History of Early Mill Valley

The following was written by Henri M. Boussy with Edgar Sliney.

The first Anglo-Saxon settler in Marin was an Irishman, John Thomas Reed. Born in Dublin in 1805, he went to sea with a seafaring uncle at the age of 15. He left the ship at Acapulco, where he stayed for six years and learned to speak Spanish fluently. In 1826, he sailed to Los Angeles on a Mexican ship and then continued north to Yerba Buena (later to be named San Francisco). There he was befriended by the commandant of the Presidio (Presidio is Spanish for “fort”), Jose Antonio Sanchez. As a young man of 21 he first met the commandant’s 13-year-old daughter, Hilaria, “the pet of the Presidio”, whom he was later to marry.

Reed's Adobe House - MVN0128

Reed’s Adobe House – Around 1836 John Reed built an adobe brick house on what is now Lagoma Avenue Locke Lane. Wood was cut in his sawmill and used for the beams in the house. Reed married 19-year-old Hilaria Sanchez and in this adobe their four children were born. MVN0128 – Courtesy of the Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library

As he was anxious to settle down, he requested a land grant from the Mexican government.¬†He had discovered an area around “Whaler’s Cove” near Sausalito that he greatly coveted, while on a sailboat trip on the bay. The land was outside the jurisdiction of the mission (the mission San Rafael Archangel, after which San Rafael, the current county seat was later named, controlled much of the land in Southern Marin at that time) and therefore available for homesteading by Mexican citizens. Not being a citizen he could not acquire land in Mexican California (this was before the U.S. took California from Mexico). There was another obstacle to his plans. The land that he wanted was in the coastal strip that the Mexican government had declared a military zone necessary for the protection of the bay against Russian encroachment (the Russians had a fur trading fort farther north up the coast – now a tourist attraction).

Probably advised by Commandant Sanchez, he set out to settle inland north of the San Rafael mission. He chose a site seven miles south of the city of Santa Rosa, in the Cotati area. Father Amoros of the mission San Rafael gave him cattle, tools, seeds and advice as Reed was the first pioneer in hostile Indian lands. He built a “palizada” and planted his first crop in the wilderness, only to have it destroyed by the Cotate Indians. Driven from the land, he sought refuge at the mission San Rafael where he stayed until 1832.

He returned to Sausalito, where he built the first frame house in Marin County. He bought a sailboat, which he named Hilaria, after the commandant’s daughter. Reed used it to ferry passengers across the bay and for carrying fresh spring water from the sources in Sausalito to the Presidio at Yerba Buena.

In 1834, Reed became a citizen of Mexico, in the year of the secularization of the missions.¬†Frustrated in his attempt to acquire the Sausalito peninsula he was nevertheless assigned the first Mexican land grant north of the bay. The wilderness of modern Tiburon, Belvedere, Corinthian Island and parts of Corte Madera and Mill Valley became the “Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio” literally where wood is cut for the Presidio. To process the wood Reed built the first saw mill in Marin County in the future “Cascade Canyon” (the “Old Mill” of Mill Valley). To equip his mill he had to trade the resources from his land, 300 elk skins, 20 bear skins and 200 cattle hides with the Russians at Fort Ross for a circular saw, a grist mill (probably the origin of the stone now in the yard of the Outdoor Art Club in Mill Valley) flour, guns and ammunition.

As his first home on his own land, Reed built a one-story adobe, measuring 18′ by 30′, in the present Locust area. It was to this house that he brought his bride, the former Hilaria Sanchez, whom he married on October 12, 1836. That fall he was also appointed administrator of mission San Rafael, a post which he occupied only a few months before he was succeeded by Timothy Murphy and Reed was able to return to his bride and his ranchos.

With his lumber interests and the sale of the improved breed of cattle, which he imported and raised, the rancho prospered. By 1843 he was reputed to be running 2,000 head of cattle and 200 horses. His family also had increased by the birth of his four children, John Joseph, Hilarita, Maria Inez and Ricardo. A larger home was needed. He began building a two-story adobe near what is now La Goma and Locke Lanes. The hacienda, patterned after the Sanchez adobe in San Mateo where Reed and his bride had honeymooned, was 24′ by 45′ in size. The walls averaged three feet in thickness, each story had three rooms and the entire house was encircled by a double veranda five feet wide in the accepted Spanish colonial manner. The construction work on both the mill and the adobe houses was probably done by local Indians, who also performed the labor of running the rancho and the home.

In the late spring of 1843, before the house was completed, John Reed contracted a fever or pneumonia. In an attempt to cure him by phlebotomy, his well intentioned friends severed an artery and he bled to death on June 29, 1843 at the age of 38. He was buried in the cemetery at mission San Rafael Archangel and in the 1880′s his body was moved to Mt. Olivet cemetery where records of his burial site have unfortunately been lost.

Under the prevailing Mexican law the Rancho Corte Madera was split four ways among his children. The 646 acres which included the Mill Valley – Alto area were granted to his daughter, Inez. As they were minors his widow continued to operate the rancho.

Rancho Corte Madera - MVN 1882

Rancho Corte Madera – John Joseph Reed’s (the son of John Thomas Reed) Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio, situated on the Knoll. MVN 1882 – Courtesy of the Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library

Reed’s rancho, in the present Mill Valley area, touched on another Mexican land grant, the Rancho Saucelito, with no clearly defined boundaries between the two.¬†Originally granted to a Nicolas Galindo in 1835, the rancho was transferred to the ownership of Captain William Richardson, a pioneer who built the first house in San Francisco and port commander of the bay, in 1836. William Richardson’s career was plagued with business failures. In 1856, ailing and in financial straits, he put the Rancho Saucelito into the hands of an administrator, Samuel P. Throckmorton, and died two months later. Richardson and Reed were convivial friends and had never considered the need for a rigid definition of the boundary between their two properties, but Richardson’s heirs claimed that the Reed mill had been constructed on their property and sued to support their claim. They convinced the court and in 1860 the boundary was established at Corte Madera Creek, along Miller Avenue. East of the creek was Reed land and west was Richardson property. Later, the area that was to become part of Mill Valley was inherited by Throckmorton’s daughter, Suzanna. In 1889, Suzanna surrendered 3,790 acres to the San Francisco Savings Union to satisfy a debt of $100,000 against the former Richardson estate. It was on part of this land that included Cascade Canyon that the future Mill Valley was born.

It is to these two pioneers that Mill Valley owes homage. To John Reed for the “Old Mill,” the first settlement and the land east of Widow Reed Creek and to William Richardson for the land west of the creek and the site of Cascade Canyon, we are indeed grateful!