By Elenore Meherin and Larry Clinton
Sausalito Historical Society
Last week we presented Elenore Meherin’s Sausalito News account of John Read’s 1831 arrival at Yerba Buena, where he met Hilarita Sanchez, who became the love of his life. Here’s the second part of her saga, lightly edited:
In that day when this state was a Mexican province, a man could have rich acres, thousands of them, for the mere asking. A dazzling proposition to the Irish sailor lad. The limitless reach of green woodland fired his imagination. He wanted to wrest a kingdom of his own and lay it at Hilarita’s feet.
So he sailed across the bay to the lovely little cove at the lap of the mountain . . . our own Shelter Cove. Here were the red deer he had seen, herds of magnificent elk, and trees taller than a man had ever glimpsed. On the beach where Richardson [now] intersects with Bridgeway, John Read built his cabin. He became the first white settler of Sausalito, the first foreigner of Marin.
Except for the rare visits of the sailing ships there were no boats on the bay. No domestic commerce between the settlers. Read was not yet 26, but he had a man’s vision. He bought an old hulk, rebuilt it inside and out, fitted it with fine new sails, called it “Hilarita” for the girl he loved, and launched the first ferry between Marin County and the settlement of San Francisco [as Yerba Buena was renamed in 1847]. Three years later, in 1834, Read received a grant to the Corte Madera del Presidio Rancho, a kingly domain taking in the great part of Mill Valley, Strawberry Point, Belvedere and northward along the coast to and beyond California City.
It was a dense, virgin country. With amazing judgment, Read chose a site by a tumbling stream and built the first sawmill in Marin County. You can see the foundations yet in the park off Throckmorton, in Mill Valley. Then he built his adobe.
It was 1836 before John Read fulfilled his dream. At a wedding feast that lasted three days he married Hilarita and brought her in his schooner right up Richardson’s Bay which then ran along Miller Avenue. The honeymooners stepped from their barge to their patio, and one of those fabulous dramas of early California days was now enacted.
The hacienda, encircled with a great rampart of mountains, lay in the golden bowl of the valley. The imposing grandeur of Tamalpais commanded the north, the wide blue bay bounded the south and east. In five years, there were four children born to the Reads. On the rolling hills were thousands of cattle, more horses than could be used. The sawmill did a thriving business. Every week the schooner took cargoes of hides, tallow, beaver and otter skins to San Francisco for barter with the traders.
Read had big plans for himself and his children, but in 1843, when he was only 38, he got a sun-stroke. They carried him from his horse to the hacienda. They had only one remedy in that primitive settlement. They bled him. And he died. His young valiant widow carried on. She lost one little boy; the remaining son, John Joseph Read, and the two girls, Inez and Hilarita, remembered a glamorous childhood. Rodeos with all of California coming in carretas [two-wheeled carts] and on horseback to the valley rancho, meriendas [snacks] at Muir Woods and Bolinas Beach songs at dawn and serenades in moonlight.
Hilarita educated her children as they both had planned. She handed down, intact, the royal acres her husband had developed. Their son John Joseph Read gave his native state all the land needed for the boulevard from Belvedere to California City. In return the road was unromantically named “Tiburon Boulevard.” With the American occupation, the squatters came. They killed the cattle, appropriating tens of thousands to their own use. They took possession of the choicest rancho sites.
Sausalito and Mill Valley have a grand story in their first settler, which both have strangely ignored. No ship of the hundreds now being launched is yet christened for the viking who first sailed a regular ferry across our bay, no monument to the pioneer who first saw the glory of the redwoods and the poetry in a tumbling stream.