History: Dr. Alfred W. Taliaferro Dispensed Cures Without Pay

For over three decades, Dr. A.W. Taliaferro cared for San Rafael's medical needs with selfless generosity.


When news of the California Gold Rush reached Virginia, Alfred Walker Taliaferro was one of a group of 75 young men inspired to form the Madison Mining and Trading Company. They purchased the ship Glenmore, loaded it with tobacco, soap, machinery, pre-fab houses and other useful items, then sailed off from the James River near Richmond, Va. on April 5, 1849 to make their fortunes in the Mother Lode.

On arrival in San Francisco on Oct. 6, 1849, most of the men abandoned ship and headed straight for the gold fields. The company dissolved, selling the Glenmore for one-third of its purchase price and leaving the tobacco and other cargo onboard.

Farming in San Rafael

Resisting the gold fever, Taliaferro and a few others, Seth Sheppard, James M. and S. Bolivar Harris and Thomas Meaux, decided instead to try farming. They made their way to San Rafael where in December 1849 they leased lands from mission administrator Don Timoteo Murphy. The company cultivated the land where Robert Watt, manager of the Swiss-American bank, later built a residence. The lands afterward became site of the

The company's farming venture was short-lived. "Not much was done in the way of farming, but prodigies were performed in hunting, dancing and other pleasures," Taliaferro later noted.

When Taliaferro arrived in San Rafael in 1849, he was 22 years old and a recent graduate from medical school. His Italian surname is pronounced “Tolliver,” a named shared with Booker T. (Taliaferro) Washington. Taliaferro's ancestors had migrated from Italy to England, then over to Virginia in the 17th century.

Hunting and Other Pleasures

Taliaferro's manners reflected the gentlemanly ways of the southern aristocrat along with those of the rough and tumble West. He loved to gamble and use foul language. Charles Lauff, another Marin County pioneer, described an evening of cards with Taliaferro, S. Bolivar Harris, and Timoteo Murphy, who also liked to party in a series of reminiscences in The San Rafael Independent, January 23 to May 23 :

“[We] played Monte until late the next morning. Taliaferro was clever at the game and used cuss words like a trooper. Murphy was a close second to him, and between them succeeded in taking about five pounds sterling from Harris and myself. The old jug was on the table, and every time we lost a game we took a swig for luck.”

Taliaferro loved to hunt and was often seen galloping through the Marin hills followed by his pack of hounds. William Kent wrote of Taliaferro in his Reminiscences of Outdoor Life:

“He was a fiery little man and an all round sport. His bird dogs were the best, and his pride was in horseflesh. He used to make his calls driving a thoroughbred mare in a spindly wheeled sulky, sitting alone in state on his single seat, draped in wet weather with a gorgeous waterproof poncho created from a home-woven Mexican serape.”


Taliaferro discovered a good hunting site far from San Rafael and approached Domingo Sais, recipient of the Canada de Herrara Mexican land grant, to purchase the property. Owner of 6,658 acres, Sais generously gave Taliaferro 32 acres. Taliaferro later transferred the property to his good friend Charles Snowden Fairfax, for whom the town of Fairfax is named. It became the site of , then the Marin Town and Country Club


In 1851, Taliaferro served on Marin County's first Grand Jury, which met in the 'juzgado' at the Mission until the first courthouse was built in 1856. In 1851-1854 he was a representative (Whig) to the California State Assembly for the 19th District, and in 1856 he was elected as a Democrat to the California State Senate for the 11th district, serving until 1858. A Southern Democrat in Republican Marin, the popular Taliaferro won elections despite his strong allegiance to southern states' rights.

San Quentin

In 1853, Taliaferro was named physician for San Quentin Prison, a position he held for nearly 10 years. At the time, the ship Waban, anchored near Point San Quentin, served as the prison while the prisoners constructed permanent buildings. They completed the facility in 1854 on 20 acres of land sold to the state by Benjamin Buckelew.

