Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo: Sonoma's Founding Father

Sonoma’s patriarch made the town what it is today.

You can’t know Sonoma without knowing its founding father General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a Mexican military commander who helped develop Northern California and ease its transition from Mexican district to American state.

Vallejo is the patriarch who not only laid out the town and its plaza, but he did it “with a certain amount of civic joy,” says city historian George McKale. Vallejo built Sonoma's first buildings and carved up his immense land holdings among family and friends. His namesake house still stands in what is now a State Historic Park on the north side of town, and his fingerprints are everywhere. Understanding Vallejo quickly leads to a better understanding of California, both the place and the spirit that guided the destiny of the American West. And Sonoma stands in the middle of the story.

A Colorful Career

Vallejo was a prodigy of sorts and a bit of a renaissance man. At 15, he served as secretary to the governor of Alta California (what California was called under Spain's and later Mexico's rule) and was later appointed Commandante General of the "Northern Frontier," charged with developing a former mission into what is now Sonoma to fend off Russian colonization. Vallejo also made some of the region’s first and best wine.

When he was 38, Vallejo was briefly imprisoned during the infamous Bear Flag Revolt, in which a ragtag posse of 30-odd renegade Americans seized him to proclaim independence from Mexico and establish the Bear Flag Republic. They fashioned a flag from a sheet of cotton with a crude red star and a poorly drawn bear that looked more like a pig. The star and the bear remain on California’s state flag, but the Bear Flag Republic vanished as soon as Mexico ceded California to the United States. The revolt is re-enacted behind the town’s historic barracks each year.

While Vallejo is a local legend, McKale says understanding him remains a work-in-progress. “We’re still defining who the man was,” McKale admits, explaining for example that, on the one hand Vallejo didn’t treat Indians very well, but on the other hand, neither did the rest of the non-native population. And when, as a state senator, Vallejo was granted the honor of naming California’s then-27 counties, he named three of them -- Sonoma, Marin and Stanislaus -- for Indians.

It could be argued that Vallejo saved Sonoma from a more tawdry, less noble fate. The general was a man of culture and taste, and his example set a standard for a community and a region that may have buffered the townspeople from some of the baser impulses of frontier life. “For the Hispanic population today,” McKale points out, “many of whom really don’t know that much about him, the general is a good role model.”

Living with History

The Sonoma Plaza is ringed by historic buildings, several built by or for Vallejo, his family and the troops stationed there. Some of those buildings, constructed with thick blocks of adobe, are now apartments and shops with ceilings so low that incautious visitors risk concussions. Step inside Baksheesh, a gift store offering handmade crafts from all over the world, and you’ll encounter an adobe doorway joining two rooms through which anyone over 5’ 10” will have to duck their heads.

All of this might be dry history. But Vallejo’s barracks, his home and the mission, built by the friars when Sonoma was settled, still confront visitors and are seamlessly integrated into the architecture and the life of the town.

Each year, during the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival (the second oldest festival in California after Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses), local citizens dress up in period costumes, tote muskets on horseback and storm the barracks to re-enact the arrest of General Vallejo. In raucous voices, they seize the great man, claim California and unfurl the bear flag, the first symbol of the brief, ill-conceived and little known republic.

Without Vallejo there would be no Sonoma, and without Sonoma, one has to wonder, would California be the same?

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