A Brief History of Sonoma County, Part 1

Early Sonoma County History - Native Tribes to the Bear Flag Revolt

Native Tribes

We talk a lot about Wine Country and “the good life.” But, Sonoma County’s first inhabitants, the people of the Pomo, Miwok and Wappo tribes, seem to be the ones who really knew how to live. Most historical accounts describe them as quite peaceful societies. Survival wasn’t so tough with all the plentiful fruits and fish and wildlife and the mild winters. Plus, back then, they didn’t have a mortgage to worry about. So, they ended up with a lot of free time to do all those things that people wish they could do if they just had more free time. They could hang out with their family and friends, sing and dance, embrace their spirituality, enjoy nature, and create art.

For example, the Pomo Indians made a huge variety of baskets for many needs. But, they also had the time to nurture their talents and create baskets that were not only functional but artistic and beautiful as well. In fact, Pomo baskets are among the most prized, if not the most prized, in the world. Some of the larger collections can be found at the Smithsonian and at the Kremlin. There’s also a nice one at the Jesse Peter Museum at Santa Rosa Junior College. And the Mendocino County Museum in Willits houses some baskets by Elsie Allen. Allen was a famous Pomo Indian educator, activist and basket weaver who lived in Sonoma County in the early to mid-1900s. Elsie Allen High School in southwest Santa Rosa is named after her.

The First European Settlers

Some people think Sir Frances Drake, the first Englishman to sail around the world, landed in Bodega Bay’s Campbell Cove in 1577, during that famous expedition. (About 50 years before that, Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal was the first person in known history to circumnavigate the globe.) But, so far, no one knows for sure where he landed, and it’s a rather controversial topic as cities up and down the coast vie for the distinction.

What we do know is that the first permanent settlement built in Sonoma County by non-natives wasn’t built by the English and it wasn’t built by the Spanish. It was built by the Russians.

Many Russian trappers had gone to Alaska to kill otters for their prized fur. As the otter population dwindled, the trappers moved further south. In 1812 a group of them landed at Bodega Bay and founded a settlement north from there. They named the fort “Ross,” an old name for “Russia.” ( Fort Ross is now a California State Park.)

The Spanish, were not happy about this. They were making their way up from Mexico along Coastal California building Missions and claiming land for Spain. The new Russian Fort inspired them to hurry up beyond San Francisco and built new Missions further north and grab the territory before anyone else moved in. And Father Jose Altimira, an ambitious young priest at the Mission San Francisco, figured he was just the man to do it.

Altimira headed up north and checked out a lot of property in the Petaluma, Suisun and Napa valleys. He finally chose the Sonoma Valley as the ideal place to live. The Francisco Solano Mission, better known as the Sonoma Mission, was built in what would become the town of Sonoma. By that time, Mexico had already declared its independence from Spain, And shortly after, the Mexican government decided to do away with the mission system altogether. So the mission in Sonoma was the last and northernmost one built, and the only one built under Mexican rule. If you look at a map you can see how Spanish / Mexican influence waned right around where the final mission was built. As you go north up through the California coast, you’ll see many towns with names beginning with San and Santa, Los and Las. Santa Rosa is the final one.

Although the Sonoma Mission was built to thwart colonization by others, particularly the Russians, the Russians didn’t seem to take offense. In fact, the folks from Fort Ross not only showed up for the dedication of the mission’s church, but they even brought along altar cloths, candlesticks and a bell.

The mission grew, but by the 1830s the Mexican government decided to dissolve the mission system. The 27-year-old General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was sent to Sonoma in 1835 to oversee the secularization of the Sonoma Mission. He was also given orders to settle the area to assert Mexican claim and preclude the Russians from advancing.

General Vallejo

Petaluma Adobe

The rest of the land was parceled out to others, many of them in Vallejo’s own extended family.

His mother-in-law, Dona Maria Carrillo, took land along the Santa Rosa Creek and built the Carrillo Adobe, the first European home in the Santa Rosa Valley. Maria Carrillo High School, in northeast Santa Rosa is named after her.

