The Richardson Saga

By Annie Sutte

The only known photo of William Richardson, founder of Sausalito, was taken c. 1854.

Courtesy of Sausalito Historical Society

After the 1820s, ships of many nations began calling at San Francisco Bay to trade goods: clothing, silks and velvets so loved by the California women, shoes, liquor and spices in exchange for hides, tallow, otter skins, produce, wood and water. [Capt. Wm.] Richardson set up a business on today's Valley St. beach supplying wood and water to visiting ships. In 1837 he had been appointed Port Captain of Yerba Buena (San Francisco) by Governor Vallejo, a position which provided the enterprising Richardson with an open invitation to continue profiting in the lucrative trading schemes he had already set up across the bay. Historian Clyde Trudell observed: “Capt. Richardson naturally couldn't support his family on the meager Port Captain's wages, but the name of the game was graft with a bit of smuggling on the side. What with knocking down some of the customs money, and conniving with ship captains to avoid port taxes, he was soon doing very well. By 1843 his mismanagement of his port duties had become so flagrant that the Administrator of Customs complained that with the connivance of General Vallejo, Richardson was making up rules to his own advantage. The result was that Richardson was dismissed from his post as Port Captain, but by then his cattle and hide business was thriving and he had made so many friends among ship captains that they no longer hove to in Yerba Buena but dropped anchor in the shelter of Richardson's Bay, where they provided a ready market for his beef and fruits and vegetables.”

Word had gotten round to most of the ship captains that if they fired a cannon twice outside the Gate, Richardson and his Indian crew would come out and pilot them into Sausalito, thus avoiding the undue strain and expense of dealing with the officials on the other side of the bay.

There, in what came to be called Whaler's Cove, he ran things according to his own rules, and the whalers and an increasing number of American ships found it expedient to deal with Richardson’s sensible approach to graft; get on with the trade, avoid the tax, and split the difference.

In his voluminous history of early California, the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft observed: “Any administrator who attempted to regulate whalers in San Francisco Bay was confronted by hard-faced captains bent on keeping their port expenses small, by merchants after cheap goods, and by rancheros who bartered their agricultural surplus for 'slop chest' goods.” In continuing head-on confrontations with the officials at Yerba Buena, Richardson usually came out ahead.

From the book Puerto de los Balleneros [by Boyd Huff, 1957], we learn that in 1844 a new receiver named Diaz was appointed at San Francisco, “a man of energy, but having only bluff, his efforts to enforce regulations against the whalers came to nothing. On taking office, Diaz proposed that a well be dug at Yerba Buena where the whalers could take on water under the scrutiny of an official. Here was a measure that might have made possible the enforcement of trade regulations.” This proposal was, of course, an attempt to keep the whalers away from Richardson's Sausalito water and tolerant jurisdiction. What happened? “...two more whalers passed over to the Sausalito anchorage... Diaz chartered a launch and sallied forth to enforce the port regulations. He crossed the bay to Sausalito to find the anchorage teeming with evidence of illicit trade. He noticed a large kettle on the beach... Richardson genially replied that it was his, that a whaling ship had left the kettle. Diaz seized the kettle and informed Richardson that the Monterey Custom house would decide the matter.” Then Diaz found that the Alcalde of San Francisco had brought his launch alongside a whaler and was unloading “a barrel of honey, salt pork and two sacks of ship bread.” Reports of the blatant disregard of Richardson and the ship captains continue, until poor Diaz “finally resorted to the tactics of making the Captain of the Port responsible for whatever might happen in Sausalito, and announced that he was withdrawing all guards, and informed Richardson that he was responsible for what might happen.” Richardson's answer is a grand-daddy of the bureaucratic response. “This Captaincy is not responsible for anything you may do regarding the whaling ships anchored in Sausalito, because of their having anchored by arrangement with orders which the Custom House gave; this is my answer to your Official Letter dated today.”

Besides open confrontations, Richardson had other means of avoiding customs duties -- use of the Sausalito shores as storage. Bancroft observed that Richardson was “more than suspected of smuggling with the support of his father-in-law [Ygnacio Martinez, commandant of the Presidio of San Francisco]... in debt and threatened with the calaboose if he did not pay within 24 hours.” When the whalers did submit to customs inspection, it was often with lightened loads. “A goodly amount of fabric, liquor, clothing, food and household goods were hidden -- beyond the beach at Whaler's Cove.”