A Contemporary Recalls: William Richardson

By Larry Clinton - Sausalito Historical Society

William Heath Davis, Jr. (1822–1909) was a merchant and trader in Alta, Calif., who settled in San Francisco in 1838, when it was still called Yerba Buena. In his memoir, “Sixty Years in California,” Davis set down his recollections of Sausalito founder William Richardson. Here are excerpts of that story:

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

William A. Richardson, an Englishman by birth, arrived at the Presidio of San Francisco as chief mate of the British whaler Orion, on the second of August, 1822. He left his vessel and was permitted by the authorities to remain temporarily, but on the 7th of October, he concluded to settle permanently in California. He applied to Governor Pablo Vicente de Sola to grant him the privilege of domicile, which was acceded to on the 12th of October of the same year.

Richardson, during his stay at San Francisco, resided at the home of Lieutenant Ygnacio Martinez, then comandante of the Presidio. He noticed the difficulty of bringing the food supply for the troops at the Presidio. He at once went to work and built a launch and a boat for the purpose of transporting provisions from San José and Santa Clara Missions. It is well known that the transportation of provisions by land was done by carts drawn by oxen. Richardson was the manager of the transporters for three years.

At the end of his charge, he married Maria Antonia, the eldest daughter of Comandante and Martina Martinez.

Richardson and his family settled in Yerba Buena in 1835. His only daughter, Mariana, was then about nine years old.

Some time after Richardson had fixed his residence at Yerba Buena, he heard that a vessel was at the Presidio. He soon ascertained that it was the brig Ayacucho, commanded by his friend Captain John Wilson, who, descrying a man on the beach, sent a boat ashore, and Richardson, going on board, piloted the vessel into Yerba Buena Cove. After the vessel cast anchor, Captain Richardson and his friends, Wilson and the supercargo James Scott, came on shore and visited Richardson’s tent, the domicile of the family.

This tent was the first habitation ever erected in Yerba Buena. At the time, Richardson’s only neighbors were bears, coyotes and wolves. The nearest people lived either at the Presidio or at Mission Dolores. The family lived under that tent about three months, after which Richardson constructed a small wooden house, and later a large one of adobe on what is now Dupont (Grant Avenue) near the corner of Clay Street.

During Richardson’s long life in California he made friends with all who came in contact with him in social or business relations. They were firmly attached to him for his goodness. He had not a single enemy, because his heart and nature were noble. He was seized with a desire at all times to serve his fellow beings in their hours of need. He was incapable of saying no to a deserving applicant for alms. It was inconsistent with the impulses of his nature; a birth-right inherited from his pure Anglo-Saxon parents. He was a handsome man, above medium height, with an attractive face, winning manners, and a musical voice, which his daughter, Mariana, inherited.

My knowledge of the captain dates back to July 1838 when I was in the employ of Nathan Spear. Richardson was the grantee of the Saucelito rancho with thousands of cattle, horses and sheep. His family had two residences, one at Yerba Buena, an adobe dwelling, a structure of primitive architecture, which contained a parlor, commodious bedrooms and a sitting and dining room which was used at times as a ball room. The walls were thick with blinds or massive shutters closing the windows on the inside. The other residence was at Saucelito.

At the time of my acquaintance with this good man, he was Captain of the Port and Bay of San Francisco, under the immediate direction of General Vallejo, who was the comandante general. General Vallejo appreciated Richardson’s experience as a sea-faring man, and as the General expressed it, Richardson was the right man in the right place. Both men respected each other, and their official and social relations were as smooth and as placid as the waters of the anchorage of Saucelito or Richardson’s bay on a calm day.

Anterior to the year 1838 Captain Richardson had piloted vessels of war in and out of the Bay. His long practice as a mariner made him one of the best pilots for the Bay and the bar beyond the Golden Gate. Admirals and Commodores of different nationalities would communicate with him from Callao, Valparaiso and from Honolulu, that in case a vessel of their squadrons should visit San Francisco, she would fire two guns, one after the other, outside the heads. This was the signal for Richardson to go out and pilot her in. The Captain had eight trained Indians, who had become proficient boatmen. They lived on the premises at the Captain’s home in Sausalito. At the report of one or two guns from outside the Bay, Captain Richardson would whistle three times which was the order for the Indian crew to repair at once to the boat which was moored close at hand. Away the surf boat would slip through the water with Richardson in the stern steering, and the aboriginal boatmen bending to their oars with a will to board the man-of-war. These Indians would do anything to serve and please the Captain. He was kind to them and they loved him.

William A. Richardson was a master mariner trading up and down the coast of California in the thirties with assorted cargoes for a Lima house, which were exchanged for hides and tallow, the currency of the country. Richardson was considered a bold navigator, but not a rash one. He was a man of judgment, and never abused it.

Davis’s memoirs are in the Sausalito Historical Society’s rare book collection. “Sixty Years in California” can also be accessed online. Look for the conclusion of this column next week, when Davis recalls Richardson’s marriage to Maria Antonia.