Why ‘Richardson’ Bay?

The trimaran that broke away and washed up on the east shore of Richardson Bay in Tiburon got me to wondering how many readers know Richardson Bay’s history. For instance, why ‘Richardson?’

Jumping Ship

On August 2, 1822, the British whaler Orion sailed in through the Golden Gate. Reportedly, the bedraggled Spanish garrison stationed at the Presidio fired the cannon salute customary when a foreign ship entered a port. Since they were poorly supplied it’s likely it was a weak salute. Captain William Barney sailed his ship past what is now the Marina District (a swampy area), what is now Fort Mason (the only waterfront area largely unchanged today), and into the cove under Clark’s Point (long leveled). This would have been near the intersection of Broadway and Battery under Telegraph Hill in present-day San Francisco. You might have parked where the Orion anchored.

Old photo of whalers
Whaling ships in Sausalito’s protected cove.
© 2019 National Maritime Museum of San Francisco

He needed supplies, so had risked seizure and entered Mexico, which was forbidden. However the Mexican authorities were not prepared to enforce the laws. They occupied a remote area so far away from the Mexican government in Mexico City that it took almost a year after Mexico became a country for them to know they were no longer Spanish citizens. Captain Barney sent his first mate, William Richardson, ashore because he spoke Spanish and had the best chance of dealing with the authorities and securing the needed supplies. Richardson was 27 years old and had started his seagoing career as a cabin boy at the age of 12. Perhaps the most important day in his life began when he dragged his skiff onto the beach and was arrested by a squad of Mexican soldiers.

They took him to the Presidio, three miles away. Expecting the worst, Richardson was instead welcomed by Comandante Don Ignacio Martinez and invited to a fiesta that evening. Richardson was wined and dined. He spent the evening dancing with Comandante Martinez’s 19-year-old daughter, Maria Antonia Martinez, a beauty whose mother was a Native American. Richardson, tall and slender, was said to be handsome. He was likely dressed in his best clothes since he had planned to meet with the Mexican authorities, although probably not in this way. It’s reported that Maria Antonia watched Richardson arrive in his skiff earlier that day. She said to her friends, “O, que hombre tan hermosa el estranjero desembarco del bote. El va hacer mi novio y yo voy hacer su esposa.” Love at first sight, but the pickings were probably pretty slim among the few newly minted Mexicans at the Presidio. Mexico had won its freedom from Spain just a year earlier. The news had only recently reached the Presidio. Richardson danced with Maria Antonia all night, including the Irish jig, according to the history books.

When he returned to the Orion the next day, Captain Barney was angry with Richardson for abandoning his duty and not returning to the ship with supplies. Apparently Richardson was not happy, jumped ship, returned to the Presidio, and asked Comandante Martinez for shelter. Martinez agreed and Richardson stayed in California when the Orion departed.

A Good Thing Going

Richardson then traveled to Monterey, the capital of Alta California, where he met the governor and agreed to teach navigation and carpentry to the Mexicans at the Presidio in return for permission to stay. He also converted to Catholicism and was baptized at Mission Dolores. Pueblo Dolores, which surrounded the Mission, was where most of the population, mostly Mission Indians, lived in what is now San Francisco. Richardson was one of eight English-speaking foreigners in California. In 1825, he married Maria Antonia. They spent their honeymoon across the Bay at a small harbor called Saucelito. He was the first European to see potential in this small settlement nestled under a high ridge on a small inlet off the main part of the Bay.

Richardson purchased a 15-ton sloop and began transporting crops and people around the Bay. He also became the first Bay pilot. Guiding the increasing number of foreign ships entering the Bay for trade, he served as a broker between their English-speaking officers and the Spanish-speaking ranchers and officials. The primary cargo the ships came seeking were cattle hides and tallow. Richardson’s sloop transported these commodities from the ranchos to the cove he named “Yerba Buena” (good herb) or to Saucelito, and loaded them aboard the foreign ships. Richardson had a good thing going — married to the Comandante’s daughter, he was the port’s pilot and broker, and he had a ship for transporting goods from the ranchos to his “ports.”

What he needed now was a place to live. So he moved his new family down south to Mission San Gabriel, where he convinced Governor Jose Figueroa that California should open a trading post and customshouse in Yerba Buena Cove. He also asked Figueroa to grant him a place to build a house. This coincided with the Mexican government’s secularization of the missions. The territorial assembly in Monterey, the capital, created ‘San Francisco’, which included the Peninsula, some of the East Bay, and Marin. Figueroa appointed Richardson Captain of the Harbor at Yerba Buena and granted him its first lot. Now Richardson was an ‘official’ Captain. And an official in the growing town named “Yerba Buena.”

Birth of a City

On June 25, 1835, Richardson, Maria Antonia, and and their three children arrived on a small hill just above his Yerba Buena Cove. They set up a tent-like shelter on what is now 823 Grant Avenue between Washington and Clay Streets (which were laid out and named much later).
Their only neighbor was Candelario Miramontes, a soldier who grew potatoes on a flat area just down the hill from Richardson’s tent, a place soon known as “the Plaza” and now Portsmouth Square. Later Richardson helped Francisco de Haro, who was Yerba Buena’s first alcalde, lay out a ‘street’ that stretched from Richardson’s residence toward Mission Dolores. Named Calle de la Fundacion, it was the first street in San Francisco. It became Grant Avenue after the Americans took over.

The Birthplace of a Great City plaque
In case you can’t read it on your screen, the plaque reads, “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. This site was confirmed by the California Historical Society.”
© 2019 Tbayer / Wikimedia Foundation
Painting of SF in 1849
An artist’s impression of San Francisco in 1849.
© 2019 Daily Alta California

And so our Richardson Bay is named after this English sailor who became a Mexican and established the first seafaring business on what is now San Francisco Bay. He was responsible for Sausalito’s growth into a port for fishing and transporting lumber from the mills in Mill Valley and Corte Madera to build the Yerba Buena of the pre-Gold Rush era and San Francisco thereafter. Historians point out that, while Richardson left his name on a small inlet off San Francisco Bay, perhaps the world’s greatest cosmopolitan city was essentially founded by an immigrant deserter who married a woman of mixed ancestry, who reinvented himself several times, and who prospered.

The older Richardson
An 1854 daguerreotype of Capt. William Anthony (Antonio) Richardson (1795-1856).
© 2019 California State Library

4 Comments

  1. arnold oliver 2 months ago

    Great story, and well written.
    Read Dana’s “Two Years Before the Mast”
    for more on that era’s San Francisco history.

  2. Kirk Denebeim 2 months ago

    Wonderful. Thank you for this- I learned a lot. What a fascinating period. I am lucky enough to berth my boat in Richardson Bay, and this article helps me appreciate it all the more.

  3. Kevin 2 months ago

    Glad I now know this. Thanks

  4. Steve 2 months ago

    Great Article. I have lived in the Bay Area my entire life (59 years), and I was not aware of Richardson’s role in SF Bay History.

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