The prison was leased to private contractors responsible for feeding, housing and caring for the prisoners in exchange for prison labor. In one of the many investigations into corruption at San Quentin, Taliaferro testified:

 “I sent for eight convicts the year before last to get out my potatoes; they worked three or four days; they had two guards with them from the prison and some of the time more; they stayed at my house overnight; they slept upstairs; they were not chained or locked, but the guard slept below; the house was not locked; there were none escaped while at my house (as one of the prisoners has since told me), and the only thing that prevented them was the dogs; they were afraid of the dogs or were apprehensive they would bark and rally the guards and others.”

Not only did prisoners pick Taliaferro's potatoes, in 1859 they also constructed the building that came to house his pharmacy, San Rafael's first, at 1221 Fourth St.

In 1858 Taliaferro reported to the warden:

"As you know, the men when locked up are literally piled one upon another. This fills the room with animal heat and impure air.The mornings are cold and chilly when the men are called out to work. Sudden transition from heat to cold, with their bodies much relaxed and debilitated by the heat and impure air of the rooms, renders them very susceptible to pulmonary diseases.”

Although the prisoners at San Quentin suffered, residents of San Rafael enjoyed a healthy clime. Taliaferro reported to the American Medical Association in 1871 that:

“There are no prevailing diseases here. Sometimes we have chills and fever, but they are very mild and occur at no particular season of the year. We sometimes have typhoid fever and diptheria, but they appear so seldom and in such isolated cases that they are simply sporadic in their visitations...This place is quite a resort for invalids, and its reputation is increasing every year.” 

Riding with the Kibbe Rangers

In 1859 the adventurous Taliaferro volunteered as surgeon to General William C. Kibbe's campaign against the native peoples in Tehama County, Northern California. The settlers there had complaints of raids on their homesteads, so General Kibbe raised a group of 93 volunteers, now known as the Kibbe Rangers, to rid the area of indigenous peoples. Taliaferro was paid $100 per month for the three-month expedition.

In his report to the California Assembly, General Kibbe praised Taliaferro:

“The Surgeon of my command, Dr. A.W. Taliaferro, deserves to be especially noticed. Under all circumstances, and at all times, requiring the exercise of his skill, he was found to more than equal to the delicate and responsible duties of his profession. His efforts were in every case, attended with eminent success, which is, perhaps, the highest compliment that could be paid to his acknowledged scientific talents and attainments.

The expedition was singularly fortunate in its exemption from casualties. Not a single life was lost, and the wounded all recovered.”

The only lives lost were those of American Indians. The Rangers rounded up hundreds of survivors and shipped them off to reservations.

Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery

From 1869 to 1872, Taliaferro took in as partner in his medical practice.

The 1870 federal census lists Taliaferro living with his friend and partner Dr. DuBois in San Rafael Village with a 23-year-old Chinese servant named Ah Poy.

In 1874, at age 48, Taliaferro was elected a member of the San Rafael Board of Trustees, which met for first time on April 9 of that year. As a town trustee, he proposed legislation to prevent burials within town boundaries. Both Taliaferro and DuBois were concerned with the lack of space for burials within the town limits,

Criminal Activity

Despite his generosity and good reputation, Taliaferro was victim of at least two crimes. On March 26, 1874 the Marin Journal reported that three days earlier, Taliaferro had been “shot on the way to visiting one of his patients, Mrs. Calvin Dickson, on the north side of White Hill. He was held up and shot in the left arm. It was thought he was mistaken for Stephen Stedman, who was carrying payroll for his employees.”  Taliaferro proceeded to the Dickson's where he attended to Mrs. Dickson after treating his wound.

On February 15, 1880, the Marin Journal reported a burglary to which Taliaferro responded with good humor:

“Dr. Taliaferro's house was robbed last night of three suits of clothing including the yellow swallow tail jacket of Leap Year fame. Doctor sends word to the thief: That if he had entered the next room he might have added to his haul, a rifle, pistol, shotgun, a gattling gun, a large quantity of preserves, pickles and apples, a valuable clock and a large sum of coin. Also that he will pay $100 reward for the return of the plunder and no questions asked.”

The clothing was later found beneath a pile of boards in a lumberyard and returned to the doctor.

Death from Pneumonia

Taliaferro died of pneumonia on Dec. 9, 1885. It was said that he contracted pneumonia when he rode “out in the middle of the night to assist a woman with the birth of her child.” He had been ill for more than a week.

