BAY VIEW CEMETERY
by Mary Morrow
Local History Librarian
La Retama Public Library
Old Bay View* Cemetery, atop a small bluff overlooking two bays, was once a beautiful landmark identifying Corpus Christi to mariners. Brought into being by an unfortunate accident, this cemetery is possibly the oldest military cemetery in Texas and is certainly one of the oldest cemeteries in South Texas. *Originally two words, as from the location two bays could be viewed.
In 1845 General Zachary Taylor’s “Army of Observation,” which is now referred to as the “Army of Occupation,” was ordered to Corpus Christi to await orders to proceed to Mexico, if necessary, when the annexation of Texas to the United States was accomplished.
The troop ships drew too much water and could not cross the bar at Aransas Bay. They were anchored at St. Joseph’s Island, the troops and supplies landed on the island and then transported across Corpus Christi Bay in smaller vessels.
The village of Corpus Christi, or “Kinney’s Ranch,” as it was generally called, consisted of twenty or thirty houses, some on the bluff, and others on the narrow strip of land next to Corpus Christi Bay. The bluff at that time was covered with mesquite, other native bushes and grasses, presenting a green pasture upon which goats and sheep and often cattle grazed. The chief occupation in Corpus Christi at this time was contraband trade with Mexico, for which purpose Col. H. L. Kinney and his partner, Mr. Aubrey, had established a trading post.
On the morning of September 12, 1845, the steamer Dayton left Corpus Christi for St. Joseph’s Island. On deck were Capt. Crossman, Lieutenants Graham, Higgins, Berry and Woods of the 4th Infantry, Lieutenant Gordon of the 3rd Infantry, a Dr. Crittenden and several other soldiers and citizens; at 12:20, opposite “Maglone’s Bluff,” (McGloin’s) the Dayton’s boilers burst. All passengers on the boiler deck were blown high into the air and then thrown into the water some distance from the boat. After the first boiler burst, the second was thrown into the water and exploded. Eight men were killed and 17 wounded. Lieutenants Higgins and Berry were killed immediately; Lieutenant Graham was badly injured, Capt. Crossman slightly, Lieutenants Woods and Gordon and Dr. Crittenden were uninjured.
The ship sank; the survivors and bodies were recovered and brought to Corpus Christi where the field hospital was placed at the disposal of all, soldiers and citizens, and every aid promptly given.
Colonel Kinney immediately gave a plot of land on the bluff as a burial place and the rites took place on September 13 with full military honors.
Because of some unavoidable delays, the funeral procession did not take up its line of march until after sunset. It was a solemn, sad march, and the circumstances and time made it very impressive. The service of the dead was read by lamplight. Three volleys were fired over the graves, taps was sounded, and the escort marched away to the slow music of a fife and drum.
A few other deaths occurred among the soldiers between this time and the following year when Taylor marched south. These soldiers also were buried in the bluff cemetery.
After this beginning the burial site came to be known as The Grave Yard and some times as Old Military Cemetery. It became the community burial ground, replacing an older cemetery at Nuecestown.
Corpus Christi was incorporated in 1852 and with incorporation the many problems of a young town confronted the first mayor, B. F. Neal, and his Board of Aldermen. However, it was not until 1857 that an item concerning the cemetery was entered in the minutes of the weekly meetings of the Board of Aldermen.
Enrique Villarreal, second Alcalde of Matamoros, and later Governor of the state of Tamaulipas, had sold to Col. Kinne in 1831 certain leagues of land. Part of this land was to become the site of Kinney’s Ranch, or Trading Post, and later the town of Corpus Christi.
In 1849 certain leagues of land in the San Patricio District, on the Nueces River, were patented by the Sate of Texas to Levi Jones, under the land title claimed by Miguel Basquez. Part of this land, including the site of Corpus Christi, was contained in the Kinney purchase from Villarreal. Title to this land was thus clouded and a long and bitter lawsuit between Kinney and Jones ensued. (Settlement was not made until 1873.)
Presumably because of this flaw in the land title, in 1857 Mayor H. W. Berry appointed a committee of three “to investigate the rights and titles of a cemetery donated by H. L. Kinney to the City of Corpus Christi.” Members of the committee were Aldermen A. Fisher, R. Holbein, and C. Lovenskiold.
An extension of time for this report was requested and granted on October 1, 1857. The minutes of a special meeting on December 17, 1857, show that “Committee on Grave Yard asked for an extension of time to report, which was granted indefinitely. On motion made and seconded that the committee on Grave Yard be authorized to solicit funds for the repairing of the same and on further motion that Alderman Shaw be added to said committee and also Ald. Pfeuffer.”
The minutes of the meetings held through January 2, 1872, do not show that any report concerning the land title was made during this time.
On July 7, 1860, the following interesting item is entered in the minutes:
“An Ordinance concerning fees and compensation of officers of the Corporation.
Section 3: That the Marshal shall be entitled to demand and receive the following fees, viz:
For service and return of every summons $1.00; for service and return of every warrant of arrest $1.50; for service and return of every writ of subpoena 50 cts.; for commitment of person to jail $1.00; for keeping prisoners, 75 cts. per day; for releasing from prison $1.00; to be taxed as costs in each case; for digging grave and completing burial of free person $3.00; of a slave $1.50, to be paid by the party ordering such burial; for digging grave and completing burial of a pauper $1.50 to be paid by the City; ______________ for all moneys by him collected for the use of the city, he shall be allowed to have and retain a commission of five per centum.”
Yellow fever came to Corpus Christi in 1854 and 1867 and every family had at least one member laid to rest in the bluff cemetery, which was still a place of beauty.
