Known as the birthplace of wine in California, Sonoma Valley blends the old with the new and has become not only the premier destination for wine but also for food, arts, culture and lifestyle.
Sonoma Valley History
THE VALLEY’S FIRST PEOPLES
Legend has it that the name Sonoma (also known as the “Valley of the Moon,”) derives from a local indigenous people’s word for “many moons.” The native tribes lived here for thousands of years before the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans ever arrived. This word, “Sonoma,” may also have roots in the word “noma”- a Mayakmah word for “village.” Gazing at the starry skies, modern-day visitors can see for themselves if the moon indeed rises and sets several times nightly over the eastern Mayacamas Mountain Range, as ancient travelers claimed! We can tell you that there is nothing like a full moon here; the Valley lights up in a most magical and wonderous display.
Attracted by the good soil, sun, water, abundant game, fish, wild oats, berries, acorns and other natural bounty, early peoples (part of the great Asian migration over the Bering land bridge) began to settle in the Sonoma Valley roughly 12,000 years ago. Eventually, they numbered some 5,000 people across a variety of native tribes: from the coast, Miwoks; in the north, near the Mayacamas Mountain Range, dwelled Wintuns; Wapo (who were here in Kenwood); Miyakmahs in the lower Valley; Pomos, near the edge of San Pablo Bay; and Koskiwok and Patwins in the southeast corner of the county. They lived in long, multi-family grass & Tule thatched huts with communal cooking areas. Life focused on gathering and preparing food and tribal celebrations. The tribes traded among themselves, cleared land (by burning) to expose game ,and soaked in the Valley’s profuse hot springs.
In the early 19th century, Spanish explorers and missionaries ventured here, looking for land and “converts” and hoping to set up a bulwark against the Russians, who had advanced down the coast from the north. The process of settlement hastened when, in 1823, Franciscan missionaries established a Sonoma Mission, San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, then accelerated further when Mexico gained its independence. The Mission provided food, clothing, and religious instruction, training church “neophytes” in European crafts, agriculture and construction. Within six years, the fathers had baptized some 650 tribes’ people and were “training” another 760.
21 HISTORIC CALIFORNIA MISSIONS
The Mission regime was harsh, with punishments that included floggings and imprisonment. A rebellion in 1826 caused Mission founder Fr. Jose Altamira to flee Sonoma Valley, revealing that many inhabitants under his rule resented his severe methods. The continual encroachment of European and American settlers, who came bearing diseases, overwhelmed the native population. Within 50 years, the tribes had all but vanished as a society, many dead from smallpox and measles, and the rest sent north to reservations or absorbed into the burgeoning new pueblo of Sonoma. A memorial outside Sonoma’s restored Mission bears the names of the native people who died there. Many tourists today take road trips, visiting all the historic missions one by one, to discover the history and architecture of early California.
The Mexican Mission
SONOMA #21- THE NORTHERNMOST OF THE CALIFORNIA MISSIONS
In 1824, Sonoma became home to the last, and most northerly, link in a chain of 21 Spanish missions built in California by Franciscan padres. Sonoma’s was the only mission established under an independent Mexican government (freshly liberated from Spain) and within ten years it was secularized. As leader of the Sonoma outpost, Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo wielded great influence over Sonoma’s history, but he wasn’t the first outsider to impact the Valley and its inhabitants. Because of the encroachment of European settlers in the early 19th century, the Valley’s indigenous societies began to die out from diseases. During that time, Sonoma became home to the northernmost and last mission in a chain of 21, built in California by Father Junipero Serra and priests of the Franciscan order. But just ten years after its completion in 1824, the Mission was secularized by the newly independent Mexican government. As leader of the secular outpost, Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo turned the Mission into a Mexican pueblo, fortified it as a military stronghold against the Russians, laid out the Sonoma Plaza, and built soldiers’ barracks at its northeast corner, all the while amassing great wealth, power and land.
Vallejo’s vision lives on today. Visitors to Sonoma can park their cars in the town center and meander more than 150 years back in time. The carefully preserved adobe buildings around Sonoma Plaza include the Mission, the Barracks, Vallejo’s home and other historic structures open for public tours.
MEXICAN DOMINANCE & THE VALLEJO ERA
The first missionaries, along with an initial expedition of soldiers, to reach Sonoma Valley came from Mexico, which was newly independent of Spain. They arrived here July 4, 1823. As they progressed north from Mexico, the Franciscans had built a chain of 20 missions in their wake. They came northwards to Sonoma after establishing the missions in San Francisco and San Rafael.
