1834-1845 Secularization of Sonoma

By 1834 Altimira’s mission and vineyards were thriving, but the political winds of change were to spell doom for the old mission system. The Mexican government, upon deciding to secularize the missions, sent a military detachment under the command of a young Mariano Vallejo to Sonoma to take control of the Mission properties and establish a town. Vallejo built barracks, surveyed a town square and started doling out land grants to settlers. He also took some of the mission’s vines and planted them on his own property. Vallejo would become one of the California wine country’s first private winemakers. Several of Vallejo’s early land grants were to American settlers.

George C. Yount a native of North Carolina who had arrived in California in 1831 was given a large rancho in Napa Valley in 1836. His original grant, called Rancho Caymus was 11,000 acres just north of what is now the town of Yountville. To the north of Yount’s rancho, another American, Dr. Edward Turner Bale, was given a similar grant in 1841. Bale’s property included the areas of modern day St Helena and Calistoga.

1846 Bear Flag Republic
Mexico’s hold on California as a far-flung territory had always been shaky at best. After the Mexican revolution of 1821, the formerly Spanish colonists of Alta California still identified themselves more as “Californios” than Mexicans – as evidenced by the numerous revolts and ongoing squabbles between the territory and the central government in Mexico City. Throughout the 1820s and 30s California was plagued by coups, revolts and power struggles. This instability did not escape the notice of the foreign powers (English, French and American) doing business and vying for influence in the area. By the early 1840s a small but steady stream of American pioneers was arriving from the east and settling in and around Sonoma. Although Mexican law made it difficult for Americans to own land, many found loopholes, such as marrying into Mexican families and establishing ranchos that way.

In June of 1846 a small band of Americans, presumably fed up with their status as second class citizens under Mexican rule, stormed Vallejo’s home in Sonoma and declared an independent Republic of California. The incident might have gone down much the same way as so many other revolts in the territory if not for the arrival of the American fleet in Monterey bay on July 7th.

The American military, who had been waiting for a suitable excuse to seize the territory of California, took news of the outbreak of war between Mexico and American settlers in the east (the Alamo in Texas for example) and the Sonoma revolt as the opportunity they had been waiting for to invade. The raising of the Stars and Stripes over Sonoma Plaza on July 9th 1846 marked the end of the short lived “Bear Flag Republic” -so named because the flag raised by the revolt party had featured a grizzly bear in its center. Legend holds that the flag was created the night before the revolt by William Todd, nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, future first lady of the Unite States. Todd and company appropriated a square of crude muslin and drew the grizzly bear and a star using a rusty nail and berry juice. The large red stripe across the flag’s bottom edge is said to have come from a lady’s petticoat. The modern state flag of California is based on this original design and still features the words: California Republic.

From the raising of the American flag in Monterey on July 7th, California became a de facto possession of the United States, occupied by the military until the territory was officially ceded by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican- American war in 1848.

Gold Rush & Statehood
The year 1848 also brought another great change to the territory of California; gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the autumn, touching off a frenzy of gold fever that would infect the world. By late spring in 1849, thousands of gold seekers began to arrive in California. Those who arrived by ship came to the new thriving boomtown port of San Francisco. Since there was no gold in the immediate Sonoma area, the town, once an important outpost of California’s northern frontier, declined in importance. By 1850, based largely on the importance of its mineral wealth, California was admitted into the union and became a state.

The end of the gold rush saw many naively optimistic prospectors heading back home, but most would stay on to discover California’s true treasure, the land. As people turned back to traditional occupations and agriculture, Sonoma once again became a thriving town now infused with a steady stream of immigrants from around the world. Most of the new comers were European and many brought with them knowledge and traditions of winemaking from their place of origin. As these new and diverse peoples settled in Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley they naturally planted wine grapes on their farms and most people were engaged in making wine for home use, all contributing to the development of what would soon become the California wine country.

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