Ever since moving to California years ago, I developed a new-found interest in American history. You see, the history of the United States that I was taught growing up in Ohio is very different from US history as it relates to the American west. In July of 1776 on the east coast, it was all about an American revolution with mother England – the events most Americans celebrate these days with parades, parties and fireworks (where permitted). But in July of 1776 on the west coast, the Spanish were just working to erect a fort and a mission in what would later become San Francisco.
On a recent weekend, Chuck and I made a trip that brought this history home. We started at the Presidio in San Francisco because that is where it all started in the Bay area as far as settlers were concerned. This land belonged to the Indians until the Spanish set up the mission and the presidio in October of 1776. This was the sixth settlement to be built by the Spanish military alongside Father Junipero Serra and his band of Franciscan Padrés. They had started in San Diego and were making their way north claiming the land for mother Spain as they went.
Established from the start as a means to protect San Francisco Bay, the Presidio went on to play a vital role in Pacific defense for the Spanish, the Mexicans and, later, the Americans up until it was closed and joined the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1998.
Today, the Presidio is doing a fine job of making the transition from military base to base for family fun. With a historic golf course, camp ground, Disney family museum, 24 miles of trails, a smattering of new restaurants and even an Inn at the Presidio, you can easily make it home base for a San Francisco vacation or base camp for a weekend camping under the stars with views of the Golden Gate. If you wish a longer stay, you can even lease a home for a year or so. Imagine living in a national park and in a former officer’s abode. That would rate pretty high on the cool factor! (Warning – the waiting list is long and available units go quickly.)
Having a historic quest in mind though, we couldn’t stay for the weekend and headed north following the Pacific coast. We enjoyed a lovely hike in Point Reyes National Seashore – an area that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo charted in 1542 for Spain but then was never explored again until the Spanish returned over 200 years later.
Just north of Point Reyes, we made the obligatory stop for fresh oysters near Tomales Bay. The coast along this section is ripe with seafood farmers. Whether coming for fresh Dungeness crab (in season) or for oysters, there are plenty of restaurants from which to choose.
On this little venture, we chose to stop for a snack at Tony’s – a place that has been around since 1948. The oysters were good. The beer was cold. The views of the Pacific were superb. Fortified for the next leg in our quest, we continued north along the coast towards Fort Ross.
Everything at Fort Ross is a reconstruction at this point except for one original house that still stands. The small museum and visitor’s center does a fine job of putting the area in context though. You see, the reason the Spanish sent padrés and soldiers and settlers to the region in the first place was to claim the land for Spain before the Russians got it. Since the late 1700s, the Russian fur traders had been harvesting pelts from seals and otters and other sea life for sale back in Asia. They had established large settlements in what is now Alaska and were working their way down the Pacific coast.
The furthest they ever settled ended up being Fort Ross, in part because the Spanish were now there to defend the land. The other significant reason why they turned around after Fort Ross was because the business started to become a losing proposition. With a single sea otter pelt yielding $100 in China back then, it was a very lucrative venture for many years but eventually they over-hunted the Pacific and put themselves out of business. They tried a bit of farming at Fort Ross to keep things going but coastal climes aren’t that great for much other than grapes so the fields just didn’t flourish enough to warrant the investment and they moved on.
We headed inland from Fort Ross and, in less than an hour’s drive, had left behind the cold and the fog of the coast for warmer valley temperatures. Just north of Guerneville, we found a lovely campsite at Bullfrog Pond in Austin Creek Reserve and set up for the night. The reserve is adjacent to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve so there is plenty of hiking to be done beneath the redwoods as well.
Having covered 300 years of west coast history the day before, we set off in the morning to cover the next 200 years. Our destination for the day? Sonoma. Besides being the third key piece in the region’s history, it is also a great destination for food and wine so how can you beat it as a get away destination?!
The mission of San Francisco Solano was established in what later became known as Sonoma in 1823. It was the last of the 21 Franciscan missions to be built and the only one actually built under the Mexican flag. Mexico had won their independence from Spain just two years earlier and with that independence came all the land that we know today as the southwestern States from Texas to California.
The Mexican government secularized the missions and turned them over to Mexican citizens in huge land grants or rancheros. To get a sense for just how huge these rancheros were, virtually all the area we would cover in this day of exploration (over 66,000 acres) belonged to General Vallejo who had his home (and oversaw his troops) in Sonoma.
For about twenty-five years (from 1821, when Mexico gained independence from Spain, until 1846, when American rebels took Sonoma for the US), life was good for the Mexican ranchero owners. They were prosperous and were living on beautiful lands. They worked the land and it returned a bounty in food and drink. While touring General Vallejo’s home in Sonoma, his wine bottle corker speaks to the fact that he was making and bottling wine in Sonoma Valley long before any Americans arrived.
Once Americans had taken Sonoma, things quickly went downhill for the Mexican ranchero owners. In less than two years, all the land had been annexed by the US as part of the settlement of a Mexican-American War. The ranchero owners lost their homes and property and were assimilated unless they chose to leave.
Fast forward another year and we have the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, just 112 miles to the east of Sonoma. Within one more year, California was admitted into the Union as the 30th State. (Wouldn’t want that gold to slip back into any other country’s hands now would we?!)
In just two days, we had made a loop that covered American and California history from its start in 1542 to today. That sense of history concentrated in a small area is one of the things I have always enjoyed about visiting Europe, the original colonies of the American east coast, and many other destinations over the years. There is always something to learn from the past as we head towards the future.
To raise a toast to that sentiment, we made one more stop before heading home from our weekend. After all, how can you be in Sonoma and not stop for a taste or two of Sonoma-produced wine? Our choice this day would be the Larson Family Winery. I had been there before and loved many of their medal-winning offerings but this day the visit just seemed right because the winery sits along Millerick Road on the land that was once the Embarcadero of Sonoma and the grounds for the Sonoma Rodeo. Passengers and freight came up the Sonoma Creek from San Francisco before being transferred to horse and wagon for the remainder of the ride to Sonoma Plaza, General Vallejo’s home and the mission San Francisco Solano. What better place to raise a toast to relearning American history than at a modern-day winery on whose land most of those history makers trod and enjoyed themselves.
Happy Independence Day, USA!