The Richardson Saga

By Annie Sutter

Back in 1987, the Historical Society’s Annie Sutter wrote a series for the MarinScope on based on recollections of the children of William Richardson, Sausalito’s founder.  Here’s an excerpt.

What kind of a place was the Sausalito that William Richardson inhabited in the late 1830's? An answer is provided by his son Stephen in a series of articles published by the Call Bulletin in 1918 when the son was 87 years old. “My early life in Sausalito was perhaps the happiest time of my life. A horse trail ran from San Rafael to Sausalito; very much the same as the main highway goes today. The country was entirely untouched by man, and the wild oats grew shoulder high, in spite of the great herds of wild animals browsing in the fields. On an ordinary jaunt from Sausalito to San Rafael I would see enough elk, deer, bear and antelope to fill a good sized railroad train. I never grew tired of riding through wonderful forest land and over ridges overlooking the sea.” There were 19,000 acres comprising what was originally called Rancho Saucelito for young Stephen to ride through and enjoy. He continued, “The bay as my father knew it was a fairyland of enchantments ... the waters had not been fouled by tailings from the mines, and were still crystal clear so that a pebble could easily be seen at a depth of 30 feet. The timber reached in many places down to the shore; The stillness was unbroken save for the shrill piping of the myriad shorebirds, and elk with huge branching horns, graceful antlered stags, and huge grizzly bears stood statuesque on the hill sides.” Richardson's daughter wrote that she saw bands of elks, hundreds in a band, swimming from Mare Island to the shores, and remembers fields of yellow poppies stretching as far as the eye can see. However, all was not Paradise, as attested to by one Mr. Atherton who, on April 5, 1837, “sailed for Whaler's cove ... remained an hour or two ... shot rabbit and got most confoundedly poisoned by what is here called 'yedra' (poison ivy).”

 This anonymous painting of Wm. Richardson’s home c. 1845 is from the Bancroft Library.  It appears in Jack Tracy’s book, Moments in Time.

This anonymous painting of Wm. Richardson’s home c. 1845 is from the Bancroft Library.  It appears in Jack Tracy’s book, Moments in Time.

Having finally officially received the grant to Rancho Sausalito in 1838, Richardson moved his family from his home in San Francisco shortly thereafter. He built his home, an adobe, at the intersection of today's Pine and Bonita. First hand descriptions of this home vary greatly; from idyllic reports of climbing roses and flowering pear trees to the account of Captain Wilkes of the ship Vincennes: “His house is small, consisting of only two rooms, and within a few rods of it all the cattle are slaughtered which affords a sight and smell not the most agreeable.  A collection of leg-bones, hoofs, and hides lay about in confusion, for which numerous dogs were fighting.” The small size of the home is confirmed in a history of Marin County written in 1880, which says that the house was first “sixteen by twenty feet in size, then an addition of a room on either side was made making the house about twenty by forty with a storage loft above.” The adobe was still intact in 1872, and then “whatever remains of the house existed after the 1870s were finally cleared away when Pine St. was cut through about 1924.”

By 1841 the family was well established Sausalito. Many are the reports of his hospitality. In those days of life in early California the concept “mi casa es su casa -my house is your house” was an accepted way of life. Californians were expected to -- and did -- open their homes to visitors and entertain lavishly. “Entertaining in those days was wholesale, not retail,” recalled Stephen. “It was necessary for the hostess to invite practically the entire population ... you were sure to have at least 100 guests draw bridle at your door at the appointed day. And no feasts lasted for less than one week.”

Richardson extended his hospitality to visitors on ships and was, in turn, invited to dine on board, often in equally lavish style, as described by daughter Marianna. “My father always dined officers of the men-of-war. The dinner consisted of barbecued meat, stewed chicken with chili beans, corn and other Spanish dishes all of which they enjoyed very much. They would praise our way of cooking and would always invite us to dine on board their vessels ... and entertained us in a splendid state serving a grand dinner using their finest china, having several table cloths of the finest linen, removing one after each course.”

Captain Wilkes, however, whose ship visited in 1841, found returning this hospitality somewhat trying. “Whilst the ship was at Sausalito the officers received many persons on board, and as their estancias were far removed, they became guests for a longer time than was agreeable to most of the officers. A Californian needs no pressing to stay as long as he is pleased with the place; and he is content with coarse fare provided he can get enough of strong drink to minister to his thirst.  The palm for intemperance was, I think, generally give to the padres, some of whom, notwithstanding their clerical robes, did ample justice to every drinkable offered them.” A trader, one Alfred Robinson, described a dinner on board an American ship to which Californian rancheros had been invited: “On one occasion as soon as the pudding had been served round, a bowl containing the pudding sauce was handed to one of the Californian guests to help himself.  He took the bowl from the steward and with his spoon, soon finished it.  Then, smacking his lips, he remarked, ‘What good soup!  What a pity they did not bring it before the meat’.”