Captain John Rogers Cooper married Vallejo’s sister Encarnacion and took El Molino Rancho which is present-day Forestville. Rogers built the state’s first power sawmill there, hence the name “Molino” which means “mill” in Spanish. (The high school in Forestville is named El Molino.)

Captain Henry Fitche, who married another of Vallejo’s sisters-in-law, got the Sotoyome grant, which is now Healdsburg. Fitche spent most of his time in San Diego, so he sent Cyrus Alexander to develop the rancho, promising him 10,000 acres in return. Alexander picked the land that is now the Alexander Valley as his payment.

Much of the land was given to people outside the family, as well. And Vallejo went out of his way to persuade some Anglo seafarers to develop ranches close to the Russian fort to keep the Russians closed in.

Once again, the Russians didn’t seem too perturbed by any of this. These days, Fort Ross is overseen by the State Parks, and they hold an annual Cultural Heritage Day. During the celebration, the Fort Ross Interpretive Association used to stage a reenactment of a day in 1836. In the skit, the Mexican officers from Sonoma show up at the Fort and order the Russians to leave. As a show of strength, the Russians fire their weapons. And then they invite the Mexicans inside to party.

But, the friendly neighbors had to leave soon after. They had killed off the otter population to near extinction and so they returned to Russia. Many of the men brought back Native American brides and children. (And they also brought back those Pomo baskets, which explains why the Kremlin has such a nice collection.)

The Mexican government barely had enough time to let out a sigh of relief that the Russians were gone before a new threat came to the Northern California coast: American Pioneers.

The Bear Flag Revolt

Donner Party

As more and more settlers poured into the area, tensions grew between the newcomers and the Californios who felt their land was being overrun. Vallejo wrote: “The emigration of North Americans to California today forms an unbroken line of wagons… it is frightful.”

There were rumors that Mexico would expel the Americans. And in the summer of 1846, yet another rumor swept over the area that Mexico had ordered the Americans out of California. This time, a ragtag group of settlers rode into Sonoma to confront General Vallejo.

They surrounded his Sonoma home and the captain of the impromptu group, Ezekiel Merritt, went inside to talk terms with the General. After several hours, Merritt didn’t come out. So, another man from the group went in to investigate. He didn’t come out either. Finally, a man named William Ide went in to see what was happening. He later wrote: “There sat Merrit – his head fallen…and there sat the new made Captain as mute as the seat he sat upon. The bottle had well nigh vanquished the captors.” It seems that General Vallejo, always a good host, was kind enough to offer some brandy to his would-be captors.

The guests were not as hospitable. The rest of the group kidnapped Vallejo plus several members of his family and took them to Sacramento, where they remained detained for several months.

In the meantime, the group of pioneers proclaimed a new republic. And they created a flag with the words “California Republic” and an image of a grizzly bear. Some of the onlookers said it looked more like a pig. It seems that the Bear Flag was created by the nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, President Lincoln’s wife.

Pioneer John Bidwell, who chronicled many of the events surrounding the “Bear Flag Revolt,” wrote:

“Among the men who remained to hold Sonoma was William B. Ide, who assumed to be in command… Another man left at Sonoma was William L. Todd who painted, on a piece of brown cotton, a yard and a half or so in length, with old red or brown paint that he happened to find, what he intended to be a representation of a grizzly bear. This was raised to the top of the staff, some seventy feet from the ground. Native Californians looking up at it were heard to say ‘Coche,’ the common name among them for pig or shoat. More than thirty years afterwards I chanced to meet Todd on the train coming up the Sacramento Valley. He had not greatly changed, but appeared considerably broken in health. He informed me that Mrs. Lincoln was his own aunt, and that he had been brought up in the family of Abraham Lincoln.”

For 22 days, the bear flag flew over Sonoma as the settlers declared California an independent republic. But then the conflict became part of the larger Mexican-American war. Mexico eventually lost the war and ceded California to the United States.

Later on, the fires that followed the 1906 Great Earthquake burned and destroyed the original bear flag. But, its spirit lives. California adopted the bear image for its state flag.

Part 2 of Sonoma County History coming soon.

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