California: Sonoma Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The plaza, a National Historic Landmark, was originally conceived in 1824 with the founding of the twenty-first mission, San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, by José Altimira. The original church was replaced by a larger one in 1827, and that one was replaced by the present chapel, built in 1840. The mission was secularized in 1834 and put in the charge of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. It was sold in 1881, purchased by the Historical Landmarks League in 1903, and restored from 1911 to 1913. The plaza surrounding the mission contains historic monuments from the period of secularization.

Site Offices:

Sonoma State Historic Park

East Spain and First Streets

Sonoma, CA 95476

ph.: (707) 938-1519; 938-1578

Silverado District Headquarters

20 East Spain Street

Sonoma, CA 95476

The town of Sonoma is situated in the Sonoma Valley, about forty-five miles north of San Francisco. The valley is bordered by two mountain ranges, the Mayacamas to the east and the Sonoma Mountains to the west. Sonoma began with the founding of the twenty-first and last California mission, San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, in 1824. From the mission grew the surrounding pueblo, whose natural agricultural resources generated economic growth. The pueblo was secularized in 1834 by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, and it witnessed the end of the Mexican era and California’s entry into the United States in 1850. During the latter half of the nineteenth century Sonoma became a renowned center for grape growing and commercial winemaking, and today it is considered the birthplace of the California wine industry.

The Last California Mission

The notion of a mission north of San Francisco and San Rafael belonged to Father José Altimira and Governor Luis Antonio Argnello. Altimira came to Monterey from Spain in 1819 and was posted at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Altimira found that the cold climate and difficult soil conditions made it a challenge to attract neophytes and cultivate crops. He wanted to leave the effort at Mission Dolores and open a new settlement north of San Rafael, in a warmer climate.

Instead of presenting his plan to church authorities, he appealed directly to the governor, who approved the plan in order to establish a northern settlement that would create a barrier to Russian expansion. (As the Spanish had moved into Upper California in the late eighteenth century, the Russians crossed the Bering Strait, moved into Alaska, and eventually made their way down the California coast, where in 1812 they built Fort Ross.)

The Territorial Assembly in Monterey approved the Sonoma site as a new location for Mission Dolores and recommended that it absorb the existing San Rafael mission. Altimira relocated to Sonoma and blessed the site on July 4, 1823. The padre named the area surrounding the future mission “the Valley of the Moon,” after an Indian legend that claimed the moon appeared seven times in a row over the mountains each winter. He then began construction of the new mission, only to be intercepted by church authorities, angered at his circumvention of the proper channels. The church and Altimira reached a compromise that allowed him to build and govern the new mission but kept Mission Dolores and the San Rafael mission at their present locations.

The new Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma was dedicated on April 4, 1824. Altimira received supplies from Mission Dolores and a donation of bells from the Russian settlers at Fort Ross. The mission was composed of a long adobe building, 120 by 30 feet. It also included a chapel and granary buildings. Altimira planted wheat and barley fields, grapevines, and fruit orchards–the beginning of Sonoma’s commercial agriculture.

After only two years at the new mission, Altimira was forced out by an Indian rebellion in 1826, a result of his mistreatment of the Indian neophytes. He fled to the San Rafael Mission and then returned to Spain. Altimira’s successor, Father Buenaventura Fortuni, spent the next seven years restoring the mission, including building a new church. Almost completed in 1833, the mission was weather damaged and was not fully repaired until the early 1840’s, when its only function was as parish church.

During California’s mission period, Americans settling the United States and the resident Californians saw the missions as potential economic opportunities, and the Americans in particular noticed that they were weakly defended. The resident Californians (the first descendants of Spanish and Mexican settlers) aimed to take over leadership from the padres and gain the missions’ resources. As early as 1813, efforts from Mexico and the Californians were made to halt the existing mission system, but the padres managed to prevent passage of any law doing so. By 1833, pressure finally resulted in secularization, which broke up all the mission properties and left governing responsibilities to the Mexicans.

Founding of the Town

In 1834, Governor José Figueroa put General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in charge of California’s northern frontier. The general had been commander at the Presidio in San Francisco. His new responsibilities included secularizing Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma. Vallejo developed the pueblo of Sonoma in the style typical of a Spanish town, around the plaza adjacent to the mission’s church. Sonoma was California’s last pueblo, the only province to be formed by the Mexican government. Vallejo served in both local and state government and was a member of the first Constitutional Convention of California. He and his family developed buildings that served as the religious and cultural centers of the pueblo and stand today as historic monuments. For example, the present church was built by Vallejo in 1840 for the soldiers of the pueblo and their families.

