No Smooth Sailing for Capt. Richardson

By Jack Tracy and Larry Clinton, Sausalito Historical Society

“William Antonio Richardson is in many ways an elusive figure in Sausalito history,” says Jack Tracy in his book Sausalito Moments in Time.  Most Sausalitans have heard how Richardson received a land grant including present day Sausalito from Presidio Commandante Don Ignacio Martinez, after marrying Martinez’ daughter, Maria Antonio.  However, like most of Sausalito’s history, the full story is a lot more complicated.

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco Bay in 1822 as a 27-year-old first mate on the British whaler Orion, Richardson became a Mexican citizen and was permitted to become a permanent resident of the settlement called Yerba Buena. He also was baptized into the Catholic faith in preparation for citizenship and marriage.  The following excerpts from Tracy’s book tell of Richardson’s stormy course:

 Whaling ships in Sausalito’s protected cove.     Photo from National Maritime Museum of San Francisco

Whaling ships in Sausalito’s protected cove.     Photo from National Maritime Museum of San Francisco

Although Richardson lived near the Presidio during this period, his activities frequently took him to Sausalito’s cove where the excellent spring water and wood supplies provided him with a steady income.  He set his sights on acquiring the Marin headlands, including Sausalito with its springs. Meanwhile, John Reed, a twenty-year-old Irishman, arrived on the scene in 1826 and took an instant liking to Sausalito and the Marin hills.

After building a small cabin at Sausalito's cove, he petitioned Governor Echienda for a land grant that would include Sausalito. His request was denied, but it must have startled Richardson to have another suitor wooing the Mexican governor for the very desirable tract of land.

Many years later Richardson claimed that his 1828 request for the rancho had been granted by Echienda. The formalities of title transfer were never completed, he insisted, because the papers had been lost or mislaid in Mexico City. Whatever the case, Richardson spent the next ten years attempting to gain clear title to the Sausalito grant. In 1829 Richardson abandoned his Sausalito and San Francisco enterprises, and moved with his family to San Gabriel, then the capital of Alta California. There Richardson became close friends with Don Jose Figueroa, who had replaced Echienda as governor. In 1835, the friendship paid off when Figueroa appointed Richardson Captain of the Port of San Francisco and sent him there to establish a pueblo, or civilian settlement.

He built the first permanent civilian residence in Yerba Buena Cove and with his wife and children became literally the first family of San Francisco. Upon his return, he had discovered to his dismay that Figueroa had granted the Marin headlands, including Sausalito, to Jose Antonio Galindo, a well-connected soldier at the Presidio. Nonetheless, Richardson set up shop once again in Sausalito's cove.

 Jose Galindo, meanwhile, was occupied with his other land grant, Rancho Laguna de la Merced. He had never formalized, that is, achieved juridical possession of under Mexican law, his Sausalito grant. Richardson pursued his claim to the land with the new Mexican governor and friend, Juan Bautista Alvarado, but his 1836 petition was again denied. Two years later, Galindo, who had not satisfied conditions for the grant, was accused of murder. A document dated 1838 does indeed name Antonio Galindo as a prisoner, but his fate is unknown. It has been suggested but never substantiated that Richardson had purchased the grant from Galindo.

In any case, on February 11, 1838, Richardson finally achieved his desire; he was given a clear title to the land, some 19,571 acres. Richardson called it El Rancho del Sausalito; it stretched from the Marin headlands at the Golden Gate to what is now Stinson Beach, and included the lucrative Puerto de los Balleneros, or Whaler's Cove, at Sausalito.

It took three more years for Richardson to acquire juridical possession of his lands. He slowly expanded his commercial empire and his influence.

However, time was running out for what Tracy called “the Arcadian way of life in California.”  Falling on hard times, Richardson repeatedly mortgaged his properties to pay his debts, and eventually lost the last of his holdings in 1856 to William Throckmorton, who created a partnership called the Sausalito Land and Ferry Company to develop the property.  Broke and broken, Richardson died soon thereafter.  He was buried in an unmarked grave in San Rafael.