The Land

Moving northward from the inlets, lagoons and estuaries of a great bay, a gentle mountain range rose long ago along the western edge of a broad savanna. Occasional stands of valley oak were grouped haphazardly like small herds of grazing animals across the valley floor towards the distant hills in the east. This was the watershed of what later came to be known as Sonoma Valley; and yet, long before man was here, life was here.

The broad blue skies, the lush deep green forests of redwood and Douglas fir along the flanks of the low rolling mountain range, and the grand golden stretch of wild grasses that bent with the wind in waves across the broad floor of the valley toward the distant eastern hills astonished those first Europeans when they at last arrived in our valley, almost two hundred years ago.

The Original People

It is now believed that the first people came to this continent some 12,000 years ago, from a region we know as Siberia. Over the following 5,000 years they gradually spread out, mingling with other migrations and organizing themselves into distinct geographic and linguistic groups. According to anthropologists, Shell Mound Cultures began appearing throughout the San Francisco Bay Area some 4,000 years ago, at a time when major cultural changes were taking place throughout the world, at the outset of the Bronze Age and written history.

The Costanoan people were living to the south and east of the bay when the Spanish conquistadors arrived, and the Coastal Miwok people occupied what we think of today as Marin and Sonoma counties, and as far north in Sonoma Valley as Glen Ellen and Kenwood. The Pomo people lived farther north, from Clear Lake to the coast and south into where Santa Rosa and Cotati are today, while the Wappo lived to the east from Clear Lake into Napa Valley and the northern part Sonoma Valley. The Wintun people lived even farther east, in the great valley as far north as Mount Shasta; their southern group was known as the Patwin, and among them were the Suisun who lived in the Sacramento delta. Inevitably, and in many ways tragically, all these people were ultimately absorbed into the unfolding history of Sonoma Valley.

Many stories have been told about the origin of the name Sonoma. General Mariano Vallejo popularized the legend that, in the Suisun language, the name describes the way the moon appears to rise as many as seven times over the jagged peaks of the Mayacamas Mountains to the east. It was probably from this legend that the place became known eventually, with the help of Jack London, as the Valley of the Moon. Vallejo's son Platon told of a different Suisun meaning of the word “sonoma”: that it meant “big nose”, and referred to a local chief who was born with that remarkably distinguishing feature. But the Suisuns were actually only neighbors to the east, who spoke a different language; for the Wappo it seems the word “sonoma” simply meant "village" or "campsite".

The Europeans Arrive

When the early European explorers first returned with glowing stories of the paradise they had found, colonists were quickly sent to claim and settle the area. The Spanish were the first to arrive, sending Franciscan missionaries north from Mexico along the Camino Real, aware that trappers and traders from Russia were already working their way down the coast from Alaska to establish their presence at Bodega Bay and Fort Ross.

After Mexico won its independence from Spain, Father Jose Altimira— a Franciscan priest from Barcelona who had been sent by the Church to manage Mission San Francisco de Asis, or Dolores in what is now San Francisco— established the last mission in a great chain being strung northward along the Camino Real: Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma.1

When he first entered the valley, Altimira felt he had come to Eden. He wrote passionately, eagerly, in his journals about the great wealth of flora and fauna that he saw, the large herds of trusting native animals, and the great stands of noble trees waiting to be put to use. He established Spain's final, northernmost mission, San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, in 1823. For twelve years the missionaries took over and managed the land, changing the character of the valley forever.

The Ranchos of Sonoma Valley

Following decrees from the Mexican government, Governor Jose Figueroa issues a proclamation in 1834 for the secularization of the missions. In June he grants Mariano Vallejo the Rancho Petaluma which extends from the Petaluma River to the Sonoma Creek and from the Bay of San Pablo 3 leagues to the north. Work begins on the Petaluma adobe. Vallejo is to grant land to new settlers. In October, Figueroa appoints Vallejo as the administrator of the Mission in Sonoma. Several families move to Sonoma and begin the secularization of the mission. Property is to be turned over to the 760 neophytes. On June 24 1835, Vallejo as Commander of the Frontera del Norte is instructed to establish the presidio and pueblo in Sonoma around a plaza. The pueblo is intended to stop the advance of the Russians from their Fort Ross and Bodega bases. In July Vallejo brings his wife as well as 30 soldiers and their families from the Presidio in Yerba Buena to found the pueblo of Sonoma. Vallejo and William Richardson survey and lay out the town and plaza. Construction begins on the sawmill near a redwood grove in present day Jack London Village, the Sonoma Barracks, the Casa Grande to the west of the more recent Toscano Hotel, the adobe of Antonio Ortega which will form the nucleus of the Blue Wing Inn, and the recreation house known as the Casa del Billar.

