The Mexican Mission

The Mexican Mission

Mexican Mission ChurchIn 1824, Sonoma became home to the last--and most northerly--link in a chain of 21 Spanish missions built in California by Franciscan padres. Sonoma's was the only mission established under an independent Mexican government (freshly liberated from Spain) and within ten years it was secularized. As leader of the Sonoma outpost, Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejowielded great influence over Sonoma’s history, but he wasn’t the first outsider to impact the Valley and its inhabitants. Because of the encroachment of European settlers in the early 19th century, the Valley’s indigenous societies began to die out. During that time, Sonoma became home to the northernmost and last mission in a chain of 21, built in California by Father Junipero Serra and priests of the Franciscan order. But just ten years after its completion in 1824, the Mission was secularized by the newly independent Mexican government. As leader of the secular outpost, Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo turned the Mission into a Mexican pueblo, fortified it as a military stronghold against the Russians, laid out the Sonoma Plaza and built soldiers' barracks at its northeast corner, all the while amassing great wealth, power and land. Vallejo’s vision lives on. Visitors to Sonoma today can park their cars in the town center and meander more than 150 years back in time. The carefully preserved adobe buildings around Sonoma Plaza include the Mission, the Barracks, Vallejo’s home and other historic structures open for public tours. 

MEXICAN DOMINANCE AND THE VALLEJO ERA The first to reach Sonoma Valley came from Mexico, which was newly independent of Spain when the initial expedition of soldiers and missionaries arrived here July 4, 1823. As they progressed north from Mexico, the Franciscans had built a chain of 20 missions in their wake. They came to Sonoma after establishing missions in San Rafael and San Francisco--at that time a damp little outpost known as Yerba Buena. Mexican Mission SolanusThe priests were led by Father Jose Altamira, who felt that the existing missions in Yerba Buena and San Rafael were poor locations for health and agriculture. He desired a warmer and more pleasant spot in which to settle, and Sonoma fit the bill. There they founded Mission San Francisco de Solano, the northernmost--and last--link in a chain of 21 California Missions. It was the only one established under Mexican rule. The soldiers who accompanied the Franciscans aimed to a stave off Russian explorers from the north, who had fished, trapped, logged and cultivated the coast from Alaska to Coronado Bay, and who--by 1812--had established an outpost as far south as Fort Ross. 

The Mission prospered with lands, crops, cattle, horses and converts, and would become a thriving hub of activity when Mexico secularized all of the missions in 1834. With the new decree of secularization, the property was to be divided and the church was to be eviscerated of its authority and reduced to a small parish. 

Leaving his post as commandant of the San Francisco Presidio, 27-year-old Lt. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo took charge of overseeing Sonoma’s transition. He turned Sonoma from a mission town into a bustling Mexican pueblo, laying out a street grid and centering the town around a beautiful eight-acre central Plaza (still the largest in California) which survives today as a national monument and the center of city life. Vallejo also built a barracks for his military at the northeast corner of the Plaza, and facilitated the creation of a 110-foot wide avenue leading south from the Plaza, known as today's Broadway (Highway 12). For a brief time, Sonoma served as the prime hub of traffic, commerce and trade north of San Francisco. Mexican Mission VallejoVallejo gained enormous property holdings, wealth and power. When his nephew, Juan Bautista Alvarado, became governor of the Mexican state of Alta California in 1838, Vallejo was named military governor of the state, and the two controlled much of northern California.

By the 1840s, American settlers pouring into California over the Sierras had begun to challenge Mexican power. In 1846, Mexican rule ended with an event occurring in Sonoma itself--the legendary Bear Flag revolt. Shortly thereafter, Mexico ceded all of California and the rest of the Southwest to the United