Early Sausalito Immigrants

By Helen Kerr

Sausalito can trace its history in the waves of immigrants who settled here.  In her soft-cover book “Sausalito Since the Days of the Dons,” copyrighted in 1967, Helen Kerr described some of these early immigrants.  Here are a few annotated excerpts:

On Christmas Day, 1840, when Captain Leonard Story arrived at the site of what was to be Saucelito’s Old Town he found there only a saw-mill building and a shanty where the workers lived.  He nonetheless deemed it an agreeable place to live and invested a thousand dollars in a house-frame that had been brought around the Horn. Others took up residence in the next few years, among them Robert Parker, who built a hotel, Fountain House, and a government store.  But this first spurt of growth was short-lived, for when the town of Sacramento was badly damaged by fire in 1852, many of Saucelito’s buildings were dismantled and the lumber sold up river to rebuild Sacramento.

Between 1853 and 1868 Saucelito could hardly have been called a town, but 1868 saw the formation of the Saucelito Land and Ferry Company, a partnership of twenty “San Francisco gentlemen” who purchased some three miles of waterfront property, amounting to over a thousand acres, and proceeded to divide it up into “town lots and country seats.” They also laid out avenues and streets and established a regular ferry service to San Francisco. [Saucelito was an alternative spelling of our town’s name until the U.S. Post Office mandated Sausalito as the official name in 1888.]

Business was anything but brisk in the first days of the ferry run – often the passengers numbered only five or six – and it was the custom of the captain of the steamer Princess to call the roll of commuters before casting off the hawser.  “I can’t afford to leave one behind,” he explained to strangers.

By 1880 the dairy industry had developed steadily, with San Francisco as a convenient and ready market.  With the dairy industry grew Saucelito’s New Town, for beginning in the 1870’s the dairying attracted a host of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. Sober-minded, hard-working men, they brought their families with them or married into the Marin clan, encouraging their relatives back on the islands to join them.

A memberof the original colony, Mrs. Mary Ann (Josie) Rosa, bright-eyed and clear-minded at the age of 93,  described her childhood in Sausalito of the late nineteenth century.  Her father, Joseph Silva, had come to Sausalito aboard a whaler, settled at the end of town and married a girl from Sao Jorge who had been brought over to keep house for her brothers.  Josie and the other children walked several miles back and forth to school each day.  As the youngsters passed the scattered homes along the way to school on Hannon’s Hill, their classmates fell in with them, and the walk constituted their social life for the day.

Their route took them past Shanghai Valley, now a part of Marinship, where a number of Chinese railroad workers lived.  There were no women and children in Shanghai Valley and the men, certainly homesick for their families, made friends with the children and offered them sweets on holidays.  The Chinese lived quietly in Sausalito until the North Pacific Coast Railway was completed, [early in the 20th Century] when they disappeared.

Some of the Portuguese worked for the railroad too, and others were fishermen who hired out to the large companies that fished the waters from Alaska to Baja California. 

The men from the Azores also participated in Sausalito’s boat building industry, and the Nunes Brothers Boat Works made an impressive showing in the field of yacht design.

The Portuguese played as hard they worked. Weddings and christenings were traditionally celebrated for three days and three nights, but the big event of the year for the Portuguese was, and still is, the Pentecost Festival of Feast of the Holy Ghost.  The “Chamarita,” as the festival is sometimes called, after the traditional dance of that name, is still observed in Sausalito each year on the seventh Sunday after Easter.

In early days the holiday began with a cattle drive, which started from Bolinas, on the ocean side of the coastal range, and wound its way along the trails and roads to Sausalito. Ranchers along the way donated calves for auction, and Portuguese cowboys, dressed in their finest riding clothes, picked up cattle and drivers as they moved toward Sausalito.  On the trail they decorated the animals with ribbons, bells and flowers for the gala entry into town. This custom lasted until 1925 when the automobile began its interference with tradition.

Helen Kerr was a Marin journalist who once edited the Sausalito News.  She was also on the Board of the Sausalito Arts Festival as early as 1956.  Her beautifully calligraphed book is in the collection of the Historical Society, and in select Marin County libraries.