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Nicasio Historical Background Print E-mail
The Settlement of Nicasio: James Black

    The fifth parcel (9,500 acres) of the original Rancho Nicasio land grant, which had gone to surveyor Jasper O’Farrell, was sold by him, in an exchange of properties, to James Black on October 28, 1851 for $2,000.  In 1855 Black also bought 3,500 acres from Henry Halleck for $5,000.
    James Black was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1810 (some accounts say 1807) and raised in Liverpool where his father was dock master.  At his request, his father secured him a position on a foreign bound ship and James, at a very early age, sailed to India, China, and many other foreign lands on several different ships.  In 1830 he shipped out on a Hudson Bay vessel bound for California in quest of hides and furs.  In January of 1832, sick with typhus, he was put ashore in Monterey where Juan B. R. Cooper helped nurse him back to health.  He moved north where he assisted General Mariano Vallejo in 1835 to curtail any further Russian incursion in Alta California by settling the land adjacent to Fort Ross.  For this service, he later (1845) received a Sonoma grant of two square leagues called Canada de la Jonive Rancho.  In 1842, when the Russians pulled out of California, Black had already left this frontier outpost to cut timber for Cooper on his San Quentin Rancho. 
    He married Maria Agustina Sais in 1843 and moved back to Rancho Jonive where his first and only surviving child, Maria Agustina Black (later Burdell) was born in 1845.  Black invested shrewdly in real estate.   It appears that he traded holdings with O’Farrell in 1848 (official purchase in 1851), Black ending up with O’Farrell’s Nicasio holding and O’Farrell with Rancho Jonive.  This, along with his later purchase of Lieutenant Henry Halleck’s Sobrante Ranch, amounted to a holding of 12,000 acres of Nicasio.  In addition he acquired the vast Rancho Olompali in Novato (14,000 acres) from Camilo Ynitia, the last Olompali Indian chief.
    Camilo Ynitia was unique in that he was the only Coast Miwok to be legally granted and maintain ownership of a piece of Marin.  It was Camilo’s father, then Olompali chief, who welcomed the Yerba Buena exploring party of 1775-6.  Camilo, who was mission educated, adapted well to the new invading culture and, although he never learned to write his name, he did learn to avail himself of his prerogatives under this new culture.  William Heath Davis called Camilo “intelligent and shrewd” and Stephen Richardson said he was “clean-cut, capable, and all-around.” (Mason, 1975, p 113)  General Mariano Vallejo, in 1836, signed treaties with chiefs Camilo and Solano (who was granted Suisun Rancho in 1842) which avoided bloodshed and enabled Vallejo to avail himself of Indian work crews.     
    In 1843 Camilo petitioned Governor Micheltorena for two square leagues of land at his birthplace, Olompali.  It was granted later that year “for his personal benefit and that of his family.”  (Mason, 1971, p. 113)  On December 7, 1843, Camilo performed the ancient Roman juridical ceremony he had seen performed by many of his Californio neighbors and friends, to claim possession of his land.  Gregorio Briones, Fernando Feliz, and Avarado Vallejo (Mariano’s nephew and later California governor) witnessed it and assisted him measuring out the metes and bounds.
    Camilo built an adobe using in part bricks from the earlier adobe on this site constructed by his father and the Spanish exploring party of 1775-6.  Camilo’s adobe was so strongly constructed that it was incorporated in 1870 into Dr. Galen and Mrs. Mary Black Burdell’s two story home.  This ranch house was encased in 1915 by their son James Burdell with his 26 room mansion, which survived until 1969 when fire destroyed all but the walls of Ynitia’s adobe.
    Camilo and his tribe raised wheat and sold it to the Russians at Fort Ross.  Rancheria Olompali was a productive and successful Indian run operation.  The Olompali Miwoks shared the sweat house in Nicasio with the Nicasians, who gathered tules for their huts, boats, and skirts from the salt marsh at Olompali.  Camilo’s wife was a relation of Maria Copa’s grandmother, Maria Nicolasa, who was born in Nicasio.  “My grandmother used to say that he was too high-toned, with his cigar.” (Kelly, 1996, p. 323)  Both Maria Copa’s mother, Juanita Bautista (Sekiak, probably meaning horsetail grass, was her Miwok name), and her grandmother were visiting at Olompali when Chief Solano visited Chief Ynitia there with his 40 wives.  
