A forgotten graveyard near the Mission?

For years, rumors of a graveyard beneath the Castagnasso property near the Mission San Francisco Solano percolated through conversations. Now, at least one historian says those stories may have merits.

Sonoma archaeologist and historian George McKale was asked by the Index-Tribune to help review a trove of documents, university papers and archival records of newspapers that point to a potential burial ground underneath the property, separate from and older than the cemetery that is already documented on the western property line.

Initially, McKale was skeptical.

“I don't see remains sticking out of the ground. I don't see a multitude of artifacts coming out of the ground,” McKale said. “But that doesn't mean anything. Somebody is going to have to do some testing.”

After seeing the evidence all laid out, he believes it’s worth digging deeper into the question of a cemetery east of the Mission.

The significance of a graveyard goes beyond its history, potentially impacting Native American tribes in the region, the cost of the property and its future development possibilities. The land has been owned by a single family, the Castagnassos, for at least 150 years, who famously kept Clydesdales on the farm.

First put on the market in 2018, the family sought $7.6 million for the iconic property. Immediately, a conservation group known as the Blue Wing Adobe Trust formed, with the hope of buying and preserving the farm as a piece of agricultural history locked into downtown. They raised $4 million, including a $500,000 pledge from the City of Sonoma, but a deal could not be made.

“When this horse farm went up for sale across the street, we were obviously concerned,” Councilmember Kelso Barnett said, a member of the Blue Wing Adobe Trust. “We view that to be a central part of downtown, this enormous historical fabric.“

The Blue Wing Trust tasked researching the property with Barnett, who lives within 500 feet of the site and as a sitting city council member, has no voting power over its future. What he found surprised him.

In the beginning

Sonoma’s Mission was founded in 1823 by Father Jose Altimira, the northern most of the Spanish Missions in California. The original compound was markedly different from the one observed today, but the original walls of the courtyard remain.

An 1832 original blueprint of Sonoma’s Mission shows a church on the eastern side of the courtyard, next to a cemetery. (Digital Public library of America)

A 1832 ground plan, supplied by Gen. Mariano Vallejo in 1878, shows that the southern side of the Mission included a priest’s quarters, the western side contained workshops, and the northern side housed the women’s quarters. According to the drawing, the eastern side once contained a church. In 1830, the chapel was moved to the west side of the property.

“When you go to our Mission with the priest’s quarters, it's here,” McKale said, pointing to the southwestern edge of the Mission on First Street. “(The original church) is not here.”

The placement of the church is important, because, according to some documents, it adjoined the cemetery on the eastern edge of the property, marked with a Christian cross on the map supplied by Vallejo. McKale was intrigued, adding that most renderings only show the church on west side of the property.

An artist’s portrayal of the Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma shows the church on the eastern side of the courtyard, before it was moved to the west side. Oriana Weatherby Day painted this image that hangs in the De Young Museum in San Francisco. (De Young Museum)
Right side of the Mission

Little is known about the areas outside of the Mission’s current square footprint. An archaeological investigation in 1953-54 focused largely on the “quadrangle buildings and the central courtyard,” according to a 2018 study produced by the Society of Historical Archaeology.

“(A researcher) initiated limited surface pedestrian survey outside the quadrangle complex in the hopes of finding the neophyte village and cemetery. He found no archaeological traces of either one,” the report states about the 1950s investigation.

But those same researchers also included an outline of the original mission over the property today. It’s clear the eastern side of the mission extends farther out and includes an adobe church and a cemetery.

“I'm completely biased. I know all these people,” Mckale said of the research. “I told you before I'm an archaeologist. I trust this.”

A geophysical investigation into parts of the Mission by researchers from Berkeley place the original blueprint of the Mission over the modern day structures of the area. (Society of Historical Archaeology)

After the Mission days

Much of cemetery’s history was close to being lost, if not for a handful of curious individuals who wanted to know more.

Ed Castillo, a Native American activist and former professor of Native American studies at Sonoma State University, found the names of “896 Native Americans who were buried in two graveyards.”

A Sonoma Index-Tribune article dated June 20, 1995 mentions “two graveyards.” (The Index-Tribune, Elizabeth Bell)
Index-Tribune 1995 article

Castillo was one of the leading figures to build a memorial for the Native Americans who died at the Mission, which now sits on First Street West, near the western cemetery, which was paved over.

Peter Meyerhof, a Sonoma dentist and historian, was also curious a few years back. Particularly, about finding the second cemetery.

“Peter (Meyerhof) investigated a previously unknown map of Sonoma drawn in the early 1850s that clearly indicated a site labeled ‘Cemetery del Padre,’” according to a 2015 newsletter published by the Institute for Historical Study. “It was drawn by William Boggs, who was a historian and a close friend of Gen. Mariano Vallejo.”

It continues, “The cemetery on Boggs’ map was approximately 500 yards (east) from the Mission church, approximately 5 minutes walking, on the high ground nearest the mission. It is now private property.”

The newsletter said the next step toward conformation would be to use ground-penetrating radar to find any evidence hidden beneath the surface — but acknowledged the issues of cost and access with performing such an assessment.

Looking to the future

Late-owner of the property, Milton Castagnasso, claimed in an Index-Tribune article dated Mar. 30, 1990, that his family had owned the property since the 1870s. More than 150 years later, the Castagnasso’s are trying to move on from their long-time family home.

The property has sat, lacking the right buyer. Earlier this year, Deanna Castagnasso adjusted the lot lines, carving it up to be sold in pieces instead of one large property. The 1890s farm mansion sold in April for $2.3 million. The pastures were sold to the Castagnasso Trust on Nov. 2 for $1.58 million, which likely will be sold again, along with the back property.

“The proposed lot line adjustment will (be) more desirable for future development, whether it’s residential or commercial,” according to the Project Proposal Statement filed with the City of Sonoma Planning Department. “The properties involved in this lot line adjustment are currently undeveloped. When future development does take place, the parcels will be served by public water and sewer.”

If a developer should purchase the property and find human remains, it could cost tens of thousands of dollars to investigate the “highly sensitive” area via the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), said McKale.

An image of the proposed lot adjustment of the Castagnasso property. (City of Sonoma)

Section 7050.5 of the California Health and Safety Code, once human remains are determined to be Native American, the coroner must contact the Native American Heritage Commission, a government agency that protects Native American sites from destruction, within 24 hours. It is then up to the tribe to decide how to proceed.

Contact Chase Hunter at and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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