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Belvedere: Once a cow pasture, now home to millionaires

Belvedere, the island of six names



Marin County is noted for its open spaces, and also for some pretty pricey property. One of the towns there is considered by many to be so exclusive that it doesn’t even allow any businesses. That would be Belvedere.

While that’s not quite true, the Belvedere/Tiburon ZIP code is recognized as one of the wealthiest in the U.S. – a 12,000 sq. ft. mansion there sold for $47 million in 2015.

Things didn’t start out this way, of course. Town archivist David Gotz says this now-coveted community was originally cow pasture, a small part of the much larger Mexican land grant known as El Rancho Corte Madera del Presidio (“The ranch that cuts the wood for the Presidio.”)

“And,” he adds, “it was the first Mexican land grant given to a non-Mexican. Guy named John Reed, an Irishman who’d come here on a whaling ship, jumped ship like a lot of them did.”

Reed studied Spanish, and made himself known in the world of the Californios.Still, it took him years to acquire a land grant, finally receiving title in the 1830s. The territory included the present-day sites of Belvedere, Tiburon, and the peninsula going back to Mill Valley. “The mill at Mill Valley was built by him,” Gotz says, “to cut the wood for the Presidio.”

The town of Corte Madera obviously derives its name from the original name of the rancho, too.  But the name Belvedere came much later, in 1890, when it was chosen by the land developers who began the planned transformation from agriculture to high-end housing.

Some people still refer to Belvedere as an island today, but technically it’s a peninsula, because of a small strip of land that Reed used to lead his cattle to pasture there. This detail was crucial when the government of California was transferring from Mexico to the United States, Gotz says, because “all islands in San Francisco Bay became federal property.” He cites Angel Island and Alcatraz as examples.

Here’s a list of the many names associated with this relatively small parcel of land in San Francisco Bay:

  • Kashow’s Island —Israel Kashow was an emigrant from Ohio who took up residence there in the 1850s. He had no formal claim to the land and was evicted when John Reed was finally declared owner.

  • Promontory Island — a name used by the U.S. military when they had operations there.

  • Still Island — so named because of the notably still water.

  • Peninsula Island — this confusing designation (it’s one or the other, not both) came from the U.S. Survey General, who initially wrote “island” on his map. Then when Reed settled, they simply added “peninsula.”

  • Belvedere — In Italian, “fine view.” In French, “a beautiful place.” Archivist Gotz says “it satisfies both of those.

  • Tiburon — Spanish for “shark,” a name associated with this land since the first Spanish explorations in 1775, due to the numerous small leopard sharks in the area. The peninsula’s original working class town (railroad, ferry) closest to San Francisco still uses this name.