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Old Sailor's Graveyard Still Eludes Us

by Tim Rosaire

This story is from the Fall 1994 issue of the Historical Society Newsletter. It has been modified.

It's a balmy August afternoon in 1850 and a small group of men are pushing and pulling a cart up a narrow trail that meanders up the side of a hill south of Sausalito's Old Town. Resting precariously on the cart is a simple wood coffin, made from scrap timber by the ship's carpenter aboard the U.S. Navy ship Vincennes. It contains the body of Henry Mortimer, a seaman who fell overboard and drowned while the ship was anchored in "Saucelito Bay." At thirty years of age, Mortimer was almost certainly a seasoned sailor, with many adventures under his belt. Unfortunately, like most seafaring men of his time, he probably didn't know how to swim. Now his crewmates were transporting him to his final resting place: a small cemetery for sailors who died while their ships were anchored off Sausalito. Over Mortimer's grave they placed a tombstone that reads:



To the Memory of


A Seaman of the U.S. Ship


Born in London, England, 1820, who

Was drowned in Saucelito bay

August 27, 1850, aged thirty years.


This tombstone was erected by his

Shipmates, though his body's under

Hatches, his soul has gone aloft.


But where exactly is Henry Mortimer buried? The answer to this question has baffled historians ever since Jack Tracy, the Society's founder and first director, chanced upon a brief mention of an old sailor's graveyard in an 1880 history of Marin County. It described a forty-foot square enclosure located "some distance south of the site of old Saucelito, on the brow of a hill overlooking the bay." The long-abandoned cemetery contained about a dozen graves.


How far south of town? On the brow of what hill?  Jack scoured the thickets and hillsides between Sausalito and Fort Baker for years without ever finding a clue to its location. Adding to its elusiveness is the fact that the graveyard does not appear on any city, country or military maps of the period. This indicates that it was never an official cemetery, but simply a piece of level ground that, during the early to mid 1800s, was considered an ideal spot for the seafaring community to bury its dead. After all, the "brow of a hill overlooking the bay" is the perfect place to bury someone who has spent his life at sea. It was also convenient to the ships that dropped anchor off Sausalito, yet far enough away from the community so as not to disturb the local residents.


In fact, this is not the only location where sailors were buried. The same history of Marin County mentions that several Russian sailing ships were quarantined in Richardson's Bay due to an outbreak of a contagious disease. A number of Russian sailors died from it and were buried in "shallow graves extending from the beach back some distance" at the north end of Hurricane Gulch. The story goes on to say that "since then the tide has washed many of these bodies up, and excavations for lots, and the filling in of others have unearthed many of them, and buried others far deeper, and very soon all traces of them will be lost and forgotten."


Jack Tracy has passed away, but the quest to find the old sailor's graveyard has been taken up by several other members of the Society. Several months ago, the Society's current director, Phil Frank, thought he had finally found it. While commuting to the City one morning, he noticed the remains of a row of fence posts near the top the hill where Alexander Avenue first cuts through the ridge just south of Old Town. The posts were very old and they seemed to form a small perimeter. Along with members Tim Rosaire and Dave Neck, Phil climbed through the brambles and poison oak to examine the site more closely. However, the posts turned out to be part of a barbed wire perimeter fence protecting an old World War II anti-aircraft gun position. Very interesting, but definitely not the long-lost graveyard.


Then, two aerial photographs taken in 1925 were found. One of the 8 x 10-inch photos included the ridge of hills that faces the Bay. Upon examining it with a magnifying glass, they spotted what appeared to be a flattened area with what looked like a row of fence posts that bordered what could be... a grave yard! Curiosity piqued, they hiked to site. However, all signs of the enclosure were completely obliterated since the aerial photo was taken 1925. Whatever it was in the aerial photo no longer existed. Excavations had been done and heavy electrical cables protruded from the site. There had obviously been a lot of military activity at this location since the photo was taken.


So where are Henry Mortimer and his fellow sailors actually buried? After years of searching and tracking down false leads, we do not seem any closer to finding the answer. But we haven't given up the hunt. In fact on-site inspection of the site of the fire control station above Battery Duncan suggests a slightly different placement than is shown in the 1925 photo, so there still may be a graveyard there.



An aerial photo of the shoreline near Ft. Baker, where the "brow of a hill overlooking the bay" could contain a sailor's graveyard.

Photo Courtesy Sausalito Historical Society.

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Aerial Photography

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