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.
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.
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.
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.
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.