The missions at Yerba Buena and San Rafael turned out to be poor locations. The priests, led by Father Jose Altamira, felt those locations were too damp and poor for agriculture, and desired a warmer, more pleasant spot in which to settle. Sonoma fit the bill! There they founded Mission San Francisco de Solano, the northernmost link in a total chain of 21 California Missions. This was the only one established under Mexican rule. The soldiers who accompanied the Franciscans aimed to stave off Russian explorers from the north, who had fished, trapped, logged and cultivated the coast from Alaska to Coronado Bay, and who, by 1812, had established an outpost as far south as Fort Ross (today you can visit this popular area of Sonoma County and enjoy activities along the “Russian River”).
The newest Mission prospered with lands, crops, cattle, horses and converts, and would become a thriving hub of activity by the time Mexico secularized all of the missions in 1834. With the new decree of secularization, the property was to be divided and the church was to be eviscerated of its authority and reduced to a small parish.
Leaving his post as commandant of the San Francisco Presidio, 27-year-old Lt. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo took charge of overseeing Sonoma’s “transition”. He turned Sonoma from a mission town into a bustling Mexican pueblo, laying out a street grid and centering the town around a beautiful eight-acre central Plaza (still the largest in California) which survives today as a national monument and the center of Sonoma city life. Vallejo also built a barracks for his military at the northeast corner of the Plaza, and facilitated the creation of a 110-foot wide avenue leading south from the Plaza, known as today’s Broadway (Highway 12). For a brief time, Sonoma was the prime hub of traffic, commerce and trade north of San Francisco. Vallejo gained enormous property holdings, wealth and power. When his nephew Juan Bautista Alvarado became governor of the Mexican state of Alta, California in 1838, Vallejo was named military governor of the state, and the two controlled much of northern California. Today you will find “Vallejo” and “Alvarado” in many place names throughout Northern California.
By the 1840s, American settlers pouring into California over the Sierras had begun to challenge Mexican power. In 1846, Mexican rule ended with an event occurring in Sonoma itself called the legendary Bear Flag revolt. Shortly thereafter, Mexico ceded all of California and the rest of the Southwest to the United States.
The Bear Flag Revolt
THE BEAR FLAG REPUBLIC
General Vallejo was sympathetic to California’s incoming wave of American settlers, but the Mexican government wanted the intruders expelled. Awkwardly caught in the middle, Vallejo found himself arrested by a band of Americans who came to his door one morning in 1846. It was this revolt that ushered in a short-lived Bear Flag Republic. Less than a month later, the feisty uprising paved the way for California’s accession to the United States, and Vallejo was released soon afterwards. He even took an active part in the formation of the California government, helping to write the constitution and serving in the first state senate. Although Vallejo became rich and powerful, he was almost a pauper when he died in 1890, having lost much of his land to adverse court rulings and having squandered his wealth on the faulty speculations of his American son-in-law.
Today visitors can stand on the site of the original Bear Flag raising, at the monument on the northeast corner of the Sonoma Plaza. You also can tour Vallejo’s final home, “Lachryma Montis,” on its 20-acre grounds just a few blocks west.
THE AMERICANS ARRIVE
The first formal visit from a U. S. official to Sonoma Valley came in 1841, when Commodore Charles Wilkes, commanding the sloop Vincennes, landed on the bay embarcadero, four miles south of the town of Sonoma. Gen. Mariano G. Vallejo sent a party to meet him, and provided horses for the ride to town. Wilkes’ journal revealed he was un
impressed by Vallejo’s rustic, albeit lavish, hospitality.
Prior to Wilkes’ visit, American civilians had been arriving in California over the Rockies, drawn by promises of “free land.” Vallejo ran his command like a fiefdom, accumulating land and wealth and guarding against the Russian incursion along the coast. But he liked the Americans, who were fast settling and marrying into Mexican families—including his own; and he felt that his own country lacked the interest to develop California properly.
Official Mexican policy forbade Americans to own land or hold public office, and the Mexican governor in 1845-46, Pio Paco, denounced the Americans as intruders; he even ordered them to be driven back over the mountains. Vallejo, as military commander, flatly refused to do so, and decided to wait out the conflict. That proved an impossible task.
On a mapmaking expedition to California, John C. Fremont served as a lieutenant of engineers in the Army Topographical Service, but in many respects he was also a freebooter, intent on settling the region and displacing the Mexicans. Headquartered at Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley, Fremont actively encouraged settlers to rebel against Mexican rule. His companions included Kit Carson and 50 armed engineers. Under Fremont’s instructions, which he had no authority to give, a party of men rode from Sutter’s fort to Sonoma, seized the town, arrested Vallejo, and on June 14, 1846 declared a California Republic.
Vallejo greeted his captors cordially, offering them his best brandy. He felt he was in basic agreement that Americans should control California, and he looked forward to taking part in the new government. But Fremont and the Bear Flaggers shared the view of many settlers, that Vallejo might unite the quarreling Mexican factions against them, and so they imprisoned the general at Fort Sutter. It took several months and an official letter from an American naval officer to get him out.
