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Sonoma County History

I love California, and Sonoma County, my home. What a storied past our special state and county have! In learning about this area’s history, I’ve discovered yet another reason to be fascinated and enamored with this part of the country. I hope you’ll find its rich history as interesting as I do!

California’s Beginnings. Governed by Mexico before it became a state, California was the 31st star added to the American flag in 1858. CA has over 1100 historic landmarks, and our state flag represents the Bear Flag Revolt that took place in Sonoma in 1846, when California was taken from Mexico.

Sonoma County Specifics. In the 1400s, Sonoma County was home to Native-Americans, particularly the Pomo, Wappo and Miwok tribes. In 1957, English sea captain Sir Francis Drake is believed to have landed in what is now called Drakes Bay. The small 8-mile bay located near Point Reyes in Marin County became a National Historic Landmark in October 2012.

Here are some other interesting dates and facts:

  • 1812: The chapel at Fort Ross becomes the first church in Sonoma County.
  • 1826: the first English-speaking settler Thomas Reid arrives in, present day, Cotati.
  • 1834: Petaluma Rancho was built by Mariano Vallejo making him the dominant landholder and political leader through most of the 19th century. It is now the centerpiece of the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park.
  • 1840: Mark West was awarded the 6,000 acre Mexican land grant of San Miguel Rancho. There, he established the Bear Flag House, an inn for weary miners. He was buried on a hill overlooking the creek.
  • 1846: John Charles Fremont entered the town of Sonoma after the Bear Flag Revolt and took command. Fremont also helped end the Mexican-American War.
  • 1852: Real estate man Garrett Keller lays out the town of Petaluma.
  • 1857: Buena Vista Winery was founded by Hungarian winemaker Agoston Haraszthy, often called the Father of California Viticulture.
    Buena Vista Winery: Built in 1857 and California’s oldest winery.
  • 1858: Petaluma was incorporated, making it the oldest city between San Francisco and Eureka.
  • 1859: The Washoe House was built by Robert Ayers with lumber from the redwood forests and put together with square handmade nails. It served as a roadhouse for travelers. Some say Ulysses S. Grant spoke from the balcony of this historical landmark.
    Washoe House: A historical roadhouse built in 1859 and is a well known local restaurant.
  • 1868: Santa Rosa was incorporated. Legend has it that Santa Rosa was named following baptisms on the feast day of St. Rose de Lima.
  • 1870: The Petrified Forest becomes a tourist attraction. A volcano erupted three million years ago, knocking down all the trees in the area. Many were covered with yellow ash, which turned them to stone.
  • 1880-1900: Round Barns: Three of California’s 11 barns built in the late 1800s are located in Sonoma County. Each has survived transformations from stables to county buildings.
    Fountain groves Redbarn was built near the end of the 19th century on a large compound then known as FountainGrove Winery.
  • 1899: Bohemian Grove was founded, a retreat for the wealthy powerful men of the Bohemian Club located by the Russian River.
  • 1906: A disastrous earthquake hit Sonoma County, taking many lives with extreme damage to property. Downtown Santa Rosa was almost flattened and lost an exquisite courthouse. What was not destroyed by the temblor was burned by fire. San Francisco is the most publicized victim of Great Quake, but the tragedy was shared throughout the county.
  • 1907: The Northwestern Pacific Railroad was constructed. At its height, it stretched from San Francisco to North Humboldt County and was comprised of 60 different companies. By 1997 the line was shut down due to hard times for railroads.
  • 1961 to date: Sonoma State University was founded. Sonoma State College began with no real campus. Classes were held in leased buildings in Rohnert Park, until a former seed farm east of Rohnert Park became the permanent site. By the end of the decade, the college had held its first graduation ceremony, offered its first master’s degree program, erected two lecture halls, and was renamed in 1978.
  • 1920-1933: Prohibition. The 18th Amendment banned the sale of alcohol in the U.S. In Sonoma County, producing grapes for wine was a huge industry. Business was lost but grape production continued. Bootleggers and rumrunners supplied travelers to the county with alcohol, and speakeasies were set up to sell alcohol during this time. Large wineries paid hefty fines, and by the end of the prohibition, many had shut down. When the Amendment was revoked, the alcohol business in Sonoma boomed again.