200 Years of Change
Until the fall of 1775, the Miwok and Pomo Indians lived peacefully in the coastal mountains and valleys of what we now call Sonoma County. Their lifestyle revolved around the seasons, hunting and gathering from the land and harvesting the sea and rivers. Little changed over hundreds of years until the first white sails were spotted off the coast.
Captain Lt. Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra Mollineda first anchored the Spanish sloop Sonora at the south end of Bodega Bay by the mouth of Tomales Bay. The bay is thought to be named after Bodega.
Slowly moving north from Mexico since the mid-1550s, the Spanish claimed vast areas of land for Spain and sent back tales of the glory of California. This attracted explorers from countries around the world.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that white settlements began to spring up along the coast. By 1812, Russian fur traders were looking for new sources of otters and seals, and came south in search of better food supplies for their northern settlements. With the help of local Indians, they built Fort Ross 24 miles north of Bodega Bay.
By the mid-1800s, Mexico had gained independence from Spain and, in the process, granted the land to Mexican citizens and soldiers. General Vallejo and his family were among those who established hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchos in what is now much of Sonoma County.
One of the settlers was Captain Stephen Smith, who married a Peruvian, Manuela Torres, and became a Mexican citizen in order to receive a land grant. They established Rancho Bodega bordered by the Russian River to the north and Estero Americano to the south, including the whole Bodega Bay area.
At the same time, settlers from the east were moving west and threatening the land ownership of the Mexicans. Convinced of the right of Manifest Destiny, they established their own government and created the bear flag. The United States and Mexico were soon at war and by 1850, California became the 31st U.S. state.
Progress then moved at a rapid pace. People came east by wagon and from European nations by ship. Growth was everywhere throughout California and the Bodega Bay area was carved into smaller and smaller ranches. The abundant redwoods created a booming lumber industry and Bodega Bay gave shelter to a growing fishing industry.
Soon, even recreation became a part of commerce as thousands of people flocked to the Bodega Bay area. Today, the beauty that first brought settlers still attracts thousands of travelers throughout the year to our moderate climate, forest of old growth Redwoods, our long sandy beaches and coastal vistas. Enjoy exploring the past as you wander through the present.
Take a Drive Through Time
Explore the beautiful roads of Sonoma County to follow the paths of early settlers … from Fort Ross on the North Coast where the fully restored Russian Fort contains a comprehensive museum, south along the coast through Jenner to the coastal village of Bodega Bay. Head inland to the tiny towns of Bodega, Valley Ford and Freestone with their abundance of historic structures, and through Occidental to taste the influence of settlers’ native lands, then out to the Russian River for the grandeur of old growth redwoods.
FORT ROSS. Russian fur traders came with native Alaskan Aleuts to the Bodega Bay area in the early 1800s to expand their hunting territory and to grow food crops for their northern settlements. With the help of native Miwok and Pomo Indians, they built Fort Ross 11 miles north of the Russian River and established Bodega Bay as a port. Their respect for native tribes is legendary and the world’s greatest collection of Pomo baskets is in Russia.
JENNER is perched on the hills where the Russian River widens to enter the sea. Congregating at the mouth of the river, seals have lain in the sun and given birth to their pups since before the days of the Miwok Indians. Originally called Jenner Gulch after Charles Jenner, it was home to workers of the nearby lumber mills. In the mid-1800s, a ferry was built to cross the Russian River, connecting the coast highway, north to south.
BODEGA BAY. There’s still controversy as to who was the first explorer to dock his ship in Bodega Bay, but long before the settlers came, the Miwok and Pomo Indians harvested clams and mussels from its shores. Firmin Candelot founded the town of “Bay” in the last 1800s, which later changed its name to Bodega Bay in 1941. Although most settlers were drawn here to jobs in the lumber mills, in time, locals shifted their focus to harvesting fish instead of lumber, establishing a thriving fishing industry.
BODEGA. The town of Bodega shares the source of its name with Bodega Bay, thought to be named after Lt. Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra. In 1843, Captain Stephen Smith claimed title to Rancho Bodega, a huge tract of coastal hills, settled and started a family. He built the first steam-powered saw mill in California with parts brought by ship. Bodega suited him well with its abundant source of wood and nearby bay for shipping. The town grew to its largest size around the turn of the century. Most famous for its role in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” Bodega still attracts visitors to see Potter School House and St. Teresa’s Church.
OCCIDENTAL. The narrow gauge railroad put Occidental on the map in the late 1870s by taking redwood out of the region and bringing tourists in from San Francisco and Sausalito. William “Dutch Bill” Howard and Melvin C. “Boss” Meeker mostly owned the area between Howard’s landholdings and Meeker’s huge lumber mill just north of town. The town’s first post office, school and church were built by 1876 and the town boasted two hotels. By the 1880s, Italian immigrants arrived in large numbers at the same time introducing Zinfandel grapes and Italian cuisine.
FREESTONE. In the early 1800s, Freestone Valley was home to Russian wheat farmers. When the North Coast Pacific Railroad was built from Sausalito to the south and Cazadero to the north, Freestone became a hub for the railroad and lumbermen, as well as for tourists. Residents established one of the area’s first schools and an historic hotel in the middle of town, both still part of the local landscape. Proud of its heritage, Freestone has maintained its historic buildings and was declared the First Historic District in Sonoma County.
VALLEY FORD is a tiny town surrounded by rolling coastal hills dotted with livestock. Very little has changed since the first ranchers brought cattle to the area and planted the low lying fields with potatoes. In the center of town, you’ll find the historic hotel and one of the area’s first banks. Valley Ford’s most recent claim to fame came in 1976 when installation artist Christo’s fence meandered through the middle of town and out to the coastline, attracting international attention.