By Elenore Meherin and Larry Clinton
Sausalito Historical Society
In her series of historical essays in the Sausalito of 1944, esteemed journalist Elenore Meherin contributed a two-part column on the life of John Read (aka Reed), who discovered our town before William Richardson. Here’s Part I of her account.
He was a young, blue-eyed giant, lonely and far from his native land. As the wind-tossed, weary schooner rounded Loma Alto, coming at last to port, John Read looked at the wooded islands of the great bay, at red deer running over a long sloping hill, ducks winging from the water. He took in every note of the wild, lovely scene and knew, at once, that he was home. It was spring of 1831. All the residents of Yerba Buena—as San Francisco was then called—with dogs, children, Indians and horses were down to the beach to welcome the trading ship. They were a tattered but gaily colored little crowd, about 30 in all.
Under a tree near a little spring, about where Portsmouth Square now stands, were a dozen tethered horses. Standing near the best of these was a young caballero, a rather gorgeous fellow in his scarlet breeches, his gaily embroidered short clothes and his carved boots. The saddle on which he leaned was mounted in silver. This man had a gelding that John Read wanted. You could buy a first-rate horse for $7 in that day. If you didn’t have money, you could have the nag free.
“How much?” asked Read in excellent Spanish. He was an Irish sailor lad, this first settler of Sausalito, born in Dublin, 1805. At 15 he left the little patch of ground a man called home in his country and came to South America. He spent five years in Mexico, five or six more at sea, touching at San Francisco first in 1826. He spoke Spanish like a native.
“The horse,” replied the young gentleman of California, affably smiling, “is not for sale. I wait for my brother.”
But something in John Read’s eager friendliness must have touched the Californian’s heart.
They were easy hearts to reach. Within 10 minutes John Read had the gelding; he and the two young Sanchez boys, Don Jose and Don Manuel were galloping down the valley to Buri Buri, the big rancho which began on the outskirts of Mission Dolores and extended half way through San Mateo. They rode through a fantastic fairyland. Hills splashed with gold of poppies and wild pansies, purple of lupin and wool-violet. Deer ran before them, wild fowl flew overhead and in the declivities of the distant mountains they saw vast herds of the wild horses, with the best of which the natives replenished their stocks.
They came at length to a wide, rambling adobe where the family were just sitting down to the noonday meal. The great hacienda was noble in its proportions, utterly meager in its fittings.
The floors were bare, rooms sparsely furnished. A long crude trestle-table, a few rawhide chairs, three or four rough-hewn benches. But oddly, on the walls, a magnificent tapestry and a statue of the Virgin in a carved niche. On the statue was a blue robe, thickly embroidered with fine, real pearls. Everywhere, during the thirties, life in California presented these startling contrasts. Ranchos stocked with cattle, tables laden with perfectly cooked food, houses with adobe walls a foot thick. But no heat, no running water, no windows. A land of opulent resources but no industry and no conveniences.
On this spring day when John Read arrived, the garrison at the Presidio under Ignacio Martinez was 16 years in arrears on its salary. The soldiers had little more than the clothes they wore. Their wives often had to wait years for a new rebosa [scarf]. But never a people more rich in joy, more exuberant in health. John Read was welcomed by the old Indian fighter, Don Jose Antonio Sanchez. He sat down with the family to some asada, or meat broiled on the spit, to beefsteak with rich gravy and onions, eggs, beans, tortillas, coffee and a very fine dulce. Don Jose wanted to hear of far places, wanted to know the best market for his hides and tallow. Young Read answered but his eyes and his thought were on a radiant figure that now filled a pitcher with water from the spring, and came gliding like a dancer into the room.
The sailor had not seen such dark winsome eyes in all his life, nor lips so red and sweet. The girl was still a child, but John Read fell in love with her. He decided then and there that she would be his wife. She was Hilarita Sanchez, one of the belles of that long-ago decade. There’s a picture of her, taken when she was well past fifty. It shows a strong, still-beautiful face, eyes luminous, hair black and thick. It fell to her knees when John Read first glimpsed her.
(To be continued next week.)