By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This post is an updated chapter for the next release of my book Northern California History Weekends.)
In Brief: In the transition from Mexican to American rule in California, the presence of Mariano Vallejo of Sonoma looms large. Vallejo was skillful enough to flourish under both regimes. He set a pattern for hospitality that has become a mark of the open California lifestyle.
The Historic Story: Sonoma was the most northerly reach of Spanish/Mexican penetration into California. The mission and adjacent military post were founded here at a time when friction between Spain and Mexico escalated, so the resources for founding missions diminished.
Outside influences were also affecting California, including the arrival of Boston whaling ships, which Richard Henry Dana described in his book Two Years Before the Mast. Overland treks of the first mountain men/explorers, such as Jedediah Smith, brought another element of change to mix.
The Sonoma Mission, the Barracks where soldiers were stationed, the town square, and General Mariano Vallejo’s house make intriguing stops in Sonoma
The church, officially named Mission San Francisco Solano, is a stark, white, low-slung structure. It is less elaborate and more of an outpost than were the other missions farther south. Father Jose Altimira, who was ambitious and talented, founded the mission in 1823, but he was a generation too late to expand the mission system. This 21st mission was destined to be the last Franciscan venture in California. The mission now houses a special collection of watercolor paintings of the missions, known as the Jorgensen Collection, painted by Chris Jorgensen 1903-1905.
The Barracks is where the soldiers stationed at Sonoma stowed their gear and horses.
The Town Square of Sonoma, one of the prettiest in Northern California, is as close to bucolic picturesque as you will find. Huge old oak trees stand at attention over the grass and gardens. Around the Square there are more than a dozen buildings dating from 1823-1855.
One of the interesting monuments in the square is a sculpture dedicated to the Bear Flag Patriots. The year was 1846, and the future of California was a guessing game. Would the area remain under Mexican control? Would the U.S. extend its Manifest Destiny domination to this western shore? Or would California become its own republic? Some hotheads in Sonoma, favoring the republic idea, fashioned a crude flag with a bear on it. Actually the bear looked more like a pig, but in revolt they hoisted their Bear Flag in honor of the California Republic. The movement was swept away 25 days later when an American naval vessel captured Monterey, the Mexican capital.
The Gold Rush events of 1848 confirmed the political direction of the area, bringing a stampede of Americans, insuring that California would be part of the United States. It was touch and go for a while, however, whether California would be a Northern or Southern state during the Civil War.
Mariano Vallejo’s house, a short walk from the Square, is a New England Gothic-style structure. Called Lachryma Montis, or Tears of the Mountain, after the numerous springs in the hillside, Vallejo’s house is an interesting expression of house construction at the time. It was built in 1851 as a totally prefab house fashioned in New England, made of spruce wood, and then shipped around the Horn to California. General Vallejo lived here until his death in 1890. Many touches of rural aristocratic life are evident in the furnishings as you walk through it.
While in Sonoma, appreciators of California wine history might enjoy a stop at the Buena Vista Winery, the original home of one Colonel Agoston Haraszthy. Haraszthy is often cited as The Father of California Wine. He brought the select and noble vinifera varietal cuttings from Europe to replace the so-called Mission grapes planted by the Franciscan fathers. Mission grapes produced a wine satisfactory for sacramental purposes, but not too interesting for purely secular gustatory satisfaction. Haraszthy founded Buena Vista Winery in 1857. The other notable historic winery within walking distance in Sonoma is Sebastiani, which has been a family affair for generations.
Getting There: Drive north from the Bay Area on either Highway 101 or I-880. Take the smaller Highways, such as 116 or 121, until you reach the juncture with Highway 12, then drive north on Highway 12 into Sonoma.
Be Sure to See: The Mission is part of Sonoma State Historic Park and is located at the edge of the Square (20 E. Spain St.; 707/938-9560). Adjacent is the Barracks, also on the edge of the Square. Spend some time enjoying the Square, with its Bear Flag statue, and its many restaurants, shops, and small hotels. A famous deli—The Sonoma Cheese Factory—is where jack cheese is made and every conceivable picnic item is purchasable (2 W Spain St.; 707/996-1931 or 800/535-2855; www.sonomacheesefactory.com). General Vallejo’s house is a half-mile northwest of the Plaza (707/938-9559). The Buena Vista Winery is near the Square (18000 Old Winery Rd.; 800/926-1266; www.buenavistawinery.com). Sebastiani Winery is at 389 4th Street E.; 707/933-3230; www.sebastiani.com.
Best Time of Year: Sonoma is an excellent year-round destination. The outlying areas reflect the agricultural seasons.
Lodging: Built around an elaborate hot springs and spa, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa is the dominant lodging in the area. The facility offers a wide range of treatments. Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa is at 100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma; 800/862-4945; www.fairmont.com/sonoma).
Dining: The Depot Hotel is a restaurant in an 1870 train depot one block north of the Plaza, featuring Italian cuisine and wines. The Depot Hotel is at 241 1st St. W., Sonoma; 707/938-2980; www.depotsonoma.com.
For Further Information: The town of Sonoma is represented by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau (453 1st St. E., Sonoma; 707/996-1090; www.sonomavalley.com).