One of the islets that form the Wake Atoll in the tropical Pacific is named for Charles Wilkes. Mostly lost to history now, in 1839 Lt. Wilkes led the United States Exploring Expedition, or U.S. Ex Ex. Wilkes commanded six vessels and 350 men on a four year sailing venture that took him around Cape Horn, across the Pacific with a stop to haul inordinate amounts of equipment to the top of Mauna Loa, and south to within spitting distance of landfall on Antarctica. He returned to the North American continent, putting in at Puget Sound and crossed the dangerous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River. Along the way, Wilkes lost two of his ships and the lives of twenty-eight men serving under him. His return to the east coast in 1842 and the glory he presumed would be his was tempered by a court-martial for whipping mildly disobedient sailors repeatedly with a cat o' nine-tails. History being as inherently contradictory as Wilkes, the record shows he was acquitted of the charges. In short, Wilkes's legacy proved a mixed bag. Many discoveries of a geographic, botanical, and zoological point of view, counter balanced by behavior that may have inspired Melville to create Captain Ahab.
Wilkes and his U.S. Ex Ex has a Mendocino County connection, but it takes one more link from the past to get us there. In the autumn of 1841, Wilkes reached San Francisco Bay. Unable to make port at what was then called Yerba Buena, Wilkes and his command ship rested overnight at thirteen fathoms before crossing northward to anchor at Sausalito Bay the next day, October 19th.
A Wilkes expedition journal describes who greeted them. “Three of the daughters and two of the sons of Senor [Ignacio] Martinez [for whom the Bay Area city is named] are married; one of the former to Don Vitro Castro [namesake of that valley], and another to the captain of the port, an Englishman by the name of Richardson, who lives at Sausalito, and who supplies vessels with provisions. He was very attentive and obliging in furnishing [our] ships with supplies, and affording us the means of baking bread for the daily supply of the ship.”
This was the same William Richardson who had first arrived in a vacant San Francisco Bay on August 2, 1822 aboard the British whaler Orion. As that vessel passed the presidio, cannon fire indicated the presence of a foreign ship. After the Orion anchored, its captain, William Barney, ordered first mate Richardson ashore, because he spoke some Spanish, to make arrangements for the purchase of provisions. At the presidio Richardson met its Comandante, Ignacio Martinez, who not only promised to fill the ship's supply needs, he also invited the twenty-six year old first mate to a fiesta he was hosting. Besides drinking Martinez's brandy and performing an Irish jig, Richardson danced with the commandante's nineteen year-old daughter, Maria Antonia Martinez.
The party continued until dawn, whereupon Richardson made his way back to the Orion. Captain Barney apparently fumed at either the length of Richardson's stay or not being invited to the fiesta himself. Whether Barney ordered Richardson off the Orion permanently or the first mate jumped ship is not clear to history.
Richardson was welcomed into the Martinez household; the British sailor already smitten by his dance partner, Maria Antonia. He would go on to marry her, chart much of San Francisco Bay, then settle and build on a land grant at Sausalito, which he named from its Spanish meaning, little grove of willows.
Two and a half years after Wilkes's visit, Richardson would be given another land grant by the Mexican government, in lieu of back wages owed him for more than seven years of duty as captain of the port at Yerba Buena/San Francisco. That grant extended from 38 degrees, 48 minutes, north latitude to 39 degrees, 18 minutes, north latitude. The dimensions of those figures later roughed out to mean from the Garcia River to Big River, then called Rio Grande, and two leagues (approximately six miles) inland.
Richardson was no absentee owner of his Mendocino land grant. He traveled there in 1844 and several subsequent years. Its headquarters centered at the mouth of the Albion River, which Richardson named in honor of his native land. There he constructed a house, corrals that held dozens of horses and cattle, probably about a hundred each as noted by one first hand account by a frequent visitor. A significant number of chickens roamed the yard around the Albion abode,, which originally stood as a mere stick and mud splotched hut but grew into a fully timbered home. An entire crew of workmen were occupied at what Captain Richardson called the Albion Rancho. This included a mill to take advantage of the vast tracts of timber close at hand.
One of the misconceptions about the history of the Mendocino Coast is the idea that the sawmill at the mouth of Big River produced the first lumber in the area. The story about Jerome B. Ford traveling overland to Mendocino and the arrival of the brig Ontario on July 19, 1852, with men and equipment to construct a sawmill is accurate. However, a careful reading of the San Francisco newspaper the Daily Alta California shows the July 4, 1852, arrival in The City of the schooner Sovereign with a cargo of lumber from Mendocino County. The Sovereign, under Captain Baker, had sailed from Albion to the port of San Francisco in thirty hours.
When William Richardson left the Orion at Yerba Buena in 1822 there were only seven English speaking residents in all of California. More settled in the two decades leading to the brief stay of Lt. Wilkes, but not so many as to change day to day life. The journal from Wilkes's Ex Ex provides a rare glimpse into life in California in the years just before it would be overrun by hordes of English speakers from the U.S. of A. The following narrative also furnishes insight into the mindset of its writer, an east coast native, raised in comparative Yankee comfort. “Captain Richardson has an estancia, bordering on Sausalito Bay, prettily situated under the hill, with sufficient fertile land for his gardens, or rather fields, where his vegetables are raised. His house is small, consisting of only two rooms, and within a few rods of it all the cattle are slaughtered, which affords a sight and smell that are not the most agreeable. A collection of leg bones, hoofs, horns, and hides lay about in confusion, for which numerous dogs were fighting. It was with great difficulty these animals could be made to cease their strife; and what with this and the barking kept up by others, both without and within doors, there was such a clamor raised as required all the household consisting of husband, wife, daughter, and slave [presumably Native American], to quiet. Captain Richardson's establishment is a fair representation of the manner of living in California, and articles which are condemned elsewhere are acceptable here. However small the apartment may be, it is sparingly furnished, and with no view of comfort, in our sense of the word; cleanliness, the great promoter of it, is wanting, and the indolence of the people seems an inseparable bar to it.
“Senora Richardson shows the marks of former beauty, which her daughter has inherited, and is said to be the handsomest woman in all California. I had the honour of seeing them when I returned Captain Richardson's call, and they were, in Spanish style of beauty, quite deserving of the reputation they had acquired.
“Captain Richardson did what he could to afford amusement for the officers,and during the visit of Senor Martinez to the ship, an invitation to a dance was accepted... Although the house was small, yet they made out to pass the evening in great hilarity, Senor Martinez dancing with two of his granddaughters, one on each arm. The group of musicians it was thought might have sat for the portraits of Roman soldiers. The evening's entertainment passed off well, the dancing having continued the greater part of the night. The Californias must be ranked next to the Chilenos for their love of this amusement. The refreshment consisted principally of strong drinks. Senor Martinez is looked upon as one of the aristocrats of the country. Much deference is paid to his opinion, and an alliance with his family is much sought after. The old lady exercises a matronly care over her daughters, and has them ever under her watchful eye. Captain Richardson's daughter, though only seventeen, is so famed for her beauty and attractions, that she has several avowed suitors. Courtships are here conducted somewhat in an old-fashioned manner. The suitor is obliged to avow himself and receive permission to visit. All who visit the estancia near Pinole will meet with that warm reception and kind treatment that Senor Martinez, his lady, and family, are so remarkable for.”
In scarcely more than a decade, the Richardsons, through economic misfortunes and the takeover of the San Francisco Bay Area by Americans, would lose almost every bit of their land, livestock, and money. This included the Richardsons' daughter and her husband, Manuel Torres.