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Mission Santa Barbara Cemetery
Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County, California

Cemetery History

Mission Santa Barbara was officially established on December 4, 1786. However, the mission cemetery was not established until 1789, and its first burial did not occur until December 2, 1789.

Prior to the mission cemetery, bodies were interred beneath the floor of the existing church, with the first burial being that of an indian named "Cristobal" a Chumash of the Saspili tribe. The existing church at that time, is not the same church standing today.

The dimensions of the original cemetery matched the length of the existing church, and measured 124 feet by 44 feet. Since then, it has been expanded. In 1794, an adobe wall was build around it. The wall that currently separates the cemetery from Los Olivos street was erected between the years 1815-1820.

Burial Registers

The mission fathers recorded baptisms, marriages, and burials in the mission registers.

The registers of Santa Barbara recorded the burials at the mission, with the first register beginning with August 8, 1787 and extending to December 30, 1841. A second register recorded burials at the Presidio from December 29, 1782 to November 13, 1873, and also includes mission burials from 1842 to 1873.

Most of the bodies interred at the mission were indians. According to the registers, a total of 4,645 indians were buried, although the registers are not necessarily limited to the Mission. Some of the burials recorded in the registers occurred in other areas, including the Presidio, and in the outlying indian villages. The actual number of burials in the mission cemetery between the years of 1789-1854 is 3,997.

Burial Practices

The actual cemetery grounds is small, measuring 136' by 263' by 292' by 20'. The grounds are about as large as a house in the suburbs with an average sized front and back yard. Considering there were 3,997 indians interred, along with additional whites, Europeans, and Mexicans, there is clearly no room to contain as many bodies.

In 1829, Alfred Robinson visited the Mission, and later wrote in his 1846 book, "Life in California":

"Another door of the church opened upon the cemetery, where were buried the deceased Christions of the Mission and Presidio, surrounded by a thick wall, and having in one corner the charnel house, crowded with a ghastly array of skulls and bones."

The "charnel house" that Robinson describes was later converted into the mausoleum containing the Friars' Vaults on January 27, 1893.

Thomas Jefferson Farnham, a traveller of the west, visited the Mission and wrote in his famous book, "Life, Adventures and Travels in California":

"A door in the eastern wall of the church leads from the foot of the chancel to the cemetery. It is a small piece of ground enclosed by a high wall, and consecrated to the burial of those Indians who die in the faith of the Catholic Church. It is curiously arranged. Walls of solid masonry, six feet apart, are sunk six feet deep, to the level with the surface. Between these the dead are buried in such a manner that their feet touch one wall and their heads the other. These grounds have long since been filled. In order, however, that no Christian Indian may be buried in a less holy place, the bones, after the flesh had decayed, are exhumed and deposited in a little building on one corner of the premises. I entered this. Three or four cart-loads of skulls, ribs, spines, leg-bones, arm-bones, etc., lay in one corner. Beside them stood two hand hearses with a small cross attached to each. About the walls hung the mould of death."

Therefore, what happened is that bodies were exhumed to make room for more bodies. What eventually happened to the exhumed bones remains a mystery.

Sources:

Mission Santa Barbara 1782-1965, by Maynard Geiger, O.F.M., copyright 1965 Franciscan Fathers of California

Life, Adventures and Travels in California, by Thomas Jefferson Farnham, copyright 1849

Life in California, by Alfred Robinson, copyright 1846

 

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