Covid-19 Vaccinations in 2021

Old glass pharmacy bottles with gold labels

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.

What is a “sea shanty”?

I recently heard the late night TV host Stephen Colbert say that 2021 is the year of the sea shanty. These jaunty work songs are suddenly popular on TikTok and other social media. During the age of the sailing ship, sailors sang a shanty such as “The Drunken Sailor” in unison while they were aloft reefing (rolling up) sails or hauling up the anchor:

“Way, hay, and up she rises,

Way, hay, and up she rises,

Way, hay, and up she rises,

Early in the morning.”

Naturally I included sea shanties to Captain William Richardson’s story. From his life in the British merchant marine and on whalers, he’d collected a repertoire of songs. He possessed a marvelous voice and loved to entertain dinner guests with spirited sea shanties. His audience joined him on the chorus, stamping their feet and clapping in time to the lively tune. In one dinner scene, I describe him with a glass of aguardiente in one hand and his arm around his wife, as he sang this folk song:

“I’ve been a wild rover for many’s the year,

And I’ve spent all my money on whiskey and beer,

But now I’m returning with gold in great store,

And I never will play the wild rover no more.

And it’s No, Nay, Never

No, Never no more

Will I play the wild rover, 

No, Never, No more….”

Why sea shanties are suddenly popular again is a mystery. Perhaps because we are all in this Covid-19 crisis together and the cheery tunes help to alleviate the monotony of quarantine just like the monotony sailors dealt with, toiling at sea and confined to a small ship.

What are your reflections on the year 2020?

Now that I’m entering my second year with my blog, it seemed appropriate to reflect on the good and the bad from 2020. Most people will condemn the Plague Year as the worst ever. But I remembered the introductory sentence in Charles Dickens’ story The Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I certainly harbor negative memories about much of the past year and sympathize with medical staff, first responders, and those who contracted Covid-19. Many people also suffered through wildfires, hurricanes, and protests that turned violent. Because of where I live, I was not as confined as those in tiny apartments or living alone and feel fortunate that we dealt only with smoke and not the fires. As many others did, I agonized over not being with family and friends and missed traveling. But I can also look back at my achievements this year.

One of the best things was achieving my goal of starting this blog. In tandem with that writing, I finished the first draft of my novel because I had nowhere to go. I read that William Shakespeare might have been confined to quarters when the bubonic plague swept through London in 1606, and so he wrote a play, his tragedy King Lear. Obviously, confinement can lead to achievements. I followed author Anne Lamott’s advice also—in order to write you must sit in a chair in front of your open computer or blank yellow pad. After finishing my first draft, several good friends agreed to be the first readers of my novel, which I count as an accomplishment, and I’m truly thankful for their feedback and encouragement.

On the tech side, learning to use Zoom kept my brain from turning to mush. And my new skill in setting up Zoom meetings helped my book club by maintaining our collective sanity in kind of group therapy sessions as well as getting us together to discuss several wonderful books.

Besides writing, I finally managed to read many of the good books I collected over the past few years and stacked in piles around the house. These were my favorites:

  • Bill Bryson’s The Body: a Guide for Occupants–amazing details about the body told in his breezy style with funny, quirky quips. I learned so much about the human body as well as more about the history of medicine.
  • The Dutch House by Anne Patchett–a wonderful writer with deep insights into people, their motivations, and their failings
  • The Way of a Ship by Derek Lundy — this book told me much I did not know about sailing in the 1800s and helped me really understand the camaraderie and fears of sailors confined on a small ship on the sea
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama —what a great read! This book told me so much more about her and her life in the White House.
  • Educated by Tara Westover—I was frightened, amazed, and thrilled for her as she took me through her memories of her life growing up.

I hope you can look back at your year to recall wonderful things that happened. Cheers to you and 2021 — make it a fabulous year for you. As for me, I plan to continue my work on my novel about Captain William A. Richardson and look forward to publishing it.

What was the origin of the label “bull and bear stock markets”?

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.

Where in Sausalito, California, is the memorial dedicated to Captain William A. Richardson?

Anchor and plaque about Captain Richardson

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

1795-1856

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.

Who built the first white man’s residence in San Francisco and where was it?

Plaque marking the Richardson residence in Yerba Buena, 1835

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.

What diseases caused epidemics in nineteenth-century California?

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. 

What familiar Mexican folk songs did Californios play and sing?

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.

What was the name of the first United States Liberty Ship launched in Sausalito?

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.

Why do California towns, cities, and landmarks have Spanish names?

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.