Home > Donald H. Harrison, historic places, Uncategorized > San Diego’s Historic Places: Calvary Cemetery at Pioneer Park

San Diego’s Historic Places: Calvary Cemetery at Pioneer Park


San Diegan Dan Schaffer views historic tombstones at Pioneer Park. U.S. Grant school is to rear left

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

SAN DIEGO – Adjacent to the U.S. Grant School in the Mission Hills neighborhood of San Diego is the remnant of a Catholic cemetery containing the headstones of some pioneer San Diegans who knew the American President for whom the school is named.

Among those who lie buried in the residue of the  cemetery, which was converted in 1970 to a neighborhood park, are Cave J. Couts, his wife Ysadora Bandini Couts, and Roman Catholic Father Antonio Ubach.

Couts came to San Diego shortly after the Mexican-American War, to help map the boundary between the United States and Mexico. He also laid out and named some of the streets in the area of San Diego that is today known as Old Town.

He fell in love with Ysadora Bandini, daughter of the wealthy and powerful Juan Bandini, whose Casa de Bandini served as headquarters for Commodore Robert Stockton after U.S. Marines aboard the U.S.S. Cyane marched from San Diego Bay and took possession of San Diego in 1846 without initial resistance.

Bandini was a Spaniard of Italian descent who had come to San Diego by way of Peru. He had more sympathy for the Americans than for the Mexicans with whom he lived and had served in California governmnent , and quickly declared his allegiance to the United States.

There are two stories about Ysadora that may be more the stuff of legend than actual history. The first contends that when the Marines took possession of San Diego that there was no American flag to fly over the small town. As the story goes, Ysadora and sisters Arcadia and Josefa fashioned a U.S. flag from their petticoats – making them, if true, West Coast versions of the original U.S. flag maker Betsy Ross.

The other story is that Ysadora met Couts, a handsome Army officer, somewhat unceremoniously. As he and other soldiers made their way past her house on the corner of Old Town Plaza – by then renamed as Washington Square—she allegedly leaned too far over her balcony and might have fallen hard on the ground had Couts not caught her in his arms.

Besides being a soldier and surveyor, Couts was a member of a distinguished Tennessee family. His uncle Cave Johnson, in fact, had been appointed by U.S. President James K. Polk to serve as the U.S. Postmaster General. His family’s prominence helped Couts enter West Point Military Academy. Future Generals U.S. Grant and Lew Wallace—the latter the author of the novel Ben Hur—were Couts’ acquaintances, and both would visit him on the northern San Diego County ranchhouse where he made his home, the 22-room Rancho Guajome located about five miles from Mission San Luis Rey.

Couts served as a member of San Diego County’s first grand jury and later in his life was involved in at least three fatal shootings, although the hot-tempered Southerner never was convicted of a homicide.

As his tombstone reports, Couts died in 1874. His wife was buried next to him 24 years later.

Not too far down a row of tombstones from Cave and Ysadora Couts is the final resting place of Father Antonio Ubach, who had been the parish priest of San Diego for four turbulent decades of the 19th century.

Ubach was a friend and advocate for the California Indians, who were dispossessed of their lands by California settlers. He is said to be the model for the kindly priest in the trail-blazing 19th century novel “Ramona” by Helen Hunt Jackson which aroused sympathy for the plight of the Indians by creating a love story between Ramona, a half-Indian, half-European young woman, and the handsome Indian Alessandro.

In the romantic story, the two eloped, traveling to San Diego where they were married by the character modeled after Ubach. This story—which later would generate a famous movie and an annual outdoor saga in Hemet, California—won the Casa de Estudillo, a close neighbor of the Casa de Bandini, fictional fame as “Ramona’s Marriage Place.”

The beloved story can still draw tourists to the Estudillo home on Old Town Plaza, even though in Jackson’s novel, it really wasn’t at the casa that the marriage took place, but instead at the old adobe chapel located elsewhere in Old Town San Diego, Bruce Coons, the executive director of Save Our Heritage Organization, has noted.

Grant reportedly was familiar with Ubach’s reputation and, according to the Journal of San Diego History, even had the priest convey messages for him to Mexican officials. Ubach was among those who helped to persuade Grant that the California Indians should have lands reserved exclusively for their use – lands that today are known as Indian reservations.

One of the stories in which Ubach figured prominently was in the establishment of “Horton’s Addition” in the area that is today’s downtown of San Diego. Alonzo Horton later recollected that when he arrived in San Diego in 1867, he wanted to purchase developable land on San Diego Bay. The problem was that San Diego had become so sleepy, the terms of the three trustees of the City of San Diego had run out, without anyone bothering to schedule elections for their replacements. Without a properly constituted board of trustees, there was no one to sell land to Horton.

So Horton, a Protestant, went to Ubach’s church, and when the collection plate came around, he ostentatiously put in $10, a princely sum in those days. A standard offering at the time was ten cents. Horton’s generosity prompted Father Ubach to introduce himself to the stranger and to inquire about his business. Horton explained that he wanted an election held for the Board of Trustees so someone could sell him the land. He mentioned the names of three citizens whom he had met – Joseph Mannasse, Ephraim Morse and Thomas Bush—and Ubach duly persuaded his fellow San Diegans to run for the seats. Horton posted $5 to pay the county’s election expenses, and, without opposition, his three picks were elected. They in turn scheduled an auction of 960 acres of city-owned land near the bay, for which Horton successfully bid $2,165—or approximately 27.5 cents an acre.

In all there were some 1,800 people buried at the Cavalry Cemetery, but it gradually fell into disuse and disrepair after another Catholic cemetery was constructed. Eventually the decision was made to take most of the headstones to a ravine at the municipal Mount Hope Cemetery, leaving in place only a sampling of those headstones that had marked the graves of San Diego pioneers.
On a knoll in the park are six large plaques each bearing approximately 300 names of the others who were buried there.

Although many schools are named for U.S. Presidents, the K-8 school whose first class graduated in 1917 could claim a local connection. The 18th President’s son, Ulysses S. Grant Jr., had moved to San Diego and became an entrepreneur here, constructing in the early 20th century the landmark U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego.

That hotel is today owned by the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Indians, an investment that honors the President who set aside lands for their ancestors.

The coincidence of a school named for President U.S. Grant being adjacent to a cemetery bearing the remains of the nephew of the Postmaster General in President James K. Polk’s administration is not the only presidential “connection” in this Mission Hills neighborhood to chief executives of the U.S. government.

The cemetery and school are bounded on the north by Washington Place.

*
Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World.   A version of this article previously appeared on examiner.com

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