By Annie Sutter
This is excerpted from the final installment of a series Annie wrote about Sausalito during the years that founder William Richardson lived here.
Entertainments enjoyed by the Californios of Richardson's time ranged from gracious to brutal, from picnics in the hills while picking wild strawberries, to baiting a bull and a bear to fight to the death. And eating, drinking, dancing and competition were the mainstays of a social event -- be it one of county wide attendance and weeklong duration such as a wedding, or merely the occasion of the arrival of a visitor who, in the code of the early Californian, must be lavishly entertained. In the book Days of the Dons, a Bolinas housewarming, or fiesta, is described: "For the men, days were filled with competition in riding and horsemanship, the use of the riata, and feats of bodily strength, and much betting on this or that gave spice to events. Juan Garcia had brought his fighting cocks and staged a few bloody contests. But the favorite sports were those of skill ... and to a Frenchman whom they called Tom Vaquero fell the honor of being acclaimed the outstanding rider. He had offered to forfeit his horse, saddle, bridle and spurs if he failed to subdue the wildest mustang while holding a silver dollar with his feet in each stirrup. After the efforts of several men who lassoed and saddled the animal and placed coins under Tom's feet, he won his bet, retaining his seat easily...quite a time it took, the horse rearing, kicking, bucking...but at last the tired animal walked across the corral for the judges to inspect the stirrups and there rested the coins - firmly held just where they had been placed." Similar equestrian skill was exhibited in performing a particularly brutal sport in which live chickens were buried except for their heads. The game was for the riders Jo set their mounts to galloping headlong at the unfortunate chickens, and to reach down at full tilt to pluck their heads off.
Then, triumphant, the vaquero could return to the hacienda for more placid sport; "two days of merriment and feasting passed. The moon was bright at night and in the courtyard a great bonfire lighted the pits where meats broiled and caldrons of beans and sauces simmered. Dancing in the sala, singing songs dear to them all, and flirting under the watchful eyes of the duennas - so passed the time."
One of the dances was called "La Jota." Stephen Richardson recalls, "It could be danced by any number divisible by four. The señors ranged themselves opposite the senoritas with a wide space between. Then a man at the head of the column began to sing a popular folk song, the lady opposite him took up the strain, followed by the new two forming a quartette of voices. Meanwhile the singers were pirouetting down the aisle, performing all kinds of intricate evolutions. The voices of the succeeding fours joined in order, harmonizing in a round; thus the volume swelling to a grand crescendo, reached a faint whisper of song as the dancers resumed their former stations. Another dance was called "La Son." It was a one lady dance, and always excited a heap of merriment. The danseuse executed a few pirouettes and singled out one of the dashing bucks as a challenged party. She danced up to him, saucy as you please, and it was his part to plant his sombrero on her head. She looked as she would make it easy for him, but when he made a swift attempt, Mira! she was a-dozen feet away. This was repeated with various caballeros present, and for each failure the fair dancer received a gift. But to promote variety, she was finally sombrero and surrendered to a lucky youth."
Richardson's daughter, Marianna, described a less gracious form of entertainment. "Bear and bull fights were always a great attraction. In 1835 when I was nine I saw my first fight of this kind. A large bear was led into an enclosure with a number of vaqueros on horseback. The bear was thrown on his back and a riata tied around his leg. The bull was led in and treated in the same manner -- they were then tied together and made to stand up. At, first they tried to escape, but soon discovered they had to fight. The bear stood up on his haunches, and the bull, seeing this, tried to run his horns through the bear but the bear was too quick and turned aside. Before the bull could recover, the bear had him around the horns and pulled him to the ground and deliberately, by brute force, thrust his paw into the bull's mouth and pulled out his tongue. The bull expired in a few minutes."
In 1851 a visitor wrote: "We all went to the rancho in evening and sure enough, all senoritas were there. Who would not fall in love with California girls? Dear creatures with raven locks and round shiny faces who meet you at the door with Buenos Dios! and oh ... what a smile. Such forms too -- none of your tall slender dames. We found the company seated on the floor. The brandy came fast, but who would think of those delicate throats swallowing brandy, so the senoritas drank strong beer instead. We drank three cases, and they two. How they could dance when that began to operate! It would enchant the ladies of New York to see of our belles step out alone on the floor, throw her head back, spread her gown out on each side to show her pretty legs, and then crack it down... their gowns were of crepe and calico, with gay and satin kid shoes. Necklace earrings were indispensable."