Tony Bennett, who died last month, made that song famous. It was my mother’s favorite song, especially after she visited the city and I moved there. Its history continues to fascinate me through my research about its early founder, Captain William A. Richardson. After the dinosaurs disappeared, the Miwoks and Ohlone people, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Russians, the British, and finally the Americans wanted a piece of the place. With the 1849 Gold Rush, the world surged through the bay’s gateway to get to the “diggings” in the mountains. The city by the bay, in fact, all of California, still attracts people from around the world to visit or live there. But many are also leaving. They cherish the city and the state or at least their memory of them, but can no longer afford to live there.
José Vadi wrote in his essay collection Inter State: Essays from California, that he fears former Californians are becoming modern-day Okies, displaced by a new demographic, Californians with deep pockets. I joined the ranks of those modern-day Okies when I moved to the state of Washington a few years ago. But I have great affection for the years I lived in California and love to visit.
US Route 101 trails along the California coastline from San Diego and beyond the northern California border. As far as San Francisco, it follows much of the same route that the Spanish explorer (conquistador) General Gaspar de Portolá traveled from 1769-1770, when he led an expedition for the Spanish king. The path was labeled El Camino Real, the Royal Road. Franciscan friars trudged along hundreds of miles with the Spanish expedition and started to build a chain of missions in Alta California along El Camino Real, which stretched from Mexico City to the San Francisco Bay. The Royal Road sprouted branches leading east over mountains and desert to Santa Fe, which was also Spanish territory. Spanish and Mexican soldiers, settlers, fur trappers and traders, messengers, Native Americans, and the Richardson family rode along El Camino Real.
Today, Californians and tourists drive US Route 101, never realizing that a good portion lies on the route along which General Portolá guided his expedition. During his explorations, Portolá established the California cities of San Diego and Monterey. He also served as the first governor of Alta California. Of the twenty-one Spanish missions constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some have disintegrated, but many people visit those that have been preserved and are still places of worship today.
I read recently that sea otters are being reintroduced into places where they once thrived. Thousands had swarmed around the coves and shoreline of San Francisco Bay where they were hunted for their thick luxurious fur. The indigenous people first took the furs for their winter clothing. When Spain ruled Alta California, the Spanish agreed to allow the Russian navy to anchor in the Bay in winter and bring Aleut hunters from Sitka to trap the animals. The pelts brought high prices and were sought by wealthy Russians for fur coats. Spain and later the Mexican government collected a hefty tax for each pelt. Tax collection for these furs evolved into one of Captain William A. Richardson’s duties.
Sea otters are now protected wildlife. Because their numbers were so reduced, their favorite food, sea urchins, overpopulated the kelp forests along the western North American coast. Without their otter predators, sea urchins devastate their environment and create what biologists label an urchin barren. In Canada, along the coast of British Columbia, sea otters are increasing and so the coastal ecosystem has improved significantly. The kelp forests are rebounding. Otters are now re-entering the Oregon and California coast, not in numbers as they were in the 1800s, but enough to help the ecosystem recuperate.
In earlier years, there was much debate about who built the first dwelling in San Francisco, but the City of San Francisco finally decided the honor belonged to Captain William A. Richardson. In the 1800s, the city of San Francisco was known as Yerba Buena. The Republic of Mexico governed Alta California, and its governor José Figueroa asked Richardson to establish a pueblo at Yerba Buena. In 1835 he built a tent-shanty in which he and his family lived for four months. Richardson then built a wood plank house on a lot that he purchased from the Mexican government for $25. The California Historical Society confirmed that the lot was on the corner of the San Francisco streets of Grant and Clay. The pictured plaque that hangs on the current house says: “The Birthplace of a Great City — Here, June 25, 1835, William A. Richardson, founder of Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) erected its first habitation, a tent dwelling, replacing it in October, 1835, by the first wooden house, and on this ground in 1836, he erected the large adobe building, known as ‘Casa Grande.’ This tablet was placed under the auspices of the Northern Federation of Civic Organizations of San Francisco.” I want to thank my friend Stephanie Sigue for photographing this plaque for me. For a marker of such a momentous event, it is hard to find and obscured from casual viewing, but look carefully and you will find it.
Highly contagious diseases such as smallpox, syphilis, mumps, influenza, and measles were prevalent in California during the 1800s. Europeans were learning to control outbreaks of the deadly disease smallpox by vaccinating. However, when the Spanish and Mexican soldiers mixed with the Native Americans in California, epidemics of smallpox and measles spread rapidly through the native population. The people had no immunity to these European diseases, and though some survived, many died within days after contracting them. Captain Richardson helped the Franciscan friars vaccinate for smallpox among many of the neophytes who had been at the California missions, but smallpox and other diseases returned, again and again, to cause havoc among the coastal people, resulting in severe suffering and death. In the Franciscan Mission Dolores (located in San Francisco), where on average 1,000 neophytes lived and worked, more than 300 might die in one year due to these diseases.
When I started researching California history, Captain William A. Richardson’s name surfaced several times connected to the founding of the city of San Francisco and the city of Sausalito. Streets were named after him as well as Richardson’s Bay near Sausalito. He was the first mate on a British whaler that sailed into San Francisco Bay in the early 1820s in need of water, wood, and provisions. A romantic story was attached to his jumping ship to stay in Alta California. As a result, his life in California revolved around the sea, sailing ships, and the beautiful, charming Spanish daughter of the commandant in charge of the San Francisco Presidio, the Spanish fort that Mexico then governed. An ambitious, driven man, he built ships and adobe houses, sailed north, south, and west, became a ranchero, and was the friend of many famous historical people.