A Turbulent Tale of Marriage, Murder and Betrayal: The Little-Known History of One of Marin’s Most Influential Founding Families

James Black was one of Marin’s richest ranchers in the mid-1800s; his daughter’s wedding present was Rancho Olompali, which today is a state park. After almost dying on his voyage to California, the young Scotsman took a Mexican bride, built up a cattle empire stretching from Point Reyes to San Pablo Bay and had a daughter named after his wife, Maria Augustina.

Tragedy struck when Black’s wife died at the hands of his son-in-law, a dentist who was a bit too liberal with chloroform. Overcome by grief, Black descended into alcoholism, which would eventually kill him — though not before remarrying a Pachecho family widow who would try to keep his vast estate from his daughter.

This intriguing story of an influential Marin family features a multitude of photos and documents that author Jo Haraf discovered during her four years of research. It’s both a history book and an absorbing tale, capturing California’s earliest years as the state progressed from a Spanish colony besieged by Russians to a Mexican territory and finally, to an American state.

Jo Haraf
Photo by Heather Powell.

Haraf has a degree in creative writing, is a regular speaker and is the editor and co-author of Journal Across the Plains, a history of the Verdenal family’s 1852 wagon train journey from Missouri to California. We spoke to her about how she discovered and captures this unique piece of history.

What inspired you to write this book? What attracted you to the story, and Augustina Black in particular?

Jo Haraf (JH): While volunteering at the Marin History Museum, I spotted the portrait of a striking woman. “That’s Augustina Black,” I was told. “She ate her father’s will. The idea of a will-eating daughter captivated me.     

Why do you think this particular family’s story provided a good lens to understand some of California, and Marin, history?

marriage murder betrayal

(JH) From the 1800s to today, California welcomes those seeking new lives. Some of the individuals in my book arrived as sailors to become shopkeepers, cattle ranchers, or mercenaries defending San Francisco from invading Russians. Personal reinvention while seeking to better your family’s circumstances are timeless California traits.

You mention in the book introduction that this is a work of “literary nonfiction.” Why did you decide to take that approach?

(JH) My first attempt at a pure history was, sadly, boring and oh, the torture of footnotes! I tried fiction but embellishing the extraordinary realities proved to be gilding the lily. When Augustina’s new husband (accidentally) murders her mother, the truth is all you need. My literary nonfiction approach relied on facts and dialogue from letters, journals and trial reports while still giving me space to interpret.

This is your second historical book. What do you enjoy about writing about history, and about this region in particular? 

(JH) For me, Marin’s past is always present. As I drive or hike here, I wonder about the people whom our streets, parks and mountains are named after. I guarantee that after reading my book, you’ll never drive on US 101 past the Pacheco Winery or Olompali State Park without remembering the widow Pacheco and her stepdaughter, Augustina.

How long did it take to write the book? Did you enjoy the process?

(JH) All in all, from meeting Augustina to publication, it took four years. I can’t say that I loved doing the rewrites, but every time I uncovered another photograph, newspaper article or high school report card, the Black family jigsaw puzzle in my mind gained another colorful piece. Augustina’s pearl earrings, barely visible on my book’s cover, first appear in a birthday photo, reappear as she grows older, and end as a bequest to a granddaughter. The insights and artifacts that made the Black family breathe kept me researching and writing.

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Reviews by Paula Farmer of Book Passage.


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Hollywood EdenJessica Gliddon is the Senior Digital Editor for Make It Better Media Group. An international writer and editor, she has worked on publications in the UK, Dubai and Cape Town. She is a graduate of UC Santa Cruz, and is the former editor of Abu Dhabi’s airline magazine, Etihad Inflight. When she’s not checking out the latest exhibit at SFMOMA or searching out the best places to eat and drink near her home in San Francisco, she volunteers at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito.