If you’re like me, no weekend getaway is complete without a visit to the local cemetery. Where else are you going to find so many mysterious stories amid a peaceful and bucolic setting? The Napa Valley happens to have a variety of historic cemeteries, where you can spend a leisurely hour wandering among the headstones with their long-quiet secrets. Most of them have graves dating back to pioneer times.
Tulocay Cemetery, Napa – Built on land donated by Don Cayetano Juarez from his Ranch Tulucay, this cemetery dates from 1858 and has been filled with, among others, casualties of both World Wars, victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, Chinese laborers, and the usual victims of gunfights and suicides.
One of the most remarkable historic graves is that of Mary Ellen Pleasant, who has been called “The Mother of Civil Rights in California.” A former slave, Pleasant came to San Francisco during the Gold Rush and successfully ran laundries and boarding houses. In 1858, she returned to the East Coast and helped finance the abolitionist John Brown, who led the attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859 that led to the Civil War.
Yountville Cemetery, Yountville – This cemetery is generally agreed to be haunted – not just by the spirits of pioneers, but by the many Native Americans who were interred here when it was an Indian burial ground. George C. Yount, for whom the town was named, was the first white man to settle in the Napa Valley. His mansion lies just to the northwest of the cemetery and you can see it on your way out of town. Ghost hunters have reported seeing an older man in 19th-century clothing lingering here, nearly transparent and missing his legs from the knees down. Yount’s son and daughter-in-law are buried next to him – they tragically died on the same day in 1852, both in their mid-twenties.
St. Helena Public Cemetery and Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, St. Helena – These two cemeteries live side-by-side. The smaller, younger Holy Cross bears the names of such legendary wine royalty as Beringer, Heitz, Nichelini, and Mondavi. The older public cemetery received its first resident in 1856 with the burial of 42-year-old Sarah Hudson, who traveled across the plains in 1845 with her husband, William, and their eight children. Before it became a public burial ground in 1866, this land was the Hudsons’ private cemetery.
There are at least two historically prominent individuals buried here. Former gold miner John Searles discovered borax in a large mineral deposit in 1862, leading to the state’s lucrative borax industry. And Mollie Day Bierce, the wife of the malcontent 19th-century writer Ambrose Bierce, was buried here in 1905, alongside two of their children. Oddly, neither Searles nor Bierce ever received a proper headstone, and the St. Helena Historical Society is currently fundraising to correct that oversight.
Bothe Park Pioneer Cemetery, Calistoga – If you’re already going to Bothe Park to hike, it’s worth a slight detour to visit this charming little cemetery at the south end of the park. The mossy marble headstones bear witness to how fragile pioneer life was – the deceased are as young as 22 years, 13 years, 22 months. This former churchyard is mostly filled with members of the Tucker family, who were among the thousands who came overland, following the Oregon Trail from Missouri. They traveled with the Donners, Graves, Reeds, Cyruses, and others – many of whom notoriously became stuck in the Sierras during the harsh winter of 1846. While the Tuckers took a different route, the patriarch, Reason P. Tucker, returned and led the rescue efforts to save the Donner party.
Old Pioneer Cemetery, Calistoga – This is another picturesque snapshot from the past century, with graves terraced up the steep hill north of the town of Calistoga. The comprehensive legend of burial plots at the entrance was a project of the local Boy Scout troop. There’s an entire caste system here, too, with everything from ornate marble headstones to sad wooden markers whose names have long since washed away. Apparitions of men and women in 19th-century garb have been observed here late in the day.