General Vallejo’s first home, built in 1836, was called Casa Grande. It burned in 1867, leaving only the Indian servants’ wing. Its site is at the northern end of the Sonoma plaza. His next home, the Gothic-inspired Lachryma Montis (tears of the mountain), was built in 1851 and 1852. It is located northwest of the plaza on West Spain Street. He lived at Lachryma Montis until his death in 1890. The building’s storehouse, the “Swiss Chalet,” is now a museum.

Next to Casa Grande is the Swiss Hotel, the first home of Captain Salvador Vallejo, the general’s brother. Captain Vallejo constructed it in the late 1830’s and lived in it for a short period. It was then used as a business center around 1836 and finally converted into a hotel in the late 1800’s. In the early 1840’s, Captain Vallejo built a home directly west of Lachryma Montis. From 1858 to 1867, this house was occupied by the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.

The Americans Arrive

Another important structure built by General Vallejo was the Sonoma Barracks, located in the eastern corner of the plaza. Built in 1836, this was the headquarters for the Bear Flag Party during its 1846 occupation of Sonoma, and in 1847 it housed U.S. troops.

On June 14, 1846, thirty American horsemen known as the Osos (bears) arrived in Sonoma, under the encouragement of General John C. Frémont. Americans had ventured into California in the early 1840’s to obtain land, but the Mexican government would not allow them to own property or hold office. The Osos captured General Vallejo at the Sonoma Barracks without violence and proclaimed the California Republic by raising a flag depicting a bear. Thus, Sonoma was the capital of the Independent Republic of California for twenty-five days, and the Bear Flag Revolt was the origin for California’s first state flag. The Bear Flag Party elected William Ide as leader of the republic. William Todd, a nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, made the flag, which symbolized independence from the Mexicans.

The California Republic lasted briefly but heralded significant events. On July 7, 1846, an American ship captured the Mexican capital at Monterey and claimed all of California for the United States. Bear Flag Monument, a bronze figure holding the Bear Flag, was erected adjacent to the Sonoma Barracks. The original flag was brought to San Francisco but was destroyed in the fire following the 1906 earthquake. The Bear Flag became the official state flag of California in 1911.

After the American entry into Sonoma in 1846, the mission was no longer an extension of the Mexican government. The mission existed briefly as a parish church, and after it was sold in 1881 along with the padre’s quarters, it was used mostly for winemaking and hay storage.

In 1903, the mission property was purchased by the Historic Landmarks League, with the goal of restoration. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 damaged the church, and the restoration project was put on hold until 1911, when it was resumed with the aid of state funds. The Historic Landmarks League deeded the church to the state in 1926, and it became part of the Division of Beaches and Parks. It underwent further restoration between 1943 and 1944. The mission is now known as the Sonoma Mission State Historic Park.

In the 1850’s, after California was admitted into the Union, farming was a primary occupation in Sonoma. Hay, wheat, beef, potatoes, cheese, eggs, and milk were all shipped to market in San Francisco. The town of Petaluma supplied the Bay Area with produce during the 1850’s, and in 1878 Lyman Rice introduced the incubator in Petaluma. This invention revolutionized the poultry and egg industries, and Petaluma became the egg capital of the world during this period. Another resource from Sonoma County was wood; its redwood trees were used to build a good part of the American West. The railroad was key to creating successful commercial enterprises from the county’s natural resources. In 1870, the San Francisco and Northern Pacific Railroad laid tracks between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, later extending the line to Cloverdale. The population within Sonoma County increased notably, growing from one thousand to six thousand between 1870 and 1875.

The Wine Industry

Today, Sonoma’s best-known export is quality wine. The county’s grape-growing and winemaking history is rooted in the mission period and continues to flourish in the present. The mission grape was brought to California from Mexico by the padres in 1769, when the first mission was established in San Diego. When Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma was dedicated in 1824, the grape was brought to the settlement to produce wine for mass. The Russians at Fort Ross had cultivated vines in Sonoma as early as 1812.

In addition to the vineyard at the mission, Altimira planted one thousand vines in the eastern part of Sonoma, at a site named the Sonoma Vineyards. In 1825, mission padres also produced sacramental wine at the site, which later became Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery.

When General Vallejo presided over the secularization of the mission in 1835, he took over its vineyard, called Quirquiriqui, located off the plaza. His first vintage was 1841, yielding twenty barrels of wine, which he bottled and sold to the San Francisco market under the Lachryma Montis label. The general’s brother, Captain Salvador Vallejo, started a vineyard in the old Sonoma Vineyards east of the pueblo; the site would soon become the Buena Vista Winery.

