What do the site of a Coast Miwok Village, the only Mexican Land Grant given to an Indigenous American, the only battle of the Bear Flag Revolt, a prosperous ranch, an exotic horticultural garden, Jesuit priests, a swim club, a world famous psychedelic rock band and a hippie commune all have in common? They all existed in one place, Olompali State Historic Park, just north of downtown Novato. A short drive from San Francisco, Olompali SHP is unique for a few reasons, not the least of which is it is one site where all of the eras of California’s history had some impact, from pre-contact Native culture to the hippie movement of the 1960’s.
For thousands of years the Coast Miwok inhabited what is now Marin County. They hunted, fished, gathered acorns and lived off a fruitful land. In about the year 500 CE, Olompali Village was created and became one of the largest villages in the area. The Miwok lived in cone shaped houses called “kotcha” made from tule reeds or redwood bark. They were skilled at basketry and several Miwok baskets are preserved in museums around the state. They traded with other tribes, the Ohlone, Pomo, Esslen, and generally were a peaceful people.
This all changed in the 16th century. The first European documentation of the Coast Miwok dates from 1579, where the people are mentioned in Francis Fletcher’s account of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. Later Europeans including the Spanish and the Russians, both of whom had extensive dealings with the Miwok, wrote extensively about them. With the founding of the missions, the traditional way of life for the Miwok began to change and vanish. Ranching disrupted the hunting and like many other California indigenous people the Miwok were subsumed into the mission system. Many were baptized and their original way of life began to disappear.
When the missions were secularized beginning in 1821, large tracts of land, once owned by the missions, were granted to Californios and others. In 1834, Camlio Ynita, who had been baptized at Mission San Rafael in 1819, became the village head at Olompali. He built, not a traditional kotcha, but an adobe house in 1837. In 1843, General Mariano Vallejo applied to Governor Manuel Micheltorena for a land grant of two leagues for his friend Camlio Ynita., including the site of the village of Olompali. The grant was given and Camlio Ynita became the only indigenous Californian to receive a Mexican land grant in Northern California. On June 24, 1846, Rancho Olompali became the site of the only battle fought during the Bear Flag Revolt when 20 Bear Flag Militia led by Henry Ford clashed with 50 Mexican Army regulars and 20 irregulars, commanded by Joaquin de la Torre. The Bear Flaggers defeated the Mexican forces, killing three and wounding six.
In 1852, Camlio Ynita’s title to Rancho Olompali was questioned by the US Land Commission and Ynita sold the rancho to James Black, the Marin County assessor. Camilo Ynita had his claim upheld in 1862. When Black’s daughter, Mary, married Galen Burdell in 1863, Black deeded the land to her. The Burdells transformed the land into a working ranch. They lived in Ynita’s adobe, covered with wooden siding, and built barns and other outbuildings. In 1875, Mary Augustina Burdell had a formal garden planted with a fountain that contains rare plants brought back from an 1874 voyage to Japan.
In 1911, James Burdell built the Mansion incorporating the old adobe and clapboard structure in which his parents had lived. James Burdell’s family owned the property until 1943, when it was sold to the University of San Francisco who used it as a retreat for their Jesuit priests. Later, a group of investors tried and failed to create a private swim club on the property. The Grateful Dead leased the property in 1966, lived in the mansion and gave free concerts in front of the house. Grace Slick and Janis Joplin were frequent visitors.
In 1967, the property was leased by Don McCoy and used as a home for a commune he led known as the “Chosen Family”. Many rock groups of the era, including the Grateful Dead, continued to give free concerts on the property. On February 2, 1969, an electrical fire gutted the mansion and later in the year two little girls drowned in the swimming pool left from the abortive Olompali Swim Club. The property was purchased in 1977 by Marin County and the State of California and turned into a State Historic Park.
The park still contains the ruins of Camlio Ynita’s adobe, the clapboard 1866 farm house and the 1911 mansion. Traces of the formal garden still exist as do several barns and dwellings, one of which houses the Visitor’s Center and another serves as the Superintendent’s residence. There is a large grinding rock in front of the barns, evidence of the long Miwok presence on the land and there are reconstructed Miwok kotchas. From pre-Columbian native culture to the “peace and love” of the hippie era, Olompali State Historic Park preserves a unique slice of the totality of California history and is worth a visit.
GETTING THERE: From 414 Mason Street: Take US 101 North to exit 463, Atherton Avenue. Turn left onto San Marin Drive and take the first right onto Redwood Boulevard. Continue north on Redwood Boulevard for about 2.2 miles until you reach the entrance to the park on the right. There is an $8.00 day use fee for each vehicle. The park is open, but the Visitor’s Center is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.