Mexican Roots & An American Takeover

Mexican Mission Church

In 1823, Sonoma’s Mission San Francisco Solano was founded as the last, northernmost mission in a string of twenty-one missions, a process which started in San Diego in 1769. But Sonoma has a distinction above the rest: it was the only mission built under Mexican rule in California.

Mexico had wrested its independence from Spain in 1821, but continued the method which had proved successful in opening new territories: establishing a mission, a presidio (military post), and a pueblo (village).

A Priest and a General

In October of 1823, Father José Altimira and a group of indigenous people left Mission Dolores, fifty miles south of Sonoma in San Francisco, and built a simple wooden chapel at the site of the Huchi village on Sonoma Creek. On April 4, 1824, the chapel was official dedicated and twenty-four Miwok children were baptized. Thus began the course of making the original peoples into obedient Mexican Christians. The result was cultural devastation: disease and enforced labor decimated local populations, and those who could left the valley for traditional lands out of reach of Mexico. Others remained and contributed to Sonoma’s growth and prosperity.

In 1834, Governor José Figueroa ordered General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo to take over the administration of the dusty mission village. Vallejo had been the commandant of the presidio in Yerba Buena (present-day San Francisco), and he now began to lay out streets and drill soldiers on the Plaza, the largest of it’s kind in California. Vallejo also oversaw the “secularization” of the mission. This meant turning San Francisco Solano into a regular parish church, and dividing properties with the now-baptized natives. In 1835, Vallejo used the word, “Sonoma,” for the first time as the name of the new pueblo.

How Sonoma got its nameMexican Mission Solanus

No one knows where Vallejo first heard the name or why he used it in that 1835 letter. In 1848, a writer for the California Star newspaper reported that it came from the name of “an Indian chief.” Decades later, local boosters had other, similar explanations, but anthropologists have the real answer: in the Wappo language, tso means earth or ground, and noma means home or village. Put those together as Tso-noma and you get Sonoma.

Sonoma has another designation too: The Valley of the Moon, which was first used in the 1880s. Its origin is murky, because it came from the fertile minds of writers and reporters, who wanted to link the Sonoma Valley with imagined Native American culture. Some said Sonoma actually meant Valley of the Moon in a native language. Others said it referred to the fact that people in the valley could see the moon rise and set many times during an evening. Historically inaccurate as it is, Valley of the Moon has been Sonoma’s more colorful nickname for nearly one hundred fifty years.


American military men and explorers heard about Sonoma and often came to the pueblo to see the place for themselves. In 1841, members of the United States Exploring Expedition, whose ship Vincennes had landed in San Francisco Bay, came to Sonoma as they charted the west coast.

American ranchers, farmers, and trappers now lived around Sonoma, and sometimes married women from Mexican families. In 1845, a worried Mexican government halted immigration from the States. Governor Pío Pico tried to enforce the edict, but it didn’t do anything to stop men from settling around the valley and creating new lives for themselves.

The Bear Flag Revolt

In December of 1845, the United States annexed Texas, and conversations turned to California’s value to the country. Sonoma was strategically important to administering the northern part of the state, especially to men such as Captain John C. Frémont, an explorer and officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. He also had a problem following orders, and ignored instructions about not irritating the Mexican government while he was in California.

With his encouragement, a group of thirty-three men rode into Sonoma in the dawn of June 14, 1846.          

The scruffy group “arrested” General Vallejo, though he did offer wine to the men who came into his home. He then signed Articles of Capitulation, essentially turning Sonoma over to representatives of the United States.

The Flag

A few of the men felt their new republic should have a flag, so William Todd - cousin of future first Lady Mary Todd Lincoln - found some unbleached cotton and flannel in a deep red color. He sewed these two pieces of fabric together, wrote California Republic at the top and illustrated the phrase with a star, a nod to formerly independent Texas. Then, he sketched a grizzly bear onto the flag, to represent the ferocity of the men who had taken Sonoma for the States. Unfortunately, his compatriots thought it looked more like a pig, but they raised the flag in the Plaza anyway, forever earning these revolutionaries the name Bear Flaggers or, in Spanish, Los Osos. That July, the American flag was raised in town for the first time, by Lt. Charles Warren Revere, grandson of Paul Revere.


The United States and Mexico had gone to war in April of 1846, two months before the Bear Flag Revolt. The conflict ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February of 1848. And just a month before that, James Marshall had found gold at a mill owned by John Sutter near Sacramento.

When news of the gold discovery got out, men poured into California from all over the U.S. and the globe. Sonoma’s mayor, Lilburn Boggs, managed to get hold of some gold dust in March of 1848, and knew what the discovery could mean for Sonoma.

The little village was on one of the routes to the gold fields, and Sonoma’s few stores saw an explosion of business. Hopeful miners could also get their horses and wagons tended to around town. If they were among the lucky ones, they spent their gold in Sonoma on their way back to San Francisco or their homes elsewhere around the country.

General Vallejo and Statehood

California’sMexican Mission Vallejo first constitutional convention was held in 1849, and General Mariano Vallejo was invited to be a delegate. He promoted voting rights for indigenous people, and opposed the extension of slavery into California, political opinions which were rare among his peers, He was also elected to the first State Senate. Despite personal losses, Vallejo welcomed the coming of the Americans, and what this meant for Sonoma’s future. He also donated land for a State capital, now the city of Vallejo, which was the capital from 1852 to 1853.

On September 9, 1850, California became the 31st state. Sonoma’s residents, business owners, ranchers, and farmers looked ahead to even more prosperity as the century progressed.

Up next: Sonoma grows as a place to visit and the birth of wine country...