In 1856, a political exile from Hungary, Count Agoston Haraszthy, bought 560 acres of Sonoma property, northeast of town, including this Sonoma Vineyard. The property began in the Sonoma Valley and ended in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains. This property had most recently been owned by the Kelsey family, who produced wine. On a visit, Haraszthy was so impressed by their vintage that he purchased the land. Haraszthy was a tireless promoter of the potential for wine grown in California. He had lived in San Diego and then San Mateo, where he had tried to grow grapes in the Crystal Springs area. The cold climate did not give him much success and prompted his search for a region with better climate and soil conditions.

Haraszthy transplanted about thirteen thousand vine cuttings from Crystal Springs to Sonoma in 1856 and established the Buena Vista Winery, where he constructed Sonoma’s first stone wine cellars. Haraszthy is credited with producing California’s first zinfandel in 1862. While waiting for his first crops, he promoted the scientific study of winemaking and encouraged the growth of the industry in Sonoma. By the end of 1857, he and others had more than tripled the total grape acreage in the county and established the area as a center of information on grape growing and wine making.

During the 1850’s and 1860’s, both Haraszthy and General Vallejo won prizes for their wines. Their friendly competition and enthusiasm for producing original, quality wines motivated the quest for further knowledge, transforming the enterprise into a commercial industry. In 1860, at the Sonoma County Fair, Haraszthy requested that the state establish an agricultural school to educate farmers; the school became the forerunner to the renowned Department of Viticulture at the University of California, Davis.

That same year, Governor John G. Downey sent Haraszthy to Europe to gather new vine cuttings to introduce to California. He returned in 1861 with 200,000 vines of almost five hundred varieties, and he sold the cuttings to growers all over the state, giving birth to the California wine industry of today. Haraszthy was elected president of the State Agricultural Society in 1862 and helped form the California Winegrowers’ Association.

Although Buena Vista’s wines were acclaimed for their quality, Haraszthy had a difficult time making a profit. By 1866, his investors discontinued their support, and Haraszthy left the country for Nicaragua, where he died. Winemakers from outside the area (many foreign, impressed with the availability of grape varieties and soil and climate similar to those in Europe), had been inspired by the Haraszthy’s success with growing so many varieties in Sonoma. They began coming to the valley between 1856 and 1862. In 1864, Sonoma had a population of only five hundred. By 1868, it was in excess of one thousand, and land values had in many cases risen from $6 to $135 per acre.

During the 1870’s, after Haraszthy’s departure, the phylloxera vine louse got into Buena Vista and other vineyards, and much recultivation was required. The tunnels at Buena Vista collapsed during the 1906 earthquake; by this time, the abandoned vineyards were decimated, and the winery was closed.

By 1890, Sonoma’s vintages made it an outstanding wine district, recognized throughout the state and the nation. The Simi brothers established their Healdsburg Winery in 1881. In 1896, Samuel Sebastiani came to Sonoma from Tuscany. He bought the Milani Winery in 1904 and survived Prohibition by making sacramental wines. Sebastiani was a community leader, building some of Sonoma’s streets and financing a parochial school. Still standing in Sonoma are the Sebastiani Theater and the Sebastiani Bus Depot.

Honoring Famous Sons

One of Sonoma’s other notable citizens was writer Jack London, who lived on an eight-hundred-acre ranch above Glen Ellen called Beauty Ranch. Only twenty-nine years old, London was already famous as the author of The Call of the Wild (1903) and Sea Wolf (1904) when he and his wife Charmian settled on the ranch. In 1913, he wrote The Valley of the Moon in tribute to Sonoma. Beauty Ranch is today a State Historic Park.

Throughout Prohibition, Haraszthy’s contributions to the building of the wine industry were forgotten. Then in 1941, a San Franciscan named Frank Bartholomew bought 435 acres of land in Sonoma for a country home. The property included two decrepit stone buildings–he had unwittingly purchased Buena Vista. Bartholomew restored Buena Vista’s status as a winery, and by hiring expert winemakers and retelling the Haraszthy history, he gave his winery national prominence. In 1949, Sonoma winegrowers dedicated a memorial, located on the north side of the plaza, commemorating Agoston Haraszthy as “The Father of California Viticulture.”

For Further Information
  • Krell, Dorothy, Paul C. Johnson, and David E. Clark, eds. The California Missions: A Complete Pictorial History and Visitor’s Guide. Menlo Park, Calif.: Sunset Books, 1979. Contains a good overview of the Sonoma Mission.
  • McCormack, Don, and Allen Kanda, eds. Marin, Napa, and Sonoma. Martinez, Calif.: McCormack’s Guides, 1993. Gives a good deal of current statistical information as well as observations on the different communities throughout Sonoma County.
  • Pinney, Thomas. A History of Wine in America: From the Beginnings to Prohibition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Good reading for those interested in exploring the wine industry in depth. The section on Sonoma represents the players in the early wine industry in a fair, objective manner, without glorifying Haraszthy as a maverick. Pinney gives solid attention to the contributions of others.
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