Cecil Sanchez, one of the last half-blooded Miwok Indians who lived and worked his entire life in West Marin, passed away last Friday in his retirement home in Tomales. He was 81.
Cecil’s life was steeped in tragedy and love. He suffered and worked harder and longer than most, and took joy where he could find it. He fathered no children, but the few he allowed to know him well became family.
“He was not a man of many words,” said his friend and surrogate daughter, Janet Osborn. Janet and her sister, Deborah, were friends and occasional caretakers of Cecil for 27 years. “There wasn’t always a lot of conversation, but he was a real gentle man. You didn’t mess around with him, because he would let you know,” Janet said.
Cecil was born October 29, 1929 to John and Rosie Sanchez. John, who emigrated from Mexico as a child, worked at the Point Reyes Lighthouse as a gardener. Rosie was a full-blooded Miwok who did laundry and cleaned houses for Inverness vacationers.
John was a quiet man, whose sole focus was to provide for his family. “He was very quiet and never socialized,” said Cecil’s niece, Loretta Rodriguez. “It was a quiet family. They never went to parties or had family gatherings. Nothing.” John did not have use for church, but Rosie went every Sunday.
Rosie gave birth to 12 children in their home in Marshall, only four of whom lived past age 24. “My mother said that [Rosie] lost them to pneumonia or tuberculosis. It was too cold there in Marshall,” Loretta said. Of the children, Joe lived 20 days, Catarino lived four months, Esidora and Sam both lived one year, Joseph lived two years, Ourora lived 15 years, Gloria lived 17 years and John III lived 23 years. Fernando passed away at 69 and Benita at 78.
“It’s hard when you lose your family, but when you lose your children, you never get over it,” Loretta said. Cecil also suffered from tuberculosis, but recovered.
After attending Inverness School, Cecil went to high school in Tomales. He never graduated, instead choosing to work for his father and help support his family. “He went to work helping my grandfather clean yards and do odd jobs and eventually went to work on a ranch in Point Reyes,” Loretta said.
Though he was not very involved in Native American culture, Cecil was proud of his Miwok roots. “He loved being Miwok. When he did talk about it, you could tell he was so proud of his heritage,” Loretta said. After the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, formerly the Federated Coast Miwok, was granted tribal status in 2000, Cecil was initiated as a tribal member. “He was very, very proud,” Loretta said.
Cecil eventually got a job as a maintenance worker for the National Park Service, maintaining trails throughout West Marin. He also got a job as the caretaker of the Adams’ Ranch (now the Moore Ranch) in Point Reyes. “He worked in the park five days a week, clearing trails, cutting trees—real physical work—and then came home and took care of this ranch, mowing lawns, taking care of their animals,” Janet said. “There wasn’t a lot of time for taking a vacation, but he wasn’t that sort of person. He loved to be at home with the animals and with nature.”
Cecil fell in love with a young nurse’s aide named Alice Rodgers. Alice worked at a convalescent home, and as a teacher’s aide. They enjoyed going to the occasional movie and looked forward to riding in the Western Weekend parade each year.
Alice and Cecil did not have children; it was a tragedy on the ranch, as chance would have it, that introduced Janet and Deborah into their lives. When ranch owner Lizanne Adams became terminally ill, Janet, a registered nurse, became her caretaker. “Cecil and Alice would come over to see her and bring food, so I got to know them,” Janet said. “I had a horse, and Cecil had a horse, so we would ride.”
Practical to a fault, there was little that Cecil couldn’t fix. “He taught me a lot of things. If something broke, he could figure it out,” Janet said. “One time the alternator went out in my car. Cecil said, ‘Okay, let’s drive to Petaluma and pick up an alternator.’ I asked him if he was sure he knew how to put one in. He said, ‘Yeah, but I’m going to teach you how to do it.’ So I learned how to put my own alternator in the car.”
Besides Alice and his surrogate daughters, Cecil’s horse, Cody, was the love of his life. “Cody was his pride and joy. He raised him from a colt, and he was closest thing to a son that Cecil ever had,” Loretta said. “Did he have any children? Yes, he had Cody!”
Cody was an unusual horse. Some old-timers remember Cecil riding Cody into the Old Western Saloon, where Cecil would order up a couple of mugs of beer—one for himself and one for his horse.
Cecil had a couple of close calls that nearly cost him his life. Once, in his ranch cottage, Cecil walked out of his bedroom and into his living room at the same moment that an enormous tree branch crashed through the bedroom ceiling and demolished part of the house. “If he had been taking a nap, he would have died,” Janet said.
Another time Cecil wasn’t so lucky. In 1994, Cecil and his good friend and co-worker, Tony Bettencourt, had sliced partway through an overhanging limb when they decided to attach a rope to it for safety. While he was cleaning up debris on the ground below, the limb fell onto him, crushing his left arm, leg and shoulder. He was taken by helicopter to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, where he recovered.
That year, Alice underwent open-heart surgery. Her health deteriorated over the next two years, and she passed away on September 25, 1996 from heart complications. She was only 54.
Three years later, Cecil’s horse, Cody, died. “At the time there was not a lot we could do for him,” Janet said. Losing Alice and Cody hit Cecil hard. “It was difficult for him, but Cecil wasn’t one to express or show his emotions,” Janet said. Cody’s body was taken from his pasture with a forklift, and buried at the base of Black Mountain.
After he retired from the park service and was no longer able to work, Cecil moved to a small house in Inverness Park. “It became a nightmare. A lot of things didn’t work, the electrical [wiring] was wrong and could have caught on fire at any time, there was a gas leak, the oven didn’t work and the owners weren’t helping out any,” Janet said. “There were ants everywhere, it was a nightmare.” Two weeks after he moved into the house, which turned out to be an illegal unit, he caught pneumonia and had to recover at a convalescent home. He eventually moved to a retirement house in Tomales.
Cecil hated getting old. “He lived alone for a long time. He was losing all of his friends,” Loretta said. “He’d mention a name, ‘He died.’ Mention another, ‘He died.’ It just made him realize how old he was getting. It was hard on him. He wasn’t happy at the end of his life, I know that.”
Seven months after moving to the retirement home, Cecil passed away. He will be missed.
Cecil is survived by his sister, Suzanne; nieces Debra and Loretta; his great-nieces Jeannie, Joetta and Juanita; and his surrogate daughters, Janet and Deborah. He was predeceased by his brothers Joe, John III, Fernando, Sam, Joseph, Catarino and sisters Gloria, Ourora, Esidora and Benita; and his companion of 23 years, Alice. A public memorial for Cecil is planned for September.