alhambra Pioneer Cemetery

Many of Contra Costa County’s early pioneers are buried here, along with John Muir’s extended family and numerous other historic figures. Its idyllic location with vista views of the Carquinez Straight quickly became the chosen final resting place for many locals and County dignitaries. The area’s superior climate was a huge drawing card for anyone interested in agriculture and wanting to make it their home.

“Cemeterio del Hambre” (Cemetery of Hunger) is most likely its original name and probably started in conjunction with the small settlement that began here sometime between 1825 – 1840. Most likely Monterey settlers passing North to Sacramento or East to the Central Valley contributed to its origin. Although no exact start date or population is known regarding the settlement, it would have included at least a trading post and perhaps a few other structures.

Before marble or granite headstones were imported for use throughout the state, the earliest graves would have been identified using simple organic materials close at hand such as rocks, twigs, branches or wooden stakes. Overtime they either were destroyed, removed, disappeared, or forgotten about thereby removing any evidence of their existence above ground.

1849 Original Survey Map

The original survey conducted in 1849 by Thomas A. Brown for Col. William M. Smith, (Don Martinez’s son-in-law) to found Martinez started with the cemetery.  Blocks ½, 1, 2, 3, 4 border the road, while oversized Blocks 200, 201, 202, 203 (which face Benicia) completed its footprint.  Later in 1854, its seizure for payment of unreasonably high back taxes (a tactic widely perpetuated by the US Government as a “legal” land grab from former Spanish/Mexican property owners) allowed Beverly Holliday and John Livingston to purchase the property through a sheriff’s auction.  To make a quick profit, they immediately sold the land in smaller parcels.  This resulted in Dr. Strentzel (John Muir’s Father in Law) becoming the largest individual owner when he purchased Blocks 202 & 203 (date unknown).  

On February 6, 1869, the Alhambra Cemetery Association (ACA) forms with the goal of repurchasing the parcels to place them again under one entity.  Perhaps the ACA is responsible for the cemetery’s moniker change, although Holliday and Livingston are credited for its establishment.  When the ACA buys Block 201 and a couple of other Lots from Simon Blum on March 11, 1875, they become the cemetery’s largest property owner.

Cemetery Map 1882

Colors on map explained: Purple section is owned by Dr. Strentzel, Red is unknown, Deep Blue is owned by the ACA. Section of various colored dots are independently owned and eventually becomes Potters Field.

Earlier that same year Martinez’s Catholic residents decided that they wanted their own cemetery.  From Oroville’s The Weekly Mercury, published Feb 19, 1875, “Three Acres have been purchased and inclosed for a Catholic Cemetery on the sharply-rising ground west of and overlooking the Alhambra Cemetery, near Martinez.”  While Don Salvio Pacheco’s original headstone (Pacheco founder & Concord cofounder) remains in Alhambra, his body and the rest of his family along with most Catholics buried prior to 1882, have been reinterred across the street in the Saint Catherine of Siena Cemetery which officially opened in 1888.  (Interesting enough Don Ygnacio Martinez’s final resting place resides in the Mission San Jose Cemetery, Fremont.)

With Contra Costa County’s purchase of Lots 3-6 of Block 2 from Simon Blum, Isabella O’Niel, B. Fernandez, and John & Annie Tormey on March 19, 1882, Potter’s Field is officially created.  However, interments mostly certainly occurred there prior to the County’s acquisition and wither they would have fit the definition of a traditional “potter” we will never know.  Currently all of its residents have been lumped together and were made anonymous when the County’s cemetery burial records were lost with only a partial list of names surviving.

What is a Potter’s Field you may ask?  Well the term comes from a biblical reference to Akeldama, in the valley of Hinnom that was a vast source of potter’s clay.  After the clay was removed, numerous pits, holes, and trenches were left behind leaving it unsuitable for farming.  The site was then repurposed to address the need for interring those deemed unworthy of burial in the Orthodox cemetery.  As a result, any cemetery or portion thereof devoted to the burial of the indigent, unclaimed, unknown, or criminals is referenced as a “Potter’s Field.”  Unfortunately, in the case of Alhambra’s, many immigrants, other marginalized groups, and most people of color were relegated to burial here.

