William Richardson: Early California Land Baron

Richardson Bay — Photo: Egan Snow

Richardson Bay — Photo: Egan Snow

Many residents of the San Francisco Bay Area are acquainted with the body of water nestled between the Marin and Tiburon peninsulas, but fewer know why it’s called Richardson Bay. Savvy Sausalito residents might know that an Englishman named William Richardson was a central figure in the history of San Francisco under Mexican rule and that he owned land in Marin County known as Rancho Saucelito. But the full story is much larger and far more dramatic. Richardson would eventually own numerous enterprises along the California coast and would become one of the largest land holders in the state. While he left his mark on many places, the one most profoundly affected, the one of most interest to me while writing my historical novel, The Relentless Harvest, is the former lumber town of Albion in Mendocino County.

Sailor, Deserter, Mexican Citizen, and Port Captain

Richardson arrived in San Francisco Bay as the First Mate aboard the British whaling ship, Orion. Fluent in Spanish, the young officer was chosen to make first contact with the commander of the Mexican presidio, Ygnacio Martinez. Martinez was charmed by his visitor and invited him to stay for a fiesta he was hosting that evening. There are numerous versions of what happened next but we know that Richardson didn’t return to the ship until the next day and immediately returned to the presidio to stay.

B&W drawing of 3-masted schooner
Richardson quickly bonded with the Martinez family and soon married Martinez’s eldest daughter, Maria Antonia. He converted to Catholicism, became a Mexican citizen, and was rechristened Guillermo Antonio Richardson.

William Richardson

William Richardson

Richardson’s arrival coincided with Mexico’s independence and the opening of San Francisco’s port to foreign trade. His sailing experience, gentile comportment, and the ability to speak both English and Spanish made Richardson the ideal person to welcome ship masters and oversee port operations. In 1835, he was appointed Port Captain and developed a new settlement along San Francisco’s northeastern shore. It was named Yerba Buena after the adjacent crescent-shaped cove.

The Richardsons eventually settled on the Sausalito rancho, building a house on present day Caledonia Street. Several years later, in 1846, he was granted Rancho Albion by the Mexican government. The rancho, named by Richardson for his homeland, stretched north from the Garcia River all the way to the southern bank of Big River and six miles inland; 50,000 acres in all. Having experience with several other lumber operations, Richardson commissioned three German brothers named Hegenmeyer to build a mill at the mouth of the Albion River. It was one of the first of the many lumber mills that would soon sprout up in Mendocino County.

Rich Man, Poor Man

California’s statehood in 1850 signaled the beginning of the end for Richardson. The federal government formed the Public Land Commission in 1851, ostensibly to settle disputes between Mexican land grant holders and encroaching squatters. The Treaty of Hidalgo, ceding California to the United States, contained provisions to protect existing land grants. Citing a special provision in the agreement, the Commission immediately contested many of the grants, forcing grant holders into long, expensive legal battles to defend their claims. Foreseeing an unhappy ending, many of the owners began selling portions of their land.

While Richardson was navigating the land grant quagmire for all three of his ranchos, many of his other business ventures were also failing. In addition to selling some of the Rancho Albion property, he also mortgaged large portions of his Albion timber holdings. By 1854, not only had Richardson lost all of his Albion land, Rancho Saucelito was also under siege.

When things went south for the good captain, they went south hard and fast. A business venture to develop the rancho in southern California fizzled. His fleet of three large trade ships, the only revenue-generating venture he had left, perished at sea in 1855. As a bitter coup de grace, Joseph Yves Limantour, who Richardson had hired to defend his Sausalito claim, engineered a massive land fraud scheme that stripped Richardson of the bulk of his remaining holdings.

William Richardson died a ruined man on April 20, 1856 from an overdose of mercury tablets.



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