After the cemetery was fenced the name Bay View came into use and the site was no longer referred to as The Grave Yard.
The date of the building of the first fence is not known but Captain Andrew Anderson, an early settler, said that it was put up to keep the Longhorn cattle out.
A funny incident is often related about collecting funds to build that first fence:
In 1868 the townfolk found out that a 60 year old citizen had been secretly married to a 16-year old girl. A custom of the day was to “chivari” a newly married couple, so a crowd of merrymakers formed and visited the groom at his home, where he was found sitting in his stocking feet reading a paper by candlelight. The crowd, making a great noise with cowhorns and tin pans and the Methodist Church bell mounted on a frame in a wagon, and lighting its way with torches made of turpentine soaked rags tied to long poles, unceremoniously deposited the bridegroom in a haymower and started down Chaparral Street. A cannon, with the groom’s white felt hat as wadding, was fired in the middle of town. Then the merrymakers demanded $100 for the cemetery fence fund. At first the groom refused to pay, but finally he agreed to give $50 then and the rest the next day.
In the young days of the cemetery, and of the city, each family with loved ones buried there cared for the family plot and helped with pride to keep the graves of those without local kin well kept. It was a custom of the time to arrange “all day meetings and dinner on the grounds” for the purpose of weeding, watering and beautifying the community burial ground. This custom was often followed in Corpus Christi and so for many years this historic plot of ground was a place of pride, peace and beauty.
Many members of Corpus Christi’s pioneer families were laid to rest there, including seven former mayors: B. F. Neal, first mayor in 1852; Dr. George Robertson, Weymon Staples, Col. John M. Moore, J. B. Mitchell, Reuben Holbein, and H. W. Berry. Berry was the county’s first sheriff in 1846, served as postmaster and also was a Texas Ranger captain and Indian fighter.
As time went on, space in this little cemetery became limited and in 1886 “New Bay View Cemetery,” in Hillcrest, was dedicated. Some remains were exhumed and moved from “Old Bay View” to the new location. With the opening of additional cemeteries in the city more remains were moved and Bay View was not used as a last resting place except for members of pioneer families of this area.
The city began to grow up around and beyond the bluff and the little cemetery gradually came to be hidden from sight. It was no longer a landmark for mariners and slowly came to a neglected state, as members of the old families moved away or died. The location of many of the early graves, including those of Taylor’s men, became lost as markers disappeared and record keeping was neglected.
As early as 1896 efforts were made to return Bay View to its early state of pride and beauty. The following editorial appeared in the July 24, 1896 CALLER:
“The CALLER thinks it high time that some of the older citizens of Corpus Christi, those who have dear friends and relatives buried in the city cemetery, were holding a meeting and forming an association for the purpose of keeping up the graves. We are positive that if the ladies take hold of the matter it will be a success....”
In almost immediate response to this appeal a meeting was held at the home of Mrs. E. T. Merriman and the first Bay View Cemetery Association came into being. For many years this association looked after the burial ground, but as the original members died the association became inactive and the cemetery came under city supervision. Most of the records of this association were lost in the hurricane of 1919.
Mr. Eli T. Merriman, one of the remaining members of the original association, assumed responsibility for care of the cemetery and until his death used city contributions to hire a caretaker, and money from friends and relatives of those buried there, when such funds were available, to keep the grounds from becoming too unsightly.
During the Texas Centennial in 1936, the state erected a stone over the grave of George W. Hockley, inspector general of the Army of the Republic at San Jacinto and Secretary of War of the Republic of Texas in 1838, during the first administration of President Sam Houston. Hockley died in Corpus Christi in 1854. A monument, erected also by the state, honors all Texans who fought in the Civil War and were buried in this and adjoining cemeteries.
Another marker, dedicated in 1935, denotes the grave of Corpus Christi’s first mayor, B. F. Neal, who came here in the days of Col. H. L. Kinney and lived to become honored as a captain of Civil War defenses. Others who are buried here include: Felix A. von Blucher, member of a pioneer family and major of engineers, C. S. A., who died in 1879; Felix Noessel, Corpus Christi’s first fire chief, who died in 1887; and William Gambel, another veteran of Sam Houston’s army, who died in 1877.
Along with the history there is also some mystery. In 1900 headstones were placed for 14 U. S. soldiers. On one of these markers the name has been chiseled off. No one knows why this was done, by whom, or when or who was supposed to have rested there. An unknown soldier! Too, there is the rumor about “men buried outside the fence” – outlaws and renegades.
In 1940 a new Bay View Cemetery Association was formed and another attempt made to rehabilitate and to fence the cemetery. A movement was started to make this historic site a national shrine and federal aid was requested for the project. The entrance of the United States into World War II made federal funds unavailable for this purpose, but the Secretary of War offered to have the soldiers remains removed to a national burial grounds in San Antonio. This offer was not accepted as local feeling was strongly in favor of local preservation of the site.
This new association existed for some years and Bay View Cemetery was cleaned and renovated to some extent. The war efforts and the rapid growth of Corpus Christi, along with the deaths of several of the older members of the association, who were the leaders of this movement, caused the association to gradually cease to be active.
Several years ago the city closed the cemetery and only persons owning plots may be buried there.
Because of its location and surrounding development, the historic old cemetery is more or less foreign to younger generations. From the street there is little to identify it except the seldom noticed markers peering over its knoll.
The graves in Old Bay View Cemetery reflect the history of Corpus Christi from trading post to fishing village to metropolis. In the midst of a busy city, still overlooking two bays, is a place of rest and peace — no longer beautiful but even in its state of shabbiness a site to be visited with respect for those who rest there.
Transcription by: Rosa G. Gonzales