As we previously stated, “The history of Alhambra Cemetery… is both convoluted and partially unknown…” which becomes obvious when discussing Dr. Strentzel’s ownership of Block 202. Again, according to the specific description of the property from county records, he sold the Southern portion of Block 202 to the ACA on August 8, 1887. However, after his death on Halloween 1890 and the subsequent settling of his estate, his wife Louisiana and daughter Louie are given joint ownership of “…the South half of Block two hundred and two <202> less cemetery lot of F. Galindo.”, and Block 203 on September 17, 1892. This in complete contradiction of the earlier sale to the ACA and it should have read “…the North half of Block two hundred and two <202>.”

The mistake is further repeated when Louie indentures the land to her daughter Helen Muir-Funk which reads, “… and the South half of Block No. Two Hundred and Two (202), less cemetery lot of F. Galindo.”, on July 11, 1905. Further confusing the issue, Helen and her husband Buel Funk sold to the County, “…Blocks numbered 202 and 203…” with no mention of F. Galindo’s lot or the ACA’s portion on August 30, 1919. When the County Assessor’s map of the cemetery is updated, no indication is made that the ACA still owned a portion of Block 202.

When visiting the top of Potter’s Field’s hill, you will notice that there is a mixture of cement markers (stones), rusted memorial tin stakes, and various headstones sprinkled throughout that include several notable dignitaries like Don Salvio Pacheco and Captain Joseph Walker along with his family. As a result, it’s difficult to determine Potter’s Field’s exact boundaries without it being resurveyed. Perhaps the County’s (and probably also the Strentzel’s) hiring of ACA employees to bury their dead, might explain why the ownership of the property was never challenged and its burial use muddled.

Speaking of the memorials in Potter’s Field, we have another great mystery, when were the stones installed? Since, Potter’s were buried for very little money, their grave markers were simple and inexpensive like wooden crosses, stakes, or sticks bound together with a name carved, stamped or burned into them. By 1890 or so memorial tin stakes were in vogue as tin’s use itself became widespread, (although wood continued to be utilized). Whatever wooden markers there where are long since gone, while most of the memorial tins have unfortunately rusted, fallen apart, or simply disappeared. Most likely the stones were installed as a substitute for these missing markers.

Again, the question is when?  On October 12, 1928, a fire was reported in the Oakland Tribune that started in the cemetery and burned for over two miles threating many homes in Franklin Canyon.  Antidotally we recorded a couple of accounts that mentioned they saw the stones in the 30’s.  Another pair of witnesses stated they saw the stones appear on the top of the hill in the 50’s.  It’s very possible that both accounts are correct, if the stones were installed in phases (a very real possibility).  The fire most likely destroyed the original markers on the hill which probably led to the first phase of the stone’s installation in the 30’s starting at the bottom.  A later second phase might then have been conducted to finish off the hill in the 50’s. 

Speaking of the which, the former cemetery superintendent from the mid 50’s – 60’s double sold and, in some cases, tripled sold numerous plots resulting in his incarceration in San Quentin Prison.  Unfortunately, the number of outstanding plot deeds are unknown.

By 1976, the last surviving member of the ACA died.  This caused Martinez’s City Council to become the new ACA board and claim ownership of the cemetery on behalf of the City of Martinez.  This prevented the State’s seizure of the land for unpaid taxes and selling it off to a developer.  After receiving the property, city officials installed a chain link fence around what they considered the cemetery’s perimeter, resulting in the permanent segregation of Blocks ½ and 1 from the rest of the acreage.  These Blocks passed through numerous hands with an eye towards developing them for housing.  Unfortunately, for them the City condemned the property due to its dramatic soil erosion sometime in the late 80’s, which is probably how the County eventually acquired it.

The final twist of our tale is on May 12, 1992, the County Board of Supervisors declares their Carquinez Scenic Drive holdings superfluous. This allows them on June 17, 1992, to give the City ownership of their portion of Block 2 and Blocks 202- 203 while giving the East Bay Regional Park District Blocks ½ – 1.

The information above reflects what we know currently.  As we learn more, we will update it accordingly.

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