San Rafael has been Marin’s County Seat since 1850. However, in the early days it was not always clear that the Seat would remain in San Rafael. San Rafael did not become the Seat immediately after the county was created because Marin was initially attached to Sonoma County for judicial purposes.
From 1848 until 1850 California was governed by the U. S. Army. The area comprising modern Marin County was then part of the military District of Sonoma.
Though short, the military presence seems to have had a particularly stern effect on the District of Sonoma Court. Here is an example of an 1849 Court ruling as described by J. P. Munro-Fraser in his 1880 History of Marin County, California: “The jury…. sentenced him to receive the following punishment, to wit: On Saturday, the 24th day of November, to be conducted by the Sheriff to some public place, and there to receive on his bare back seventy-five lashes, with such a weapon as the Sheriff may deem fit, on each count respectively, and to be banished from the district of Sonoma within twelve days after whipping,…”
Civilian control was introduced when a general convention held in Monterey on September 1, 1849 recommended a constitution for the Republic of California. The constitution was ratified on November 13, 1849 by the overwhelming vote of 12,061 in favor to 811 against. The District of Sonoma voted 99% in favor of the constitution and elected three representatives to be sent to the first California Legislature at San Jose. General Mariano Vallejo was selected as the district Senator. Vallejo not only offered land for the new California capital but also chaired a committee that recommended the creation of 18 counties, though Marin was not included on that original list. However, on February 18, 1850 the legislature agreed that the new State of California would include 27 (not 18) counties, among them, Marin County.
Since Marin County was joined with Sonoma County for judicial purposes when first established in February of 1850, it did not have a recognized County Seat at that time. On July 22, 1850 the County Judge and Justices of the Peace for Marin met in San Rafael to organize a Court of Sessions. At this meeting steps were taken to establish suitable accommodations for the Court to hold sessions, as well as to secure space for books, records and a jail. An Act confirming San Rafael as the Seat of justice was passed on April 25, 1851.
Not everyone was pleased with San Rafael as the County Seat. Its location on the eastern edge of Marin was quite distant from much of the county’s population. In the early days, the majority of voters lived in Marin’s central and western areas. For example, for people living in the greater Tomales area, the County Seat was over 30 miles away which entailed a day-long carriage ride, including a circuitous route through Sonoma County. These conditions led to continuous calls for moving the Seat to a more convenient location. In 1853 an attempt was made to relocate the County Seat from San Rafael to Tomales, Nicasio or Olema. The effort did not succeed because it lacked the required number of legal petitioners.
In January 1863 moving the Seat was again under consideration. By March the California Legislature approved an Act “To provide for Re-locating the County Seat of the County of Marin by the Qualified Voters of said county.” The legislation specified moving the Seat from San Rafael to Olema. The measure was included in the general election of State and local officials on September 2, 1863.
The countywide result was 61% in favor of retaining the Seat in San Rafael. As might be expected, the vote varied by location across the county. Election details as published in the September 12, 1863 Marin Journal, indicated that, in the western portion of the county 57% favored relocation. Bolinas, Point Reyes, and Berry [Olema] Precincts were particularly supportive with over 97% favoring removal from San Rafael. The eastern edge of the county from Sausalito to Novato including San Rafael voted 92% against removal.
Following the 1863 vote, the Journal commented: “This question is settled for the present.” But less than three years later, on April 2, 1866, the Legislature acted yet again on the matter. A new law was adopted requiring voters in favor of relocation to “…have written or printed on his ticket the words ‘For Removal’; also, the name of the place at which he desires the County Seat to be located…”
Pursuant to this act, the Board of Supervisors on May 9, 1866 ordered an election on the County Seat’s location to be held on June 25th. However, it was quickly discovered that the Board’s action was not in conformance with the laws governing elections. So, on June 12, 1866 the Board uncomfortably cancelled the election.
While no subsequent elections were held in Marin County challenging the location of the County Seat, discussion of the idea did continue. Support for the Seat to be located at Nicasio as the geographic center of the county was reported by the Journal in January 1868. In August 1869 the Journal noted that the Democratic nominee for Assembly was from Nicasio and would likely advocate for the County Seat to be moved there should he be elected. In view of the Journal’s usual support for Republican candidates, this report appears to have been an attempt by the newspaper to present an argument against the Democrat.
In January 1872, the legislature authorized the Board of Supervisors to issue $60,000 in bonds for the construction of a courthouse in San Rafael. By the same action, the 1866 law to provide for re-locating the County Seat was repealed. The courthouse bonds were issued in March and construction began later that year. The splendid neoclassical Greek revival building, completed on Fourth Street in 1873, served until 1969 when the last county offices were moved to the Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center. The empty building was totally destroyed by a fire of unknown origin in 1971. The construction of a permanent Civic Center ensured San Rafael would remain Marin’s County Seat.