Meanwhile, the independent California Republic flourished briefly under its famous Bear Flag, a crude banner made from manta cloth and a lady’s petticoat. The flag’s emblems display a grizzly bear, representing strength and courage, and a star similar to the one on the Texas flag- Texas being California’s ally against Mexico. Fremont celebrated his coup against Vallejo with a mammoth Fourth of July party in Sonoma, and the Californians voted to join the Union as a territory as soon as possible. That happened on July 9th, 1846, and the Stars n’ Stripes permanently replaced the Bear Flag (which later became- and remains today- the official state flag of California). The American flag was raised in the Sonoma Plaza by a Naval contingency headed by Lt. Revere, grandson of Paul Revere. Pictured to the left is the Bear Flag Monument erected in the Sonoma Plaza to commemorate the events of the Bear Flag Revolt.
It was only the following week when Californians learned that the United States had declared war on Mexico. Two years later, when that war ended in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, California and the rest of the Southwest were ceded by Mexico to the United States.
More Recent History…
Recognized as the birthplace of California’s wine industry, Sonoma Valley isn’t just home to 190-year-old vines; it lays claim to a certain pioneering resilience. Despite General Vallejo’s efforts, the town of Sonoma lost its place as the county seat once the booming Gold Rush redirected the flow of commerce south to San Francisco. In the 19th century, the Valley’s wine industry would survive an epidemic of the root disease phylloxera; in the 20th, it would weather Prohibition. After World War II, the region’s wine trade rebounded and flourished, steadily evolving ever since. Although it has grown, it has remained isolated enough to keep its original beauty. Rich in agricultural heritage and recognized as the birthplace of California’s premium wine industry, Sonoma Valley is home to vineyards planted as early as 1824 by the Mission’s Franciscan Fathers. Today, Sonoma Valley remains a vigorous hub for the wine industry and a popular tourist destination. Visitors can sample local varietals at more than 400 premium wineries and tasting rooms.
FROM FRONTIER TO BYWAY
Immediately after the annexation of California to the United States, the U.S. Navy governed Sonoma in a loose confederation with the Bear Flaggers. Fremont was sent back to Washington and eventually court-martialed for his unauthorized raids on Mexicans. In 1847, a regiment of Army volunteers from New York arrived to garrison the town of Sonoma as a frontier outpost, a military goal similar to that of Mariano G. Vallejo’s when he oversaw the town. One of its commanders, John B. Frisbie (who married one of General Vallejo’s daughters,) in fact speeded the financial ruin of the general.
California became a state in 1850, and Vallejo was elected a state senator. He lobbied vigorously to locate the state capital in one of two nearby towns (formed largely from his extensive land holdings): Benicia, named for his wife, and which lay on the Carquinez Straits at the northeast tip of San Pablo Bay; and an adjacent town previously called Eureka, but later named Vallejo in his honor. Benicia briefly served as the capital. Vallejo’s power grab fast becoming futile, he tried to keep Sonoma the county seat, battling a challenge from the upstart Santa Rosa. The latter city won in a countywide election in 1854, a result some Sonoma historians still dispute. The town of Sonoma further lost its political significance when residents of Santa Rosa removed all the county records in the middle of the night.
Sonoma Valley retained, of course, its favorable surroundings, experiencing a period of gradual development as a rural agricultural and social center. The Gold Rush had temporarily drained the Valley of many of its males, but Sonoma did feel the impact of California immigration and its growing wealth. With U.S. rule came the appropriation of many land holdings, and Vallejo lost much of his real estate, which once amounted to 7 million acres. Later, his son-in-law, Commander Frisbie, involved him in a series of disastrous financial speculations that left him nearly penniless. His Sonoma home on West Spain Street was all that remained when he passed away in 1890.
The Valley has always grown grapes, and the Mission fathers planted primitive vineyards, whose berries were crushed under the feet of their indigenous religious proselytes. Vallejo continued the tradition. Then, in the late 1850’s, a Hungarian immigrant, Agoston Haraszthy, arrived in the Valley. Haraszthy had turned a scientific eye on viticulture, and he convinced the state of California to send him on a long research expedition to study propagation methods in Europe’s legendary wine growing regions. What he saw there convinced Haraszthy that Sonoma Valley’s red, gravelly soil offered the perfect conditions for grapes whose wines would rival Europe’s. Haraszthy helped found the state’s first official winery, Buena Vista Winery. Others quickly followed, and by 1876 the Valley was producing more than 2.3 million gallons a year.
But Sonoma soon had to contend with a worldwide epidemic: the phylloxera vitifoliae, an aphid-like root parasite that had begun to ravage and kill vines. Not until resistant strains of native California vines were discovered in Sonoma and Napa was the blight alleviated.
