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Gold Rush History, Revisited

One of the major misconceptions about the history of the Mendocino Coast is the idea that the sawmill at the mouth of Big River produced the first lumber in the area. The story about Jerome B. Ford traveling overland to Mendocino and the arrival of the brig Ontario on July 19, 1852, with men and equipment to construct a sawmill is accurate. However, a careful reading of the San Francisco newspaper the Daily Alta California shows the July 4, 1852, arrival in The City of the schooner Sovereign with a cargo of lumber from Mendocino County. The Sovereign, under Captain Baker, had sailed from Albion to the port of San Francisco in thirty hours.

The sawmill in Albion belonged to Captain William Richardson. The land around Albion had been given to Richardson, in lieu of back pay for more than seven years service as the Captain of the Port of San Francisco, in 1844, as part of a land grant extending from 38 degrees, 48 minutes, north latitude to 39 degrees, 18 minutes, north latitude (later roughed out to mean from the Garcia River to Big River [then called Rio Grande] and two leagues inland). Richardson was deeded the acreage because Mexico's finances were so dire at the time that such an extensive piece of remote property was less of a burden on the government than a cash payment. It may be instructive to note the last lines of the grant signed by Governor Manuel Mcheltorena: “If it suits you, you may take possession and occupy the land from this date, under the condition of protecting the Gentile [non-Christian] Indians from individuals who continually steal their children and sell them. You will teach them [the indigenous people] to work, and you will scrupulously take care that foreigners do not get possession of these lands and that all that you produce will be advantageous to the benefit of the nation.”

William Richardson arrived in San Francisco Bay August 2, 1822 aboard the British whaler Orion. As the vessel passed the presidio cannon fire indicated the presence of a foreign ship. After the Orion anchored, Captain William Barney ordered first mate Richardson ashore, because he spoke some Spanish, to make arrangements for the purchase of provisions. At the presidio Richardson met its Comandante, Ignacio Martinez, who not only promised to fill the ship's supply needs he also invited the twenty-six year old first mate to a fiesta he was hosting. Besides drinking Martinez's brandy and performing an Irish jig, Richardson danced with the commandant's nineteen year-old daughter, Maria Antonia Martinez.

The party continued until dawn, whereupon Richardson made his way back to the Orion. Captain Barney apparently fumed at either the length of Richardson's stay or not being invited to the fiesta himself. Whether Barney ordered Richardson off the Orion permanently or the first mate jumped ship is not clear to history. The other details of William Richardson's first day and night in San Francisco Bay come from the written account of his son Stephen Richardson in The Days of the Dons.

William Richardson was welcomed into the Martinez household by the presidio's commandant. Stephen Richardson's account makes it clear that the British sailor was already smitten by his dance partner, Maria Antonia, who had four younger sisters and two brothers.

Commandant Martinez allowed Richardson to borrow a horse from the presidio's stable to ride to Monterey in order to petition the government there to allow him to remain permanently in California. The approximate 125 mile ride on the El Camino Real included overnight stops at the missions in Santa Clara and San Juan Bautista. Citing Richardson's abilities at navigation and carpentry, the petition was granted almost immediately. Thus William Richardson became the first English speaking permanent resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, and only the eighth in all of California.

Richardson returned to the presidio, essentially becoming part of the Martinez household while he worked as a carpenter. He often accompanied the family to mass at Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores). On the outskirts of the mission rested a rectangularly patterned village for baptized indigenous people. This village extended ten blocks by four parallel streets, divided by one long perpendicular street. It held approximately a hundred adobe dwellings roofed with tiles similar to the mission itself.

The indigenous folk Richardson observed derived from dozens of different language groups, much like the reservations organized by the United States government decades later. It is likely that a majority of those indigenous people living at Mission Dolores were part of what would later be called the Ohlone. The Spanish speakers at Mission Dolores named them Costanoan (Coastals). Their geographic domain extended south from San Francisco Bay to the Sur River, north of Monterey.

Whether they had been baptized in the Catholic Church at Mission Dolores through persuasion or force, several Ohlone learned carpentry and seamanship skills from Richardson in the 1820s. By the time of Richardson's arrival there were more than six hundred of these newly baptized Christians living in the ten block village at Mission Dolores. The decimation of their numbers through exposure to European diseases makes it difficult to estimate the population of the Ohlone before the Spanish-speakers arrived.

Throughout the fall of 1822 and the spring of 1823, Richardson rode horseback from the presidio to Mission Dolores for instruction by the two Franciscan friars there. On June 16, 1823, Richardson was officially converted from a Protestant and baptized a Catholic.

In the next two years Richardson courted Maria Antonia Martinez, but also refitted a fifteen foot sloop, El Ray del Mar, which he'd acquired from the padre at Mission Santa Clara. In addition, he repaired a washed up whaleboat, the victim of some unknown oceanic misadventure. With these he transported grain and other supplies from Santa Clara and San Jose to the presidio much more quickly than the previously used overland route. In addition, Richardson used his vessels to chart the waters of the bay and its tributaries, marking the depths, safe places for anchorage, mapping the islands and perilous submerged shoals and rocks as well as noting the specifics of the bay's dangerous cross currents. Because of this he was hired many times to pilot foreign ships wishing to enter and exit San Francisco Bay.

In his explorations Richardson discovered a sheltered cove five miles due north of the presidio. The Spanish called it Sausalito, meaning “little grove of willows.” When William Richardson and Maria Antonia Martinez married in May, 1825, they followed the ceremony with a honeymoon trip to the little grove of willows.

At a later date we will explore why Richardson's name has been all but lost to accounts of Mendocino history.

An 1854 daguerreotype of Capt. William Anthony Richardson (1795-1856), a former whaler who came to San Francisco in 1822. Richardson married Maria Antonia Martinez, the daughter of the commandant of the Presidio, and he was granted Rancho Saucelito, an area encompassing Mill Valley, Mt. Tamalpais, the coastline, and Sausalito.

(History, facts, myths, and legends can be found at


  1. Scott Peterson May 25, 2017

    Nicely done, Malcolm.

  2. George Hollister May 25, 2017

    Very good, and interesting.

  3. Tom Quinn May 26, 2017

    I think Richard Henry Dana in “Two Years Before the Mast” mentions encountering Richardson during his 1835 visit to SF Bay and the village then known as Yerba Buena, which he said had a population of 400 at the time.

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