The Coastal Post - November, 1995

An Early West Marin Romance


To understand this love story in the early days of Marin, it is necessary to have some understanding of the "Days of the Dons," when Mexico was the ruler of California. The capitol of California was Monterey where the governor resided. There were missions up and down the coast, fundamentally to Christianize the native Indians (which turned out to be a disaster), and the Mexican landgrants had just come into play.

Marin County had its first Mexican land grant in 1834. Interestingly, the first two were given two days apart. The first was to James Garry who was granted the northern part of Olema Valley and the west shore of Tomales Bay; the second, where our romance takes place, was given to Manuel Garcia, who was granted the southern part of Olema Valley, Bolinas Lagoon, and the future townships of Bolinas and Stinson Beach.

Garcia later deeded his grant to his brother-in-law, Gregorio Briones, the father of our heroine.

It was to be an on again, off again romance, although the principals didn't know it. The hero was Charles Lauff, an Asatian, with a blond beard, much older than Maria Briones, who was only a child when he first met her.

Our hero first laid eyes on Maria when he came to build the frame dwelling that would replace the adobe house which was used by Gregorio Briones and before him, Manuel Garcia.

Marin Pepper, the author of Bolinas: A Narrative of the Days of the Dons, wrote that Lauff "had planned the building which was to be two stories, with a broad balcony that would form the roof of the porch along the full length of the house... The house would face the [Bolinas] lagoon and the mountains arising along the shore."

The house, which was palatial in this time, is standing after 154 years beside Pine Gulch Creek, which says something for Lauff's building abilities.

The house wasn't finished until 1841 when Father Santillo from the San Rafael Mission (founded in 1817) came all the way over the mountain to perform the blessing of the home.

The convention in those days was to follow up the blessing with two or three days of feasting, followed by competitions in riding and shooting. The feast, Pepper says, consisted of platters of meats, tortillas and spicy sauces. It was attended by the other land-grantees, and was a great event.

It was at this housewarming party that Lauff first noticed Maria when Francisco Cerbian fell in love with her. Marin Pepper wrote, "Lauff was amused at the romance and it occurred to him that they were a very handsome pair." At this time, Maria was 13 and Francisco 16, but what no one else seemed to know was that Maria at this early age had eyes only for Lauff.

Lauff's restless and adventurous nature led him to join hunters and trappers in the Rocky Mountains. He was gone for five years, but before he returned to Casa Briones, Maria had become a woman. She was now 18 and of marriageable age.

During Lauff's absence, Cerbian thought he had a chance to make Maria love him. But as soon as Lauff returned, Cerbian realized he didn't have a ghost of a chance, because Maria was in love with Lauff.

Now Maria's father had always admired Lauff, said he always did everything he undertook well, so he was delighted to notice the romance blooming under his eyes, and soon gave his consent to the marriage.

He and Lauff went to Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was then called, to select linens and lace for the wedding. It was during this trip that unfortunate news came to them which made the future marriage impossible.

The news Lauff heard was bad. It seemed as though the United States was about to invade Mexican California. Sutter and his Indians were preparing to defend their lands against the United States, who had sent John Fremont out to do the job. The Mexican governor, in a last desperate attempt to regain power, ordered Fremont to leave, but he remained.

Now Lauff, who knew both Sutter and Fremont, decided to go on the next boat to Sacramento to see if these rumors were true. He didn't realize that by this one act he would be branded by the Mexicans as an outsider.

Lauff learned that Fremont was indeed camped outside Sacramento, and that the purpose of this trip was to invade Mexican territory.

On top of this news, three relations of the Briones were shot down in cold blood and killed by Kit Carson, Fremont's mountain guide, as they ascended the path to the San Rafael Mission, of all places. Lauff realized that he had lost Maria forever.

Marin Pepper writes, "Because children of pioneer Californians were taught to have unquestioning faith and trust in their elders, Maria Briones accepted her father's ultimatum: she was not to see Lauff again, their engagement had ended, he was no longer welcome at Casa Briones."

By 1847 all of Northern California was in U.S. hands. In 1848 it was declared a state of the union.

The old relationship between Maria and Cebrian had resumed. Francisco was a Mexican and not a traitor to the Mexican cause; Lauff had recently joined the U.S Army which was at war with Mexico. The war ended in 1948 and was followed by the treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo, which was supposed to leave Mexican property in the hands of the Mexicans, but the U.S. broke this treaty, which led to all sorts of confusion, but that is another story.

Maria and Francisco were married on the 20th of May, 1850. It was the first marriage in the township of Bolinas. In the 1880 History of Marin, this marriage is described in detail, how after three days of feasting, in which a whole bullock was roasted over a firepit, there was dancing on a floor that Lauff had himself built. Maria was now 22, and it was four years after she had bidden Lauff goodbye on the eve of her marriage to him.

A year passed and Maria produced a son named after the father, Francisco. All seemed well with the couple, but in 1853 a smallpox epidemic broke out among the Indians who served as servants and vaqueros at Casa Briones. Unfortunately, Francisco, worn out with caring for the smallpox victims, himself died. He was buried in the cemetery that Don Gregorio had deeded to the Catholic church. It was not until 1878 that a Catholic church was built on the cemetery land.

A few years later, Don Gregorio relented and let Lauff return to Casa Briones. The don was a just man and always felt that Lauff had been misunderstood.

So finally, Lauff and his Maria were married on April 18, 1862, just 12 years after her first marriage.

As would be expected, Lauff built Maria a fine house "with a captain's walk on the roof and broad verandas on all four sides." Pepper wrote. Lauff spared no expense on the best furnishings that could be bought in San Francisco and shipped by schooner to Bolinas.

Lauff had a generous rancho, for in addition to her own property which was given to her by her father, he purchased 297 acres of land from Don Gregorio, so they settled in style in early Bolinas.

And they were happy. Besides Francisco's son, Maria produced four sons for Lauff; Oscar, Frederick, George and Marcus, and three girls, Carrie, and the twins Julia and Valentine. Evidently Lauff had the upper hand in the marriage: note the non-Mexican names of the offspring!

It is interesting that all of Don Gregorio's daughters married Americans. Besides Mrs. Charles Lauff, there is Mrs. Hirum Nott, and Mrs. Daniel Smith. I have often wondered how they communicated, for none of the daughters could read or write and they only spoke Mexican-Spanish.

"Descendent of these marriages still live in the Bolinas area," wrote the late historian Jack Mason in his Last Stage for Bolinas. At one time, everyone was related to the Briones family.