Rohnert Park's Rich History
The land that is now Rohnert Park once belonged to the nation of the coastal Miwok Indians. They belonged to the larger nation of Miwoks who inhabited central California and the mid-Sierras as far southeast as the Yosemite Valley. The nearest village to what would eventually become Rohnert Park was Kota’ti, also the name of their chief.
The Coastal Miwoks’ inhabited 885 square miles of land encompassing Marin and southern Sonoma County. The land was rich with fish in the streams and ocean, game in the rolling hills and woods, and naturally growing vegetables and fruits. The coastal Miwoks were gifted basket makers. Approximately 3,000 people lived throughout this area in about 40 villages.
In 1579 Miwok villagers near Tomales Bay were the first people to greet Sir Francis Drake who was impressed with the richness of the land and its natural resources. Russian fur trappers felt the same way when they settled Fort Ross in 1812. Soon after this Spanish and Mexican Catholic priests founded the Northbay missions of San Rafael in 1817 and Mission Sonoma in 1823. The establishment of these settlements spelled the end of the Coastal Miwoks. Most of the people were captured and made to work on the missions. Many others died from diseases brought by the settlers.
John Thomas Reed was the first Irishman to come to California and the first English-speaking man to venture north of San Francisco (Yerba Buena). Interested in land, Reed made a claim on the land north of Mission San Rafael. He staked his claim in the Santa Rosa Valley in 1826 and built a home on a rise near Roberts Crane Creek. In 1829 General Vallejo came to the area to provide a defense against Russian fur traders. Unable to pay his army in money, General Vallejo paid in land. One of the solders was Castaneda, a native of Texas.
In 1839 he built a home in the Santa Rosa Valley and in 1844 he received a payment in land consisting of Rancho Cotate. This grant of 17,238.6 acres included land north of Vallejo’s Petaluma Adobe to just south of today’s Santa Rosa. The land included the future cities of Rohnert Park, Cotati and Penngrove. Eventually Reed sold his land and it changed hands several times until Doctor Thomas Stokes Page bought it in 1846.
The end of the 1800s brought changes to the Rancho. It was broken up into many ranches that were sold to Yankee squatters and homesteaders who wandered into the Santa Rosa Valley after the gold rush has played out. In 1870 the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad made its first run from Petaluma to Santa Rosa. It made stops along the way for water and wood at Page’s Station which later became Cotati. All that remained of the original Rancho was 4,000 acres owned by Page’s sons.
George P. McNear was the next owner. He took little personal interest in the ranch that was ably managed by a Marin County blacksmith Fred Keppel. In 1929 McNear sold the ranch to Waldo Emerson Rohnert, a native of Detroit, Michigan. He became associated with the C.C. Morse Company which was the largest seed growing firm in the west. Rohnert started his own business in Hollister. He planted the largest prune orchards in the west. His business expanded and soon he owned land in the San Joaquin Valley and Cotati.
The land Rohnert bought was prone to seasonal flooding so he built a mound down the middle with two-foot ditches on either side. It did the trick and he set about enriching the already rich adobe soil. Before his efforts took seed he died leaving his son Fred Rohnert in charge of the company.
Fred Rohnert managed the seed company from Hollister. He planted some of the land in hay and the rest he planted in seeds for the seed company. The Cotati ranch became a major horticultural success, second only to the Santa Rosa gardens of famed horticulturist Luther Burbank.
World War II changed forever the Santa Rosa valley. Land was needed for homes for returning GIs and their families. Paul Golis arrived on the scene and joined Maurice Fredericks, a native of Petaluma. Together they became partners in a law practice that represented valley land developers. “They soon realized that the best way to develop large tracks of land was to draw up a master plan for an entire area at the outset.” In 1954 Golis started to lay out a plan for a new town based on the neighborhood concept. And thus began the City of Rohnert Park.*
* A History of Rohnert Park, from Seed to City,” 1976, John H. DeClercq, City Historian, published by Rohnert Park Cultural Arts Corporation.