Passports for individual people did not exist in 1822 when Captain William A. Richardson jumped ship on San Francisco Bay. Trading ships or warships visiting for trade or provisions handed Mexican authorities documents listing all crew members. Although Richardson himself had no passport at the time he landed, the California governor gave him permission to stay if he proved his worth, was baptized into the Catholic Church, and pledged loyalty to the Mexican government. In 1841, when John Bidwell, who later became a California state governor, staggered over the Sierra Nevada Mountains into Alta California in the first wagon train, he and his fellow Americans had to purchase passes in order to remain and settle there. Having lost most of their belongings on the arduous journey, they struggled to find enough money or items to trade for Mexican passports. They would have been imprisoned if they could not.
On an Ellis Island tour, I learned how immigrants were processed before being allowed to enter the United States in the 1890s. They faced the threat of being shipped back to their native country if they were ill, lame, or a criminal. Entering the country was a lengthy process. After a long ocean voyage, passengers were transferred from their ships to ferries that lacked food or fresh water and had to stay aboard them until Ellis Island authorities were ready to process new immigrants. These tired, hopeful, hungry people were questioned, poked and prodded by doctors, had their eyelids pulled back with buttonhooks to check for trachoma, and had to prove they could support themselves, not be a burden to their new country.
During the last two years, Americans returning from overseas were asked to get PCR tests for Covid-19 or be vaccinated to prevent the spread of a disease. There were grumblings and objections, but the process was so much simpler than the one immigrants had on Ellis Island.
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.
Mexican soldiers wore uniforms of dark blue wool jackets with scarlet collars and cuffs and brass buttons, matching wool trousers, and wide-brimmed black hats. But for protection from indigenous peoples’ arrows, the soldiers wore leather coats that hung to their knees. They carried long lances and leather shields as shown in this photograph. This display is in the San Francisco Presidio museum on the site of the original Spanish Presidio. Because the soldiers often herded cattle and horses, rode as escorts for the friars, and carried mail between presidios, the cumbersome leather coats were shortened to jacket length. The jackets were made of antelope hide with red felt collars and cuffs. Antelope-hide leggings or breeches covered the soldiers’ legs.
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.
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.