We recently presented excerpts from an account of otter hunting by pioneering newswoman Elenore Meherin, who wrote a series of historical essays for the Sausalito News in 1944. Here’s her account of how Yankee merchantmen used Sausalito as a smuggling base in the 1800s:
The mountain dips a long shoulder to the sea, bringing the trees with it to the water’s edge. In the hollow of that great hulking shoulder is a little green and silver crescent, a very jewel of a bay. Like the Riviera, says the stranger gazing from water to high wooded cliff, or like Rio in the sweeping grandeur of its backdrop.
Sausalito has more than unique beauty of setting. The small yellow boat-house, the frail weatherbeaten piers seem so quiet, so old and done, you wouldn’t guess these tranquil waters were but yesterday the scene of stirring drama. A school boy digging in the sands of Shelter Cove might well unearth a fistful of Spanish doubloons, a silver stirrup or a pearl-and turquoise-studded buckle. For to this very inlet came the audacious traders evading the Mexican revenue laws, here they secretly unloaded their cargo and here, at nightfall, galloped the owners of the princely ranchos to barter hides, tallow and bags of gold pieces for the varied and much-needed merchandise.
It’s a long century ago since the first smugglers made Shelter Cove their harbor, a hundred and seventeen years since Captain Frederick William Beachey sailed the British warship “Blossom” into San Francisco Bay. It was on Nov. 6, 1826. He came to make a survey of the port and he noted with more than a touch of indignation, “As we opened out the several islands and stopping places in the harbour, we noticed seven American whalers at anchor at Sausalito, not one of which showed their colors.”
To those in the know there was nothing sinister or mysterious in the presence of the whalers.
They’d been coming to Sausalito for a good two decades. They came primarily for water. In Wildwood Glen were springs of abundant crystal-pure water—the finest in the whole province.
These springs furnished the first water supply to San Francisco. It was taken in barrels and ferried across the bay on great scows. The fountains were later the property of Captain William Antonio Richardson. He gave the water and all the wood they could chop free to the traders.
And he supplied them with horses and was a marvelous pilot through the Golden Gate. The whalers also secured great quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables at this little port.
But that’s just the daytime story of their presence. After dark was the real excitement, which, evidently Captain Beachey never discovered. You have to remember that California then was a sparsely settled Mexican province—a singing, carefree, unproductive country. The Mexican government was far away. They strangled their magnificent domain with impossible revenue laws. The Boston traders would sail around the Horn, stop off at the Sandwich Islands, then ply up to California. They might find all the ports closed except Monterey; they would be compelled to pay $20,000 in revenue for $20,000 in cargo. This boosted prices to such staggering heights the poor Californians were unable to buy the clothes and food they so desperately needed. It was a vicious circle. In the end both Californians and traders quietly and cleverly ignored the law.
And the doughty brigs with sails flung out would come jauntily into Shelter Cove, no colors flying. When it grew dark and the shadows trooped down from the mountains, you would see the tallow lanterns swinging and the crates swiftly dumped into small boats. Presently hoof-beats of the caballeros would ring down the glen and the whole beach would be alive with horses. It didn’t take long to transfer the cargo to the mustangs. By morning not a trace of the law-breaking showed on the beach but many a grateful senorita had a new rebosa [scarf], a jewelled comb and a bright satin petticoat.
William Heath Davis, who traded 60 years in California, gives a naively frank account of his smuggling adventures. To evade duties, he brought his boat “Don Quixote” into San Francisco Bay. Immediately the authorities put a guard on board, ordering him to proceed at once to Monterey. But the guard was an affable fellow and allowed himself to be locked up with a good meal and a bottle of aguardiente [distilled liquor]. There was nothing he could do, anyway. The crew and owners went to work, got all the valuable goods into boats and rowed them to the beach. There the cargo was hidden. It took till 4 o’clock in the morning but they’d saved themselves $19,000. Next day they blandly sailed to Monterey and declared a cargo of $1,500.
There were several ships in the harbor at the time. No one made any mention of the midnight proceedings. They didn’t regard smuggling a wrong but rather a benefit to the province. The Californians agreed. They were great smugglers. They had to be or go naked. There’s a pathetic letter on record. It’s from one Hermeneglido Sal, commandante of Santa Barbara:
“I’m sending you one piece of cotton goods and an ounce of sewing silk by the wife of Jose Barbo. I have no combs and will not be able to get any for three years.”
Small wonder the coming of a trading vessel meant carnival time to the lonely, ill-provided province. Small wonder Captain Richardson invited the seamen to his home, regaling them with chilis, tamales and the finest steers, fresh-slaughtered from his Sausalito ranch. The whole life of the settlement depended on these merchantmen.
Back issues of the Sausalito News can be accessed at sausalitohistoricalsociety.com. On the home page, scroll down and then click on the link California Digital Newspaper Collection In red.