For some decades in the late 19th century, Sonoma Valley lay more or less isolated. In the 1880’s, the town of Sonoma languished, and the Plaza fell into a state of neglect, wild with weeds and overrun with cattle. The Mission decayed and deteriorated. Transportation was infrequent and slow. Boats from San Francisco took a day’s travel, and not until 1890 did a standard gauge railroad run through the Valley. The line ran along Spain Street, and included a depot on the Plaza, a turntable and engine house. The layout of many small Sonoma towns still reflects the railroads’ influence. As the first trains began arriving at Railroad Square in Santa Rosa, businesses shifted to lower Fourth Street, which is still downtown. Glen Ellen began as a hotel and post office between Sonoma and Santa Rosa. When a train depot was established a mile away, the Glen Ellen we know today sprang up.
The train allowed tourists to visit regularly from San Francisco. Huge crowds poured into Glen Ellen, Santa Rosa and elsewhere. Trains bolstered the economy and also brought gangs of “hooligans” who drank heavily and destroyed property. Railroads also made it easy to ship products out. The cutting of trees for lumber, firewood and charcoal for San Francisco consumers left whole valleys and mountainsides bare. Trains also gave Sonoma wines a national market.
As the wine industry began recover from phylloxera and renew itself, Sonoma life picked up again in the 1890’s, with many resorts springing up after a hot water source was found at Boyes Hot Springs & Kenwood. As mentioned, the trains brought droves of visitors to these resorts. Electric light arrived in 1895. Author Jack London came to the Valley in 1904 and mythologized it in his novel, The Valley of the Moon. London settled in Glen Ellen, where he undertook the construction of a huge mansion, “the Wolf House,” that burned down before he and his wife could ever move in. Some 40 acres of his London estate, including the ruined mansion, are now preserved as a California historical park, and well worth a visit.
The Sonoma City Hall was dedicated in 1908 and carefully built with four identical facades so that merchants on all sides of the Plaza could claim that it faced them. During World War I, the Valley sent 117 of its sons to war and only 98 of them returned.
The sacrifices given and bravery shown by these Sonomans is now forever commemorated by Sonoma Valley’s stately Veterans Cemetery, the centerpiece of which is the recently completed Veterans Memorial sculptured Star Fountain. Just beyond the Veterans Cemetery lies the much older Mountain Cemetery. Deeded by General Vallejo himself and founded in 1841 the cemetery winds up the pastoral, tree-strewn slopes of Schocken Hill, and serves as the resting place for countless historical figures, from Donner Party survivors and famous winemakers to General Vallejo himself.
With growing taxes on alcohol and increasing restrictions on its use, for years winemakers had seen a complete ban on alcohol lurking on the horizon. And in 1919, the onset of Prohibition almost destroyed the Valley’s wine trade and economy. Winemakers did their best to defeat or work around it, but were overwhelmed by the national Prohibition movement. The passage of the 18th Amendment spelled the demise of many Valley wineries. Some converted to canneries; only Sebastiani Winery– licensed to make sacramental and medicinal wines- was able to maintain its winemaking operations. Prohibition’s stunning effect was evidenced in the Great Fire of 1911, when winemaker Agostino Pinelli allowed firefighters to pump a thousand gallons of his own red wine to extinguish the flames.
Despite the “dry” triumph of Prohibition, the area remained vigorously “wet” during the 1920’s, with several illegal stills operating and selling liquor to the resorts. With the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the wineries reopened, but Sonoma’s vines had been abjectly neglected and the Great Depression stifled potential markets. The opening of the Golden Gate Bridge made the area more accessible, but there was little reason for visitors to come.
Like much of America, Sonoma mobilized itself on the home front during World War II, supporting blood drives, scrap metal drives and a USO, driving at the wartime speed limit of 35 mph and learning to tell a Zero from a P40. Mayor C. C. Bean formed a “Home Guard” to protect the local water supply, posting two armed civilians every night to patrol the cistern behind General Vallejo’s old home.
After the war, Sonoma’s long sleep ended. Outsiders discovered the Valley, just as the Mexicans and Spanish had discovered it before them. The population flourished, sprouting schools and a new hospital. The population surged from 20,000 inhabitants in 1960 to 40,000 in 1980.
But growth was managed. A contentious proposal to construct a freeway down Sonoma’s center in the 1960’s was abandoned. In 1974, Sonoma adopted a general plan that called for preservation of single-family dwellings and the Valley’s natural treasures, and the town prevented a multiple housing unit from being built. In the same spirit, citizens continually vote heavily against the construction of large resort hotels on the town’s last open public space. They also vote against most chain stores coming to town, not wanting to spoil the small town feel. Sonoma never became the political and economic powerhouse that General Vallejo originally envisioned, but in the long run, this turned out to be a blessing: unlike many parts of California, Sonoma has managed to retain its original charm and pastoral beauty.