The William S. Hughes Family: San Rafael Pioneers, 1855–1914

by Catherine L. Gowdy

Looking down D Street, San Rafael, from Wolf Grade, circa 1875. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection

William Slater Hughes, born in 1814, was a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He left home as a young man, first traveling to Hagerstown, Maryland, then to New Orleans and later to Texas. He was in Texas when the Mexican War broke out and served in Chevallie’s /Lane’s Battalion of the Texas Mounted Volunteers from November 1, 1847 to June 30, 1848; he was discharged with the rank of Sergeant-Major. His obituary states that he was a Texas Ranger and that he was “one of the very few survivors of the storming of Monterey [Mexico].”

In 1849 he came overland to California and can be found on the 1850 census living in Stockton, San Joaquin County, with several other single men, all of whom were traders. Although I have not seen it in print, I imagine the finding of gold at Sutter’s Mill was the lure and that he was planning on selling supplies to the miners.

Central Hotel, San Rafael, 1884. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection

By 1854, Hughes was living in Shasta County and it was there that he met Julia Ann Frances Asbury who had crossed the plains to California with her family in 1853. The two were married in Shasta County on March 19th, 1854. In July of 1855 they moved to San Rafael, Marin County, where Mr. Hughes worked initially as a cabinet maker and later established San Rafael’s first drug store on Fourth Street. Most notably, he served as the town’s Justice of Peace for 30 years. In fact, on the day of his sudden death in 1886, he had spent the morning and afternoon in his courtroom. Justice Hughes and wife Julia had a large family of eight boys and one girl. Justice Hughes’ funeral was held at San Rafael’s Episcopal Church after which he was given a military escort and burial.

Railroad Depot in San Rafael, 1884. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection

Julia Ann Frances Asbury Hughes, born in Virginia about 1835, outlived her husband by 28 years. Her 1914 obituary provides details of the Asbury family’s overland journey to California:

In 1853 Mrs. Hughes left Illinois, crossing the plains with a party numbering a couple of hundred. It was a trip full of dangers, trials and hardships…. Several times they were threatened with massacre by the Indians but fate aided them in reaching Salt Lake where they were restocked with provisions and given clothing and ammunition by the Mormons. It was there that Mrs. Hughes met and talked with…Mormon leader Brigham Young.

The obituary also tells of the Hughes’ arrival to San Rafael in 1855:

About July 5th, 1855, a sweet-faced woman carrying a baby in her arms walked down the gangplank of a steamer at Point San Quentin and looked toward the San Rafael hills. There was no railroad, stage, carriage or anything else to convey her and her baby into the valley…. So she and her husband…took to the little zig-zag trail and made their way into San Rafael.

Magnolia Park, San Rafael, 1884. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection

Mrs. Hughes was considered an expert on the early history of Marin and recounted some of her experiences at the “Old Settlers’ Day” gatherings held on the Kent estate in the early 20th century:

“ She knew the early history of the making of Marin County, and like others, played her part in the making. In those early days, she knew all of the Spanish nobility living around here and saw their fortunes squandered. She remembered the great bull fights which were held in the marsh down near the B Street station, and recounted them as vividly as though they were but things of an hour or two ago. Likewise she could tell with the same vigor and vividness the stories of famous Marin man hunts and how criminals were brought to justice in those stirring days. Indeed, she was once alluded to as San Rafael’s story and history book, so well could she tell of the early doings of this place.”


  1. “Sudden Death of Justice Hughes,” Marin Journal, February 25, 1886.
  2. “Mrs. W. S. Hughes Early Pioneer Passed Away,” Marin Journal, January 1, 1914.
  3. The Texas Rangers: A Registry and History by Darren L. Ivey

Originally published at



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Anne T. Kent California Room

Anne T. Kent California Room

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