European settlement of the land north of the pueblo of Sonoma and east of Sonoma Creek begins in July 1840 when Lazaro Pina, an army artillery captain obtains a grant he names Agua Caliente from Governor Alvarado. This grant measuring 7 ½ miles by ¾ miles (3,600 acres)extended from the Agua Caliente Creek in present-day El Verano to the hills south of Kenwood. The eastern boundary of the grant was in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains east of present day Highway 12. At the onset of the Mexican American War in 1846, Pina returns to Mexico leaving his family behind. When he dies during the war, General Vallejo claims ownership and donates and sells parcels to various recent settlers.

The Bear Flag Revolt and Its Consequences in Sonoma Valley

Mexican control of the Sonoma Valley comes to a sudden end at dawn on June 14, 1846. That morning 33 men of American origin ride into the pueblo of Sonoma and surround the Casa Grande demanding the surrender of General Mariano Vallejo. He is informed that they have arrived to liberate California from the Californios and Mexicans who have recently threatened them with expulsion. In spite of his past hospitality to the Americans, Vallejo is told he will need to be placed under arrest because he is the highest ranking Californio officer in northern California and because he is suspected of having a huge military stockpile. Within hours a flag is raised in the Plaza depicting a standing bear facing a star. The revolutionists adopt the name Osos, Bears, or Bear Flaggers. A meeting is immediately held in the Sonoma Barracks where it is agreed that a provisional government needs to be established until the day when the Stars and Stripes can be raised. One issue that concerns the Bear Flaggers is the ownership of land. Arrangements are made to establish a land office to survey and redistribute land to “those who served on the state ‘ranchos.’” General Mariano Vallejo, alone, owned 175,000 acres. Monopolization of land is widely regarded as dangerous to the very principles of democracy.

Although the Bear Flag in Sonoma is replaced with the American Flag on July 9, 1846, the Bear Flaggers remain in control of the area until October. There would be no troops in Sonoma Valley until April 1847 when Company C of Stevenson’s New York Volunteer Regiment, under Captain John E. Brackett arrives in Sonoma and occupies the Sonoma Barracks with the officers living in the Ray adobe. With the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848, many troops desert and the Regiment is moved to San Francisco in August. Once again there would be no troops to enforce laws until May of 1849 when the Pacific Division of the Army (the 3rd U.S. Army Division) in charge of both California and Oregon establishes their temporary headquarters here. A supply depot and military hospital are established in the barracks. More than 300 troops arrive over the next 3 years. Brigadier General Persifor Smith arrives from San Francisco to command the Pacific Division. Lt. Col. Joseph Hooker arrives in Sonoma and serves as Smith’s adjutant. In December 1851, Lt. Hooker purchases one square mile of land in the center of Lazaro Pina's former Rancho Agua Caliente. Hooker's land extends from present day Serres Drive to Hooker Creek and from the Sonoma Creek to the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains. On this property he plants the first vineyard in the valley as well as extensive acreage of barley, wheat, potatoes, and vegetables.

Public Transportation Shapes the Valley

As the Valley of the Moon became settled, commerce quickly developed. Necessary equipment and supplies were brought in by boat, and produce began to be exported— in particular the fine wines being produced from the winemaking heritage already firmly established. Where trails had been traced for centuries now teamsters established regularly scheduled itineraries with their wagons and stage coaches, connecting the Embarcadero near Schellville with ranches and settlements throughout the valley.

The Sonoma Valley Prismoidal Railway Company was organized in 1875. The idea was to build a six mile long railroad from the boat landing at what was then known as Norfolk (now known as Wingo) to the town of Sonoma. Only half the distance was actually built, as far as Schellville, before its unique wooden track was found to be impractical. In 1878 the Sonoma Valley Railroad Company was established, a narrow-guage line that ran from Norfolk to Sonoma. The Northwestern Pacific Railroad eventually connected with Ignacio in Marin County, and ran through Sonoma northward, terminating in Glen Ellen.

In 1888 the Southern Pacific Company built their line from Sacramento, Carquinez and Napa to the south and west of the town of Sonoma and on north to Santa Rosa. A station was established at El Verano, and a friendly competition between the two towns developed. Hotels and spas opened in what came to be known as The Springs area, and the railroad stations that served them helped to define the area. As the spa and wine industry grew increasingly famous, tourism and real estate sales encouraged more people to come and stay in the fertile valley.

The Valley of the Moon, as we know it today, was finally fully established by the close of the 19th Century.

Community Histories

Each of the unincorporated areas of Sonoma Valley have their own history pages: Agua Caliente/History, Boyes Hot Springs/History, Carneros, El Verano, Eldridge, Fetters Hot Springs, Glen Ellen, Kenwood, Schellville, Temelec and Vineburg. The City of Sonoma, which has its own wiki and City History page. Also, don't forget to check out the ghost town of Wingo.

Additional Resources


1. "The Sonoma Mission, the Founding, Ruin & Restoration of California's 21st Mission" by Robert S. Smilie, Valley Publishers 1975, p.5.