A cascarón is an emptied chicken egg that has been filled with confetti. The Spanish word cascarón means “eggshell.” Similar to Easter eggs, popular in many cultures, these hollow eggs are a tradition that started in Spain and spread to Mexico when Spain colonized Central America. It is still a widespread tradition in the southwestern United States and Mexico. María Antonia Richardson and her daughter Mariana would have made many cascarones for fiestas during their lifetimes. To make these eggs, early California women poked small holes in one end of the eggs, blew out the raw contents, and rinsed the empty shells. After the shells dried, the women filled them with cologne or tiny pieces of brightly colored cut paper and sealed the holes with melted candle wax. The cascarones were saved to use at an Easter fiesta or a party. As guests arrived or during the dancing, a woman or man would secret an egg in one hand, hide it behind his or her back, and crack the cascarón on the head of the surprised partner or friend. A shower of fragrant cologne or bits of colored paper would cover the unsuspecting victim’s hair. Today, decorated cascarones are popular for birthdays and holidays such as New Year’s, Carnival, Cinco de Mayo, the Day of the Dead, and of course, Easter.
Just as many other people are, I’m anxiously waiting for a Covid-19 vaccination. How fortunate we are to live now when so many vaccines are available to prevent deadly diseases that regularly dispatched people at a young age. As I read in Bill Bryson’s book The Body: a Guide for Occupants, vaccines for smallpox, diphtheria, polio, and measles saved the lives of millions. Better sanitation, improved diets, and fresher foods also helped in a major way.
In the early 1800s in Alta California, there were no doctors and little medicine. Smallpox caused virulent epidemics in the Native American population, but occasionally the vaccine was available to inoculate some of them. Because Captain Richardson had some medical experience during his service in the British merchant marines, he helped the friars at the California missions when he could. For common illnesses, most medicines were made from plants. Blackberry syrup was used to treat coughs. Indigenous people in California drank a tea made with the leaves of a native shrub, now known as mountain balm, as a remedy for coughs, colds, asthma, and bronchitis. After they taught Spanish settlers to use it, the Spanish called the herb yerba santa, meaning “holy or sacred herb.” Chemicals in the leaves are effective in loosening phlegm. Chumash people in Southern California probably taught Richardson to use the leaves in a poultice to relieve pain from sprains, bruises, and arthritis. When doctors or naval surgeons visited California, they might provide doses of medicines such as laudanum, mercury, or calomel. Some of these proved to be worse than the illnesses they were supposed to cure. Laudanum was addictive, and mercury, used to treat syphilis, could kill the patient.
Bull and bear fights were a common entertainment in early California. Vaqueros rode into the hills, searched for a grizzly bear, lassoed it, and dragged it back to a corral, which was often set up near a California mission. When a bull was dragged into the same corral, the bear’s rear leg was tied to one of the bull’s forelegs, and the two beasts were forced to attack each other. Somewhere I had read that these fights were the early origins of the stock market terms. The way the animals attack inspired the name. A bull thrusts its horns up, while a bear swipes its claws down. A bull market refers to a rise in stock prices while a bear market portends a downward trend. In her recollections of social life and customs in the 1830s, Captain Richardson’s daughter Mariana described watching such a fight when she was nine years old, the animals attacking each other as they tried to break away and escape. However, after checking on the Merriam-Webster website, I found another origin story. An old proverb warned it was unwise to sell a bear’s skin before catching the bear, meaning don’t buy something of no value. The term “bearskin jobber” came into use, “bearskin” was shortened to “bear,” and that term was applied to a stock being sold by a speculator or the actual speculator. Bull market might originate from the use of bulletin board notices for the early London Stock Exchange: the more bulletins on the board, the stronger the market.
A notice about knitting scarves for homeless people caught my attention and I am now adding my donation to the cause. As I calculated how long the project might take (probably about two weeks), I paused to think about making clothing two hundred years ago. It took me a year to knit just one sweater, but in early California, every stitch of clothing was sewn by hand. Talk about labor intensive! All baby clothes, dresses, shirts, linens, bedding. Often many pieces were decorated with embroidery. The Native American women at the missions were taught to weave to make blankets and rough cloth, using the wool from mission sheep and goats. The Franciscan friars taught them to sew clothing also. My knitting is just a hobby. The women in the past made their clothes out of necessity. And some men too. They did buy some clothing from trading ships—boots and shoes, hats, fine Peruvian wool or Chinese silk shawls, men’s jackets.
Pioneers across the West did such work. We have all heard of sewing bees and women neighbors gathering to make patchwork quilts as gifts for soon-to-be-married couples. But think of all the cooking and cleaning that women did as well! Churning butter, making cheese, baking bread, endless housework. They served as the family doctors and nurses and prepared birthday and holiday celebrations. They performed truly amazing amounts of work and should be remembered and honored as much as the well-known male historical figures are.
I never realized how large the California territory was when Spain and then Mexico claimed the land. The region called Californias stretched past the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across the current states of Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, as well as some of Arizona. Baja California was also part of this area. The Republic of Mexico governed Nuevo Mexico and Tejas (or Texas) as well. This land fit like puzzle pieces next to what is now known as the Louisiana Purchase, which the United States purchased from France. The United States annexed the Mexican territories of Alta California and Nuevo Mexico after the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. Texas had become a republic but then joined the States as well. The United States actually compensated Mexico for these territories — a highly unusual action at the time for a victor in a war.
Actually there are two memorials to Captain Richardson’s life. A plaque listing events in his life is found on a sidewalk near the Sausalito harbor docks. I lived in Sausalito for a while and yet never noticed this marker. Linda H., a dear friend interested in my writing, discovered it. Another marker honors Captain Richardson’s memory in Gabrielson Park near the Sausalito Ferry terminal. Two of the captain’s descendants from his daughter Mariana Richardson Torres, Davis Lewis and his sister Letitia Davis, attended the 1999 dedication ceremony for the monument. The memorial is fitting especially since Richardson’s gravestone, somewhere on a San Rafael hillside, can no longer be found. These two markers are important reminders of Captain Richardson’s life and work on San Francisco Bay. Many thanks to my niece Liz Lowry for the photograph of the anchor and marker. The beginning of the inscription on the plaque reads:
William A. Richardson
Founder of Sausalito
In 1822 English-born Richardson arrived in San
Francisco Bay on the whaler Orion.
I won’t quote the rest of the text on this tribute to Richardson because it contains spoilers. I would rather you read my book when it is published to discover the whole story about this remarkable and somewhat forgotten man and his courageous family.
When I was visiting Point Reyes, I stopped my car to look over the hills covered with scrub oak, dry grasses, and poison oak. How daunting all those miles of hills and valleys would have seemed to me if I had to travel in a slow, bone-rattling oxcart, or on horseback, or worse, on foot! Those hardy Californios and explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might walk for many days to get anywhere. They thought nothing of riding 150 miles to attend a dance, known as a fandango. Men and women would camp and sleep on the hard ground under a blanket and the night sky. Besides hundreds of elk and deer, they might meet up with bears, wolves, or mountain lions. Much of the time there were only trails, no roads for a wagon or cart. Now we cover the same distance by car or truck in a matter of hours.
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.
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.