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26 January 2011

Strangers' Plot: A Potter's Field Just Down From Millionnaires' Row

I was so surprised to see Gaye Lenahan’s sad face on page C-1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday, January 24, 2011. It was on the front page of the Bay Area section under the article Strangers’ burial ground: Hundreds of unknown lie in field at Mountain View Cemetery entrance. That got my attention. I’ve visited the cemetery dozens of times and had never heard of the place.

Gaye is a docent at the cemetery and an active volunteer at the library so I contacted her a get the backstory.

Chronicle reporter Carolyn Jones inquired after reading a piece Gaye wrote for the Friends of Mountain View Fall 2010 newsletter entitled “The Strangers’ Plot.” Lenahan agreed to meet reporter Jones and photographer Lacy Atkins at Mountain View Cemetery where Gaye has been a docent for fifteen years.

A couple of years ago Gaye "made it her business" to dig into the cemetery files for the history of the now defunct Stranger's Plot. She found that the early records refer to it as "Potter's Field" or "Poor Ground" and is the resting place of approximately 500 indigent and unknown persons.

Section S - Strangers' Plot, Mountain View Cemetery
Many of the graves are of men, women and children labeled “unknown.” Unknown infants number in the hundreds. A few burials appear to be removals from the old cemeteries in downtown Oakland. One entry specified “Twelve unknown bodies from 14th and Harrison.”There are a number of persons who died of drowning. The files record deaths due to suicide or gunshot wounds. Several “hanged” criminals are buried on this hillside.
– Gaye Lenahan

Michael Colbruno’s excellent Graveyard Rabbit blog, Lives of the Dead: Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland has a nice video of part of one of Gaye’s tours from 2007 as she describes the opulent gravesite of temperance leader Dr. Henry Daniel Cogswell (1820-1900). It's one of the many gravesites that make up Millionnaires' Row.

Gaye will be leading a Black History Month Tour on Saturday, February 26, 2011, at 10:00 a.m.

Photograph by Kathryn Doyle, Oakland, California.

Copyright © 2011 by Kathryn M. Doyle, California Genealogical Society and Library