Cross-cut Trees

Marin History Museum

Please join me in welcoming guest blogger, historian, and author Brian K. Crawford whose research into nineteenth-century northern California adds another layer of history to one of Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal‘s illustrations. 

In reading Jo Haraf’s excellent new book, I came upon a drawing of the entrance driveway to Rancho Olompali. Prominent in the foreground is a huge cross carved into the gnarled trunk of a bay tree. The image took me back seven years to a hike on nearby Mount Burdell, named for Galen Burdell, whose (probably accidental) killing of his mother-in-law triggered the long Black Family feud.

In 2014, I was hiking on the southern slopes of the mountain. The terrain there is open, windswept, and grassy, but at one trail intersection stands a huge valley oak, with no other tree anywhere close. The tree was centuries-old, gnarled, and lichen-covered; it reminded me of an ancient dolmen marking a Celtic crossroad in Ireland. My dog Maggie and I examined the tree closely. The entire trunk was peppered with thousands of acorn holes, each with its own acorn tucked inside. (Photos by Brian Crawford)

But what really caught my eye was a huge cross carved into the north side of the tree, so old the bark has closed in around it on all sides. Who could have made it, and when, and why? 

Brian Crawford

A few years later, while researching my book, The Short-Meriner Family, on one of the earliest wagon trains to come over the mountains into the Bay Area in 1846, I learned the family’s route from the Sierras and across the central valley brought them to Sonoma where they met General Vallejo, who recommended they settle in San Rafael, which they did. 

From Sonoma to San Rafael, they “followed the old Spanish road,” without giving any more detailed descriptions. I surmised their route was the northernmost segment of the famous El Camino Real, which linked all the missions. Friars, neophytes, and traders used this road to travel between the missions of San Rafael and Sonoma. I sought out a map of the road to complete my book.

After months of research, I could find no map or description of where this first and most important road in Northern California ran. The southern sections of El Camino Real, from Baja California to San Francisco, are well-documented and the subject of many books. But none of those books contain any mention of the road north of San Francisco. I knew the road did not follow the mission bell signs installed every mile along the entire route starting in 1906. Those nearly 600 signs follow US-101, then California routes 37, 121, and 12 to Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma. But in Spanish times, that whole area was wetlands — no roads existed.


Later, I met state parks archaeologist Matt Thompson who had researched the early roads in Marin and Sonoma. His LIDAR aerial surveys clearly showed a long-buried road cut running right past the old house at Rancho Olompali, now Olompali State Park. Just north of the old adobe house, the road branched, one arm headed toward Forestville, the Russian River, and Fort Ross. The other branch curved northeast toward Petaluma. 

The archaeologist told me the friars marked the roads between the missions with large crosses carved into prominent trees along the way. Immediately, I thought back to the tree Maggie and I found on Mount Burdell. It is surprisingly high on the slope of the mountain, far from US-101, where I had assumed the road ran. But the flat areas near the highway were marshy in Spanish and Mexican times and must have periodically flooded. So perhaps the friars who laid out the road kept it higher on the mountain to keep their huaraches dry.

Haraf’s book includes the first solid evidence I have seen that El Camino Real ran past the site of the Coast Miwok Indian village at Olompali, later the home of Augustina and Galen Burdell.

Published by Jo Haraf

Jo’s poetry and fiction have been published in the California Writers Club Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Ragnarok. She edited and co-authored "Journal Across the Plains - 1852" (Fonthill 2020). "Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal in Nineteen Century California" will be published in the fall of 2021. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. A popular speaker on the craft of writing, Jo is a proud member of the Historical Novel Society, Biographers International, and the California Writers Club. She lives on Florida's Suncoast with her husband and a scruffy terrier whose adoration sustains her through revisions and rejections.

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