    In 1852, after statehood, when the California Land Commission called into question all Mexican land grants (contrary to the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe and Hildalgo), Camilo hired lawyers.  Less than six months later he astutely (so many Mexican grants were lost by the Californios in the courts or to the lawyers for fees if they won) sold Olompali to James Black for $5,200 in installments, maintaining a 1,480 acre tract called Apalococha.  It is said that Camilo took all his proceeds from cattle and property sales in gold, put it into saddlebags, and buried it somewhere in the mountainside.  Maria Copa said, Camilo died after he “was shot with an arrow... near that creek that he hid his money.” (Kelly, 1996, p. 346)  “He pulled out the arrow; the point stayed in him.  Captain Camilo was not killed by somebody after his money.  It was because of a fight he had.  This was the last Indian to use the bow and arrow around here.” (Kelly, 1996, p. 357)  His great great grandson Dr. Robert C. Thomas believes this treasure cache was used by Camilo’s Anglo sons-in-law to purchase livestock, a new ranch in Sanel and to care for his daughters and grandchildren.        
     Back in Nicasio in 1848, James Black built a house of adobe brick with wood rafters and roof.  “This building was doubtless the first one erected in the township, except perhaps some small shanties” (History of Marin, 1880, p. 284) or perhaps the Casa de los Indios mentioned in the original grant of 1844.  He bought lumber for it from the Bodega saw mill operated by Captain Stephen Smith.  It was at the foot of Black Mountain and now is under the Nicasio Reservoir in the area near the dam.  In 1849 Black had 2,000 head of cattle in Nicasio.  In order to cut out the middleman and maximize profit, he created a cooperative of beef ranchers who together drove their huge herds of cattle along a trail (near the current Lucas Valley Road) and northeast to the Mother Lode.  Black brought home a fortune in gold.  Once he tried to swim a large herd of cattle across the Golden Gate to Marin but so many drowned that he never tried that again.
    James Black’s daughter, Mary, who was born in 1845, was said to be a sophisticated Anglo/Spanish beauty who received her education at Notre Dame Convent in San Jose.  Her early education in Nicasio must have been at home under the direction of her mother, since Black himself was said by Mary to be able to read but barely write.  Among her numerous suitors was Dr. Galen Burdell, who had traveled from New York to Brazil on vacation and from there was lured to San Francisco by the gold rush.  He was ship’s surgeon on the Duxbury, which ran aground on a reef off Bolinas (thus Duxbury Reef).  Fortunately all passengers made it safely ashore.  Dr. Burdell set up his dentistry practice in San Francisco where he marketed a tooth powder of his own invention, which, by 1862, made him quite well-to-do.  As a professional man with social graces, he was preferred by Mrs. Black among Mary’s suitors.  James Black gave his permission in spite of their age difference (she 17 and he 34) and the ceremony was held at their Nicasio home on October 6, 1863.  As a wedding present, Black gave them Rancho Olompali and 800 head of cattle.  The Burdell's initially moved to San Francisco.
    All went well until February of 1864 when Maria, Black’s wife, died under anesthetic in Burdell’s dentist chair.  James Black never forgot nor forgave this fatal mishaps.  His will of 1864 cut his son-in-law out completely.  Lonely and disgruntled, Black turned to alcohol.  His cook, Charles Humphries, said Black had seven or eight drinks before breakfast and kept his booze in a 32 gallon barrel in his bedroom.  In 1866 Black married Mrs. Pacheco, Ignacio’s widow.  Mary was neither informed nor invited to the wedding.   Just weeks later Black again revised his will, possibly prompted by his new wife.  His half million dollar estate was divided 12 ways, with daughter Mary completely disinherited.
    The Burdell’s moved permanently to Olompali in December of 1866.  In June of 1870 with his tenant farmer Francis Farley at his bedside, James Black died in terrible convulsions.  The Burdell's, suspecting treachery on the part of Mrs. Pacheco Black regarding the marriage and subsequent will, contested it.  Seven years, three trials, and many tens of thousands of dollars later, the will was broken in a San Francisco court and the property divided equally between the two women, widow and daughter.  Of Black’s Niicasio holdings, Mrs. Pacheco Black received 5,320 acres and Mary Burdell, 5,800 acres.

Last Updated ( Saturday, 06 August 2011 )