looking back

Looking Back: William D. McKinnon

By Kinen Carvala

Why is it so hard to get a good look at Chaplain William D. McKinnon’s face on his monument in Golden Gate Park? How could the McKinnon Monument Committee and the San Francisco Parks Commission have disagreed so strongly over whether or not that statue should even be in the park?

McKinnon main photoThe statue of Chaplain William D. McKinnon honors his service in the Spanish-American War. Photos by Michael Durand.

As the 19th century drew to a close, Americans faced the question of whether or not the country should expand further into the Pacific and south into the Caribbean.

On Feb. 9, 1898, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst published a personal letter by the Spanish ambassador describing U.S. President William McKinley as “weak and catering to the rabble” under the newspaper headline “The Worst Insult to the United States in Its History.” When riots erupted in Cuba over calls for independence from Spain in 1898, the American ship USS Maine was sent there to protect American interests. The explosion and sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba triggered a call to war against the Spanish.

The First California Volunteers Infantry Division gathered at the San Francisco Presidio before shipping out toward the Spanish colony of the Philippines for the war effort. Joining the effort was William D. McKinnon, who was born in 1858 on Prince Edward Island, which became a part of Canada in 1873. McKinnon later taught at Jesuit-run Santa Clara University, before volunteering as chaplain to provide spiritual guidance and counseling to First California Volunteers during the Spanish-American War.

During the Battle of Manila in August 1898, McKinnon walked to enemy lines despite being fired upon in an attempt to negotiate a settlement with the Spanish, according to a New York Herald correspondent. Little did McKinnon know that his action was in vain, as a handful of Spanish and American officials knew of a secret plan where the Spanish would surrender and cede control of Manila only to the Americans such that pro-independence Filipino fighters could not gain control and the Spanish would not lose face surrendering to Filipinos, their soon-to-be-former colonial subjects. This incident marked the end only of Spain’s fighting in the Philippines. (Later fighting between the Americans and the revolutionary Philippine Republic is known as the Philippine-American War.)

The Catholic Telegraph newspaper reported that McKinnon was lauded for helping a wounded soldier after McKinnon himself had been injured. Under the American administration in Manila, McKinnon established American schools, according to a thesis by Funie Hsu. McKinnon died of dysentery in the Philippines at age 44 on Sept. 24, 1902. The San Francisco Call’s article on McKinnon’s funeral claimed that Filipino natives “worshipped him for his many admirable qualities.” McKinnon’s remains had a military escort while on procession through San Francisco on the way to Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Colma.

The Spanish-American War led to the Spanish Empire losing the Philippines, Guam, Cuba and Puerto Rico. The U.S. later had the Philippines gradually transition to independence in the years before and after World War II. Guam and Puerto Rico are still U.S. territories.

The former commander of the California Volunteers received letters in early 1903 calling for creation of a monument honoring McKinnon, according to the San Francisco Call, .Thousands of people subscribed to the McKinnon memorial fund. Even though the statue was completed in 1913, San Francisco Park Commissioners then did not grant permission for its installation in the park. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in 1913 that the Park Commission did not regard the statue to be a work of art because of issues like the statue’s pants being turned up and the statue’s protruding chest or the bamboo staff being “not in good taste.” Phillip O’Brien from the McKinnon Monument Committee responded that the statue faithfully imagined McKinnon’s likeness as he was carrying a flag of truce on a bamboo staff during his attempt to negotiate with the Spanish.

For years, the statue remained in an Oakland backyard. Park Commission meeting minutes from 1926 say that there was a proposal to amend the city charter to authorize appeals to Park Commission’s decisions. To remove support from the proposal, the Park Commission resolved to allow the statue in the Golden Gate Park.

The bronze statue sculpted by San Francisco native John A. MacQuarrie stands on a granite base with the inscription:


William D. McKinnon First California

U.S. Vol. Inf.


The monument is 176 inches tall, according to the San Francisco Arts Commission.

The monument was dedicated on Aug. 21, 1927, with Isabelle McKinnon, grandniece of Chaplain McKinnon, San Francisco Mayor James Rolph and Monsignor James M. Gleason, national chaplain of the United Spanish War Veterans, in attendance.

The statue stands between trees on a hill on the south side of JFK Drive about 200 feet east of the intersection of JFK with Eighth Avenue. It is west of the John McLaren Rhododendron Dell.

Find an archive of “Looking Back” columns by Kinen Carvala on the history of the monuments in Golden Gale Park HERE.

The San Francisco Chronicle in 1913 reported that the Park Commission did not regard the statue to be a work of art because of issues including the fact that the statue’s pants were turned up.

1 reply »

  1. Father McKinnon is a relative of mine, the cousin of my great-great-grandfather.

    The McKinnon history is of immigration from Scotland due to the British Highland Clearances to Prince Edward Island, Canada. Subsequent to the California Gold Rush, Fr. McKinnon’s clan began to leave the harsh conditions of P.E.I. to seek their fortune in San Francisco and the Bay Area.

    Fr. McKinnon was born in P.E.I., but left shortly after his graduation from St. Dunstan’s University at the benevolence of his uncle who owned a lumber mill in San Francisco. His course in California took him first to Santa Clara University, then theological studies and his ordination.

    The S.F. Bay Area is still home to hundreds of Fr. McKinnon’s clan.


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