Major center of California’s Mexican era
Sonoma’s modest size belies its rich and colorful history. Site of the state’s last and most northerly Spanish mission and a major center during California’s Mexican era, Sonoma was also the site of the Bear Flag Revolt, which declared California an independent republic and pre-empted the switch to U.S. rule soon after.
Enclosed by many 19thC adobe buildings – all of them much restored and many converted to hotels, shops and restaurants – the center of Sonoma life is the tree-studded 8-acre plaza laid out in 1835 by General Mariano Vallejo, the founder of the town and a major California landowner in his time.
If local history seems unfathomably complex, visiting the buildings which make up the Sonoma State Historic Park (main entrance at 20 E. Spain Street, although there are no fixed boundaries) should make matters clearer. Within the park stand the remains of Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in 1823, the last and most northerly of California’s Spanish missions and the only one completed under Mexican rule. When its original church collapsed, Vallejo oversaw construction of the mission’s adobe chapel, which still stands, as do the 1825 living quarters – Sonoma’s oldest surviving structure.
Opposite the mission buildings, the two-story Sonoma Barracks date from the late 1830s and originally housed the modest garrison of Mexican soldiers posted to guard this northerly outpost. The Russian settlement at Fort Ross was a source of concern for the Mexicans, who owned California, but in 1846 an incursion by a ragged bunch of American fur-trappers prompted Vallejo’s surrender and the proclamation of the independent Bear Flag Republic. William Bilde, who lead the fur-trappers and made the declaration of independence, was unaware that U.S. forces had landed at Monterey and taken California as a U.S. possession. Once he found out, the Big Bear Republic was ended. It had lasted just 25 days, and the makeshift bear flag (the root of California’s present-day flag) flying above Sonoma’s plaza was replaced by the U.S. stars and stripes.
Also in the park, the former servants’ quarters of Vallejo’s Casa Grande home – the rest of the building was destroyed by fire in the 1860s – holds exhibitions on the Sonoma Valley’s Native Americans.
Vallejo himself adapted to the architectural fancies of California’s new rulers by building himself a New England-style house, named Lachryma Montis, in 1851. Stuffed with the general’s furnishings and providing a cogent outline of his influence on the Sonoma region, the house stands half a mile north of the plaza at the junction of Spain and 3rd Streets.
Still more historic detail of Sonoma’s rich heritage forms the temporary displays at the local historical society’s Depot Park Museum (www.depotparkmuseum.org), 270 1st W. Street, although if you have young minds to keep amused, a trip on the quarter-sized 1890s steam-train which journeys through the cleverly constructed miniature landscapes of Train Town (www.traintown.com), 20264 Broadway, might be more suitable.
Detour – Buena Vista Winery
Two miles outside Sonoma on the aptly-named Old Winery Road, the Buena Vista Winery (www.buenavistawinery.com) was founded in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy. A Hungarian count who arrived in the U.S. in 1840. Haraszthy tried wine-making in other parts of California before settling in Sonoma, attracted by the quality of the wines produced by General Vallejo. Haraszthy’s commercial success is credited with stimulating the state’s 19thC wine- producing boom. Always a flamboyant and controversial character, Haraszthy departed in the 1860s to grow sugar in Nicaragua, where he later died by drowning.