How the Richardsons Lost Rancho Sausalito

By Jack Tracy

The California Gold Rush, which made millionaires of some miners and entrepreneurs, was less kind to Sausalito founder William Richardson. In his book Moments in Time, Historical Society founder Jack Tracy tells how the Richardson family lost the 19,000-acre rancho ─ a land grant from the Commandante of the Presidio in San Francisco (then known as Yerba Buena):

William Throckmorton c. 1865. Photo courtesy of Mill Valley Library

William Throckmorton c. 1865.
Photo courtesy of Mill Valley Library

Unwilling to leave his fragile "empire" for the goldfields, Richardson also forbade his son Steven to venture to the dangerous mining camps. His hope for riches lay in somehow turning his Rancho del Sausalito to advantage. He became preoccupied with proving his Mexican grant before the United States Land Claims Commission in San Francisco. During this period his cattle business went untended, and his merchant vessels had new, fierce competition. Richardson also had an unfortunate but not uncommon habit of borrowing short-term money at high interest rates to cover debts. Unable to pay off one debt, he borrowed more, usually from friends, each time using his vast property as collateral. It is unknown how many times he did this, but for years after his death unrecorded promissory notes surfaced, each bearing Richardson's signature, each naming Rancho del Sausalito as collateral.

Still heavily mortgaged in the mid-1850s, Richardson was forced to liquidate his assets in a last attempt to salvage his ranch. His attorney, after successfully clearing Richardson's land claim, directed him to Samuel Reading Throckmorton, an attorney well known for his clever financial manipulations. Richardson and Throckmorton struck a deal wherein Throckmorton was given title as trustee to the entire remaining Rancho del Sausalito. He would have three years in which to raise money by selling off parts of the ranch to cover all debts. At that time, he would deed back to Richardson one-fifth of all remaining unencumbered property and assets, keeping four-fifths for himself as payment for his efforts. Throckmorton immediately restructured the ranch from a stock range to dairying, a more profitable business at the time. In 1856 the final blow came for William Richardson. Three of his uninsured coastal vessels, the backbone of his financial base, were lost at sea. Bankrupt, discouraged, and threatened with lawsuits, William An­tonio Richardson died April 20,1856, allegedly of mercury poisoning from tablets prescribed by his doctor for rheu­matism. Accidental or intentional, his death at age sixty-one remains one final mystery in his enigmatic life.

Although the three years allotted to Throckmorton to untangle Richardson's financial snarl had already elapsed, Throckmorton waited until after Richardson's death to report on his progress. He met with twenty-four-year-old Steven Richardson and Manuel Torres, Richardson's son-in-law, and told them a sad tale. Rancho del Sausalito was deeper in debt than ever, and the one-fifth promised them was in reality one-fifth of nothing but enormous debts. Under terms of the agreement, the entire property, debts and all, should have reverted to Richardson's heirs. But the resourceful Throckmorton had a proposal. According to Steven Richardson, Throckmorton offered him and Tor­res $5,000 each for the family's one-fifth share, which of course was "worthless" anyway. Like lambs to the slaughter, they signed over their interests to Throckmorton without even asking for an accounting of debts. It turned out the total indebtedness was far less than they had been led to believe. As Steven Richardson said in retrospect, "He [Throckmorton] was dealing with a pair of suckers. Thus, we parted with a principality for a beggarly pittance."

With control of Rancho del Sausalito, Throckmorton, also now in debt, set out to turn a profit. Eventually, he was able to offer a complete package to potential investors: a choice valley with long, flat shoreline, and excellent springs and creeks. On April 22, 1868, they sold 1,164 acres of the Sausalito rancho to a consortium of nineteen San Francisco businessmen for $440,000.

The partners in the new Sausalito venture formally incorporated on September 27, 1869, as the Sausalito Land & Ferry Company, thus launching the second attempt to create a city in Sausalito. Some of the partners were interested in the quick profit potential, while others were dedicated to the idea of founding a town.

Moments in Time is available at the Ice House, 780 Bridgeway.