Mount Burdell Preserve

From peace treaty, to disputed will, to public lands.


The major Miwok village of Olompais thrived for several thousand years. People lived in the sheltered valley, with abundant game and access to seafood from the nearby bay. (Olompais means "southern people." ) In 1775, an exploring party from the Presidio of San Francisco discovered Olompais, and were welcomed by the tribe's chief. Over the years, villagers integrated Spanish practices, including religious beliefs and adobe buildings. Camilo Ynitia, son of the chief, was born in 1803 and baptized with a Spanish name in San Rafael in 1819.


Mexico declared independence in 1821, and began secularizing California's vast Spanish mission holdings. Some advocates in the new Mexican government aimed to return mission lands to native Americans. But factions of Californios, California-born people of Spanish/Mexican descent, thwarted these plans. Olompali became a rare example of peaceable treaty. In 1835, Californio military commander and rancher General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo set out to secure control of Marin and Sonoma area tribes. Camilo Ynitia, who had succeeded his father as a Miwok Olompais headman, signed a peace agreement aligning his people with the Mexcan-Americans. In 1843, supported by Vallejo, Ynitia successfully petitioned the Mexican governor for a Rancho Olompali land grant of 8,877 acres. Ynitia went on to become the only native American in northern California to successfully retain legal land title after California became part of the United States.


Scottish James Black (1810-1870) became the County's first tax assessor, judge, and coroner, and its second largest landowner. In 1852 he bought the Olompali Rancho from Camilo Ynitia for $5,200. Ynitia sold most of his granted land at Olompali to the Marin County assessor to prevent his land grant from being taken under American rule. Only legends remain to tell the story of Ynitia's last days. Some say robbers, or his own tribespeople, killed him for the money he received. Others say the money remains buried in Olompali.


Born in New York, Galen Burdell began practicing dentistry at age 19. In 1849, while visiting an uncle in Brazil, he learned of the California gold rush and boarded a ship heading for San Francisco. Twenty-one years old, he established a dental office in the booming City, and became rich selling tooth powder. At age 35 he married Mary Augustina Black, half his age, the Marin-born daughter of James Black. As a wedding gift, Black gave his daughter Olompali Rancho and 800 head of cattle. The Burdells had two children and Galen used much of his own money to improve the Rancho and turn it into a showplace. For his industry, Mary rewarded him with an additional 950-acre parcel at the head of Tomales Bay, which became Point Reyes Station.


But four months into the marriage. Mary's mother had died under anesthesia in Burdell's dental chair.  Broken by his wife's death, Black took to drink, cultivating a vendetta against his son-in-law. Upon remarrying, he secretly changed his will, disinheriting Mary. Black fell off his horse and died in 1870. His new wife, the widow Maria Ignacio Pacheco, inherited Black's sizable fortune. Mary sued to break the will, in a case that captivated the public. Three trials held in San Rafael all ended in hung juries. Running low on jurors in sparsely populated Marin, the trial moved to San Francisco. In 1874, the City jury found largely for Mary. Black's lands were divided between daughter and new wife, bringing Mary's land holdings up to 20,000 acres. Dentist Burdell lived to be 78. The Burdells and their descendants continued to own thousands of Marin acres, used mainly as grazing land, for many decades. Over time, across generations, their vast land holdings were parceled out and sold to new owners.


In 1962, the Sunset International Petroleum Company bought the 2,165-acre Freitas C Ranch, much of which is today's preserve, for $3 million. They planned a new city of 4,000 homes called Greenborough. The somewhat scaled down development, renamed San Marin, began a year later. The upper section of the property was bought by Exxon.


Marin's communities were awakening to the value of land preservation, and pushing back against large scale development. With public support the Marin Open Space District bought 1,439 acres on Mount Burdell, mostly from Exxon, with additional parcels from the Nunes family and other private owners. The Open Space District contributed just over $1 million toward the purchase. San Marin's Community Service Area 25 added an additional $700,000.