Twelve Thousand Years

Native American in boatSETTING THE SCENE: THE VALLEY'S FIRST PEOPLE. Legend has it the name Sonoma (also known as the “Valley of the Moon”) derives from an indigenous word for “many moons.” What's true, however, is that indigenous tribes lived here for 12,000 years before the Spanish, Mexicans and Americans arrived, and the name Sonoma may actually stem from “noma”--a Mayakmah word for town. Gazing at the starry skies modern-day visitors can see for themselves if the moon indeed rises and sets several times nightly over the eastern Mayacamas Mountain Range, as ancient travelers claimed. Attracted by the good soil, sun, water, abundant game, fish, wild oats, berries, acorns and other natural bounty, early peoples--part of the great Asian migration over the Bering land bridge--began to settle in Sonoma Valley roughly 12,000 years ago. Eventually, they numbered some 5,000 people across a number of tribes: from the coast, Miwoks; in the north near the Mayacamas Mountain Range dwelled Wintuns, Wapo and Miyakmahs; in the lower Valley, Pomos; near the edge of San Pablo Bay, Koskiwok; and in the southeast corner, Patwins. They lived in long, multi-family grass- and tule-thatched huts with communal cooking areas. Life focused on gathering and preparing food and tribal celebrations--religious and otherwise. The tribes traded among themselves, cleared land (by burning) to expose game and soaked in the Valley's profuse hot springs.

In the early 19th century, Spanish explorers and missionaries ventured into this paradise, looking for land and converts and hoping to set up a bulwark against the Russians, who had advanced down the coast from the north. The process of settlement hastened when, in 1823, Franciscan missionaries established a Sonoma Mission, San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, then accelerated further when Mexico gained its independence. The Mission provided food, clothing, and religious instruction, training church "neophytes" in European crafts, agriculture and construction. Within six years, the fathers had baptized some 650 tribes’ people and were training another 760.

black and white photo of Native American womanThe Mission regime was harsh, with punishments that included floggings and imprisonment. A rebellion in 1826 caused Mission founder Fr. Jose Altamira to flee Sonoma Valley, revealing that many inhabitants under his rule resented his severe methods. The continual encroachment of European and American settlers, who came bearing attendant diseases, overwhelmed the native population. Within 50 years, it had all but vanished as a society, many dead from smallpox and measles, the rest sent north to reservations or absorbed into the burgeoning new pueblo of Sonoma. A memorial outside Sonoma’s restored Mission bears the names of the native people who died there.

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