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.
When I read a Los Angeles Times article about the recent increase in the number of wild animals seen roaming in Yosemite National Park and the peacefulness experienced in the park by the 100 to 200 employees living there, it reminded me of the wild nature of all of Alta California just 200 years ago. With few people in the park, the territorial songs of birds, grunts of bears, growls of mountain lions, and howls of coyotes blend with the rush of the waterfalls and the wind in the treetops in Yosemite as it once did in the 1800s. In those early days, in the San Francisco Bay area and all along the coast, wild animals did not fear people as much as they do now. Once in a while, even now, you can get quite close to nature.
It amazes me how strong a connection people used to have with nature and how little most of us have now. Every now and then, though, a fleeting link does happen. I was sitting outside at my deck table reading and enjoying the warm day and a gentle cool breeze. As I sat quietly, a hummingbird buzzed by over my shoulder and dove into the bright red geranium flowers in a nearby window box. It flew on to sip the nectar from the petunias in a hanging basket. I sat quietly and watched it, with my book propped up and open, but not reading or even turning a page. This tiny bird flitted over to the table where I was sitting and visited the petunias in the bowl on the table. It was within twelve inches of my open book. When I made a chirping sound, it flew toward me and came to rest on the top edge of my book. It sat there for a minute, sticking its tongue in and out, looking directly at me. Another hummingbird buzzed over my head and chirped, and the two flew off. You can’t get much closer to nature than that!
The Spanish built an adobe battery called Castillo de San Joaquin at the top of Fort Point to defend the bay with eight brass cannons. Cannon shots were fired from there as a warning or a greeting as ships entered the San Francisco Bay. When a cannon is fired at a distance, you would first see smoke, and seconds later you would hear the boom. If you remember your high school science and the rule about lightning and thunder, you’d say, of course, I knew that. I had the chance to experience live cannon fire as I watched two tall ships during a commemoration sail celebrating Captain George Vancouver’s explorations aboard the sloop Discovery.
In early California, people often raised the wheat, stored it, ground the wheat grains every day that they wanted to make bread, and baked the loaves in outdoor ovens. What a lot of work! During this current pandemic, everyone started cooking and baking. Making bread became so popular that I heard the bread-making appliances were in short supply! Years ago, I made bread so I decided to try to bake bread again. With very few places to go to these days, being indoors and waiting for the bread dough to rise was no problem. A really good rise (without a bread machine) can take seven hours! Many people leave the dough to rise overnight, which I imagine many early pioneers did. In Alta California and other Spanish colonies, the bread was baked in adobe clay beehive-shaped ovens, built outside the main dwelling to avoid house fires.
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.
Music and dancing were daily evening entertainment even in the California wilderness of the 1800s. Recently I heard on the radio the song “La Bamba,” made popular in 1958 by Ritchie Valens who sang it to a rock beat. Since it’s a Mexican folk song that originated in Veracruz, the Californios in the 1800s probably sang it during their dances, known as fandangos. The lyrics fit the story line for one of my chapters perfectly. Here is part of the refrain:
“Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán,
Soy capitán, soy capitán.”
When the commandant’s daughter María Antonia and Captain Richardson meet, this song is played at the evening dance. Here is the translation:
“I am not a sailor, I am the captain.”
The words seemed ideal for the scene of them getting to know each other.
While delving deeper into Richardson’s story, I discovered that his name was attached more recently to something historic. During World War II, a vital ship building industry known as Marinship was located on the shores of Richardson’s Bay, north of the city of Sausalito, in order to build Liberty ships. The busy shipyard employed 20,000 workers, three shifts a day, and launched a vessel, either a cargo ship or tanker, off to war every thirteen days. Since men were enlisting to serve in the armed forces, women were employed to build these riveted ships, leading to the sobriquet Rosie the Riveter. The first Liberty ship launched from there was named the S.S. William A. Richardson. The S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, now docked at Pier 45 in San Francisco and used as a museum ship, is one of four surviving Liberty ships.
California was once called Alta California when Spain and then Mexico governed the territory. All of the Spanish names come from the Spanish explorers and pioneers who settled there from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Are you curious about California history and California people? I have been curious about California, its beginnings, and its annexation by the United States ever since I lived there. How could you not be curious about a state that was once a nation for a week? I don’t live there now, but my curiosity has never ended. I think it is hard to get the emotional attachment to California out of your blood once you have lived there. When I did live in the state, I started researching California history and began writing about Captain William A. Richardson, and the early settlement of California, especially around San Francisco. I learned about historical figures for whom streets and cities were named and about the northern California wilderness called Yerba Buena that grew into the metropolis of San Francisco. After leaving a time-consuming career in publishing, I continued my research and began a novel, writing about the Miwoks, Ohlones, California missions, ranchos, brigs, schooners, and the early settlers from Spain, Mexico, Britain, Russia, and the United States. In my story, I intend to give my readers through the eyes of one man and his family an insight into the daily lives of people who struggled to survive during this time of political upheaval and social change.
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.