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Serving the communities of Kenwood, Glen Ellen and Oakmont

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Local History Lesson: 12/01/2018

The times they are a-changin' - Glen Ellen transitions

SDC land in 1870
Courtesy of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society
Panoramic View of Hill Ranch, 1887, before the property was bought by the State. Much of the vineyard is now occupied by the core campus at the Sonoma Developmental Center.
With last year's fires and this year's closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center, we know Glen Ellen's future is going to be different. At such a time, when the magnitude of change seems overwhelming, history can help put things in context.

For years, a Glen Ellen friend kept tripping over some metal sticking out of the ground in his yard. When he finally dug it up, it turned out to be a rusty sword. An expert estimated it'd been buried around 1750. If true, that was before any missions were established in what is now California. Was it a trade item? The weapon of a shipwrecked sailor or unrecorded Spanish expedition? The sword itself is mute about its origins. But it does speak clearly of a devastating cultural change.

Sonoma Valley's indigenous technology - intricate baskets, meticulously chipped arrowheads, and roundhouses that could shelter a hundred people - was never intended for defense against Mexican soldiers on horseback with swords and guns. Among Coast Miwok speakers (a modern, not an indigenous designation) there is little record of overt resistance. Even before 1823, when the Sonoma Mission was founded, local people were being baptized at missions further south.

Wappo speakers, who lived in more rugged country in the Mayacamas, did fight back. Soon after Vallejo established a military base at Sonoma, a conflict called “the Wappo Wars” began. The Wappo are said to have used Secret Pasture, high above Glen Ellen, as a hideout from which to launch cattle raids and watch the movements of soldiers. Fierce fighters, they proved a real match for Vallejo's men.

In 1837 a Mexican soldier brought smallpox into Sonoma Valley. It spread rapidly and 90 percent of the North Bay's native people died (Mexican citizens were vaccinated). It's said that for long after, you could see piles of bones at the base of oak trees because no one was left to bury them. Out of a countywide population estimated at 10,000 or more in 1800, only 14 natives were counted in the 1850 census.

As Americans began settling here, the Mexicans, like the native people before, saw their land invaded. In 1846, the Mexican government tried to deport Americans as “illegal aliens.” In response, the Americans staged the Bear Flag Revolt. At the end of the Mexican War in 1848, Mexico ceded California to the U.S. Some Mexican Californios, like General Vallejo, believed in a better future under American rule. Vallejo ended up serving in the new government's state legislature in 1850.

Other Californios were not so welcoming. One story claims that, like the Wappo, Joaquin Murrietta used Secret Pasture as a hideout, and also a place to keep stolen cattle. The prevalence of Murrietta legends all over California suggests that it may spring from many men waging guerrilla warfare against the American occupation. Whether Murrietta was an outlaw or a freedom fighter depends on which side of the conflict you view him from.

Soon after William “Redwood” Thompson settled on Sonoma Mountain Road in the 1850s, his cabin was burned down twice by vaqueros angry about an American on “their” land. Thompson rebuilt and eventually married and had eight children - some of his descendants still live on the mountain.

The arrival of two railroads in the 1880s heralded more big changes. Before then, Glen Ellen was described as a “two-house town” with a “post office and “necessary saloon.” When the Sonoma Valley Railroad arrived in 1882, the depot was located near the current post office and the town center shifted a mile, from the corner of Arnold and Highway 12, to its current location. The second railroad, the Santa Rosa & Carquinez, placed its depot just up the hill from the first.

The railroad made it easier to get to Glen Ellen and also to take stuff out. Woodcutters harvested oak and madrone from the hills. Within 20 years, Sonoma Mountain had gone bald providing firewood for San Francisco. Now accessible on day trips from urban areas, Glen Ellen saw its first tourist boom. Two thousand people sometimes arrived to spend a Saturday - they boosted the economy while also overfishing, overhunting and plucking armloads of wildflowers.

Railroad access was a big factor in the choice of Eldridge as the location for the California Home for the Feeble-Minded in 1890 (now called the Sonoma Developmental Center). By providing a ready source of jobs and attracting skilled people, the new community changed the fabric of young Glen Ellen.

In the 1890s, phylloxera nearly wiped out the local wine industry and many vineyards were abandoned. Two decades later, Prohibition set back the industry again. Simultaneously, the rise of the automobile contributed to the demise of the railroads, which stopped serving Glen Ellen in the late 1930s. In the 1960s and '70s, “hippies” moved in and changed local culture. Thirty years later, wealthy “” started buying property here and things shifted again.

The community's response to all these changes has varied - from graceful acceptance, like Vallejo; to full-on resistance, like Murrietta. Taking the long view, either way, something of the past is lost and some part of our heritage survives. Each time the core question has been: “How can we preserve the best of our heritage while moving into the future?”

This article was originally published in Tales of Glen Ellen, the newsletter of the Glen Ellen Historical Society.


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