Early Growth in Southern Marin and San Francisco: A Tale of Two Region

by Robert L. Harrison

Map of part of Northern Boundary of Saucelito Tract Conveyed by Richardson & Family to Charles T. Botts, April 16, 1849. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

With the 1848 discovery of gold near Sacramento, California entered a period of rapid growth that for the most part was not realized in Marin County. While San Francisco grew substantially, southern Marin experienced little growth. On February 12, 1885 in its first edition the Sausalito News put it this way: “With the rush of population when gold was first discovered, Sausalito profited but scantily. Some enterprising individual planned a city there which was considerably larger than London — on paper — but San Francisco monopolized the tide of immigration all the same.”

Before the arrival of European immigrants, southern Marin and the area that today comprises the City and County of San Francisco, had many similar natural features: they both occupied the tip of a peninsula that forms the entry into San Francisco Bay; they both offered protected deep water anchorages; and the topography of each included hills, valleys and marshlands. Why then, would two areas so comparable in nature and so near one another, have had such a divergent history of growth following the discovery of gold? The early history of each area offers some answers.

Some three centuries ago the two areas were inhabited by the two Native American peoples, Coast Miwok north of the Golden Gate and the Yelamu group of the Ohlone tribe to the south. While they spoke in different dialects, both tribes used a Miwok group language. It is likely that the two traded goods across the waters of the Golden Gate.

In the mid-1500s Spanish explorers, Cortes, Cabrillo and others, made claim to California but Spain did not attempt to permanently settle the area for 200 years. By the 1700s the protected anchorage off Sausalito was well known to explorers, whalers and traders from many nations. “Sausalito Bay” appeared on British Royal Navy Captain F. W. Beechey’s map of San Francisco Bay based on his explorations of 1827 and 1828.

Portion of Frederick Beechey’s survey of the Harbour of San Francisco, made in 1827–8, and published in 1833 © David Rumsey Map Coll.

The first land expedition to today’s Bay Area was led by Don Gaspar de Portola in 1769. It was 1776 before Juan Bautista de Anza arrived at the location that ultimately became San Francisco. Anza brought settlers to build both a military fort and a religious mission. His aide, Jose Joaquin Moraga, built the Presidio, Mission Dolores and a housing pueblo for his workers which became known as Yerba Buena. The Spanish chose to locate these ventures on the south side of the Golden Gate because it provided a land connection to their provincial capital in Monterey.

For many years Yerba Buena saw little growth. While In 1821 Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the new government in Mexico City had little interest in the tiny pueblo. As late as 1844, in addition to a few soldiers and religious figures, about 50 Europeans resided in Yerba Buena.

San Francisco,1854, from History of the World by Henry Bill © Library of Congress

While there was little development to the south of the Golden Gate, no European settlements emerged in southern Marin until 1826. That year John Reed was the first to permanently settle in the area. Later he applied for a Mexican government land grant encompassing the Marin Headlands and the Sausalito area. He was not granted Rancho Sausalito but in 1834 he acquired Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio, an area that included much of today’s Mill Valley, Corte Madera, and the Tiburon Peninsula.

Capt. William A. Richardson, circa 1854. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

William A. Richardson, an early California pioneer, had interests on both sides of the Golden Gate. He arrived in Yerba Buena in 1822 and shortly thereafter married the Commandant of the Presidio’s daughter. Richardson became influential in the Mexican administration and was appointed the first harbor master of Yerba Buena. In 1835 he built the first house near today’s Portsmouth Square. Richardson worked with Alcalde (Mayor) Francisco de Haro to lay out a street plan for the Yerba Buena pueblo. The 1839 street map with the Square at the center included the 15 block area bounded by today’s Montgomery, the original waterfront, Pacific, Stockton and California Streets.

In Sausalito Richardson sold fresh water and supplies to visiting vessels. As his interest in the area grew he presented a petition to the Mexican governor for a rancho that included Sausalito, the Marin Headlands and the lands north to Mt. Tamalpais. He was awarded the 19,572 acre Rancho Sausalito in 1838. Shortly thereafter Richardson moved his family to his Rancho.

With the granting of Ranchos Sausalito and Corte Madera del Presidio, much of southern Marin County was in the hands of just two individuals. This nearly 47 square mile area today includes National and State Park lands as well as Sausalito, Marin City, Tamalpais Valley, Mill Valley, Corte Madera, and the Tiburon Peninsula. For many years both land holders were content to ranch the land or leave it undeveloped. From the late 1840s to the 1860s the two southern Marin ranchos grew from about 10 to 300 residents. During the same period, hordes of gold seekers flocking to San Francisco (its name formerly changed from Yerba Buena in 1847), bumped its population from less than 100 to nearly 60,000 by 1860.

In 1885 the Sausalito News reported another hindrance to local growth: “There was no assured title to the land. The same litigation of Mexican grants that cursed so many sections of California kept Sausalito effectually in the back-ground. For fifteen years after the admission of the State [1850], the town was little more than a shipping point for a not very extensive agricultural country, and a watering place for vessels. In 1866 the title of S. R. Throckmorton to the Rancho Sausalito was finally established and from that date something like life began to be infused into the community.”

In 1871 a bold vision for the area appeared in both the Daily Alta California and Saucelito Herald newspapers. Sausalito and New York City were pictured as the coastal terminals for the transcontinental railroad. The rail terminal so enthusiastically contemplated for southern Marin did not, of course, become a reality. The North Pacific Coast (NPC) and the San Francisco and North Pacific (SF&NP) railroads did build less ambitious terminals in Sausalito and Tiburon respectively. Yet southern Marin’s growth remained quite modest. By 1890 the population of all of Marin County was 15,702 people while its big neighbor across the Golden Gate had grown to nearly 300,000 residents.

There are undoubtedly several factors both large and small that played an important role in shaping the region’s growth patterns. But there are certain basics that help explain why San Francisco far outpaced southern Marin as the Bay Area’s principal center. The Spanish settled in San Francisco because of its easier connection to their provincial capital in Monterey. Immigrants to the area who came in great numbers because of the gold rush were not encouraged by Rancho owners to seek a home in southern Marin. And finally, the title to Rancho Sausalito during the early days of regional growth was disputed, a situation that deterred development in much of southern Marin.

Originally published at https://annetkent.kontribune.com.

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Anne T. Kent California Room

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