Elisa J. Berry of San Francisco and the Story of her Headstone in Moraga

Susan Skilton – excerpt from Newsletter 2022 Q1

Researched by Susan Skilton, Research Director, Moraga Historical Society

Eliza, or Elisa, as named on her headstone, the young wife of John J. Berry, died on 31 July 1876 in San Francisco of complications of childbirth (1). She was buried the same day in Calvary Cemetery in San Francisco. Her remains were removed to Colma, San Mateo County, in 1940.

Elisa J. Berry Headstone

Somehow Eliza’s headstone made it to the Valle Vista subdivision of Moraga. When Valle Vista was taken over by water authorities, the subdivision was eradicated. The headstone emerged, and was taken into storage by the Moraga Historical Society. Tracing Eliza’s headstone, burials, and family background create an intriguing challenge. Her headstone states she was a native of Detroit, Michigan, and was 28 years old when she died. Thus, she was born about 1848. Her headstone provides a middle initial, and memorializes her as Elisa J. Berry.

San Francisco cemeteries were moved to Colma starting in the 1930s. Family members had to pay if they wanted to keep the tombstones. Given the span of time between some of the burials and the removals, it is not surprising many headstones remained unclaimed. Most of the headstones were sold for future use in public works, according to Michael Svanevik, who wrote City of Souls.(2)

Franklin Jerome Berry, the infant son of John J. and the late Eliza Berry, died of marasmus, or undernourishment, on 21 August 1876. He was buried the next day in Calvary Cemetery.(3) His remains could not be found in his original gravesite, so they were not reburied.(4)

Cemetary Record

John J. Berry did not live much longer. He committed suicide a few months later over his wife’s grave, holding a Catholic prayer book in his hand. On a flyleaf he wrote the words which reveal how distraught he was at losing his wife and son. As reported in a San Francisco newspaper, Daily Alta, he wrote, “It is with me insanity or death, and in my weak Judgment I prefer the latter. God help my baby, and forgive me.”(5) The dramatic death was also reported in a Sacramento newspaper. John lived in Sacramento for several years, where he was an esteemed employee in the general freight office of Central Pacific Railroad.(6) John J. Berry probably lived in Michigan at some time, for the article in the Daily Alta newspaper states he was a native of that state. His enlistment record in the Army, notes that he was born in Buffalo, Erie County, New York. This is a credible document for his birth location, since he was likely the person who provided the information.

John J. Berry died on 7 November 1876 and was buried on 9 November in a Grand Army of the Republic plot in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in San Francisco.(7) The grave was located in Lot 27 of the Excelsior section in the middle tier. No lot owner is identified.(8)

As noted above, John J. Berry was born in 1841 in Buffalo, New York, according to his military record.(9) A bookkeeper before enlisting, he served in the cause of the Union in the Civil War from California, signing up in San Francisco. He served in Company K in the 1st Regiment California. Infantry and was mustered-out on 2 January 1865 at Fort Union, New Mexico Territory.

His remains, like those of Eliza’s, were removed from San Francisco. He was reinterred in 1933 in Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma, according to Find a Grave.

Mysteries remain. What was Eliza’s maiden name, and who were her parents? How did she meet John J. Berry, and where and when did they marry? And how did the headstone get to Moraga?


1) “Register of Interments,” 1876, p. 259, Eliza Berry, died 31 July 1876, Cavalry Cemetery, San Francisco, California; digital image, sfgenealogy (sfgenealogy.com), accessed November 2021.

2) Jon Brooks,”Why Are There So Many Graves in Colma? And So Few in San Francisco?”KQED (https://www.kqed.org), accessed November 2021.

3) “Register of Interments, 1876,” p. 262,Franklin J. Berry, son of John J. and Eliza, died 22 August 1876, Cavalry Cemetery, San Francisco, California; digital image, sfgenealogy (sfgenealogy.com), accessed November 2021.

4) “Removal Record,” Cavalry Cemetery, San Francisco, California, Franklin S. Berry, child of John J. and Eliza, buried 22 August 1876, no find; digital image, sfgenealogy (sfgenealogy.com), accessed November 2021.

5) “Inquest,” Daily Alta California, 9 November 1876, p.2, column 1; digital image, California Digital Newspaper Collection, accessed November 2021.

6) “City Intelligence,” Sacramento Daily Union, Sacramento, California, 9 November 1876, p. 3, column 3; digital image, California Digital Newspaper Collection, accessed November 2021.

7) U.S. Army, War Department, National Cemetery Interment Control Forms, 1928-1962, John J. Berry, Company K, 1st Volunteer California Infantry, died 7 November 1876, interred 31 January 1933 San Francisco National Cemetery Section C, grave 32; digital image,” U.S., National Cemetery Interment Control Forms, 1928-1962,” Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com), accessed November 2021.

8) “Interment Ledger,” I.O.O. F, 1876, digital image, California, City and County of San Francisco, cemetery records, 1865-1932, microfilm 4164048, FamilySearch (familysearch.org), accessed November 2021.

9) “Enlistment Record,” Civil War, John J. Berry, enlisted 30 December 1861 at San Francisco, California, Civil War Service Records; digital image, Fold3 (https://www.fold3.com), accessed November 2021.