On his death, his body laid in state at the Gordon's Opera House, 1325-1337 Fourth St. between C and D streets, site of today's . Hundreds of mourners filed by the casket laid in state. On the day of the funeral, the bank, post office and every San Rafael business house closed its doors. The funeral services were held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church on the corner of Fourth at E Street, where Taliaferro had been a vestryman and where today a stained glass window is dedicated in his honor.

The church was packed. Among the pall bearers were U.S. Judge Ogden Hoffman, Superior Court Judge Majon, Hepburn Wilkins and Payne Shafter. After the funeral, a procession of over 100 carriages made its way to Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery where Dr. Taliaferro was buried in a vault he had designed for himself. When two years after his death, a parlor of the Native Daughters of the Golden West formed in San Rafael, the founders named it the Taliaferro Parlor, likely in honor of the beloved doctor.

Eulogies and Recollections

During his 34-year practice, Taliaferro was known to answer every call without complaint. He delivered numerous babies, many of the males named Alfred in his honor. He pulled teeth before the arrival of Marin's first dentist, rode with at least one posse pursuing escaped prisoners, transported patients to the State Insane Asylum at Stockton and confirmed that Timothy Cronin, executed by hanging in front of the courthouse in 1868, was indeed dead. Taliaferro attended the deathbed of Captain William Richardson and served as visiting physician for the .

On Dec. 17, 1885 the Marin County Journal wrote:

"He had the great gift of qualities which made him the welcome friend of the privileged and favored classes and at the same time an idol among the lowly, and this in short is the reason why his death has caused such an universal pallor over our homes, which is almost as if crepe were on every door. We have never seen such a general sorrow caused in any community before the death of a private citizen. The doctor was very peculiar. Independent, even to rashness; strong, self-willed and outspoken; he yet had a chivalric tenderness, which provoked admiration even from a foe....Countless acts of generosity will stand against his foibles.”

Although he was handsome, a splendid dancer and very popular with the ladies, Taliaferro never married. At the auction of his property, many former patients bought objects as memorabilia. The Sausalito News on Oct. 14, 1886 reported that Taliaferro's race horse, “a large sorrel Wowick colt named Ipse Doodle” had been purchased for $300 from his estate. The horse then had run three heats in record time and now was worth many thousands.

Taliaferro would not have cared. Stories abounded regarding his disinterest in money matters. A patient who gave him a hunting dog was never billed. Three different sources recall the good doctor in similar fashion.

Charles Lauff remembered that:

“Taliaferro was a jolly sort of a critter, always cracking jokes, and he had no regard for money. In fact he never bothered his head about money. I knew him for years afterwards, and he would jump on his horse and ride for miles to some poor sick person, half the time never getting a dollar for his trouble.”

William Kent wrote of Taliaferro:

“In every kind of weather and every sort of roads he visited rich and poor alike, with no regard whatever for any emolument except as he needed funds. When the time came round for a celebration, which was several times per annum, he sat down and wrote out bills to his well-to-do patients and clients, entirely regardless of services rendered, which he never had time to remember.”

The Marin County Tocsin reported:

“He would jump out of bed at any hour of night or in any kind of weather. If he had only paid the most ordinary regard for his finances he might have been nearly a millionaire. Almost monopolizing the practice of the county, having on his books hundreds of families of great wealth, he sought only enough to enable him to lead a comfortable and graceful life.”

The Marin Genealogical Society has documented every monument at the Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery, including that of Taliaferro, in its recently published Inscriptions and Tombstones for Mt. Tamalpais Cemetery, San Rafael, Marin County, California, (vol 1).The book consists of 457 pages with an index of 93 pages and is available for use at the LDS Family History Center, 200 North San Pedro Road, San Rafael.


Several of these photographs were provided by the . If you are interested in purchasing these photographs or others from their collection please call 415-382.0770x3 or email photoservices@marinhistory.org.

Primary source material was provided by the oral history and news clipping collections of the Anne T. Kent California Room of the Marin County Free Library -  http://www.marinlibrary.org/research-and-learning/california-room. 


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