Things to See in Sonoma
Jack London State Historic Park
The birthplace of the California wine industry, Sonoma County has a history of isolation and discovery, of booming highs and quiet lulls. Originally home to indigenous tribes, Sonoma was discovered by Europeans, with Spanish missionaries establishing a mission in 1824; later, it played a central role in California’s accession into the United States. The area sank into obscurity and neglect until the discovery of natural hot springs transformed it into a resort destination in the 1890s. Again, Sonoma fell from the limelight, growing quietly and steadily in the shadow of nearby Napa. Today, Sonoma is once again being rediscovered, emerging as a laid-back alternative to Napa’s crowds and high prices.
Sonoma shares an early history similar to much of California, with indigenous tribes and Spanish missionaries. Sonoma was known as “Valley of the Moon” to the Miwoks, Pomos, Wintuns and other indigenous tribes who called the area home for 12,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. “Noma” is, in fact, thought to be a Mayakmah word for town. The first Europeans to establish a presence were Russian fur traders, in the early 19th century; they also left behind their linguistic mark—the Russian River bears their name. Spanish explorers and missionaries brought about the most dramatic change to early Sonoma County. Franciscan padres established the Sonoma Mission in 1824, the northernmost link in a chain of 21 California missions; these padres also planted the area’s first grape vineyards. Mission life was harsh and within 50 years, indigenous tribes all but vanished.
Sonoma’s prominence grew in 1834, when Sonoma Mission was completely secularized by the newly independent Mexican government. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo transformed the Mission into a bustling Mexican pueblo, setting a street grid and building Sonoma Plaza, a national historical landmark which still serves as the center of Sonoma. By the 1840s, a steady encroachment of American settlers began to challenge Mexican power, and in 1846, Mexican rule ended with the legendary Bear Flag Revolt. The ensuing independent Bear Flag Republic only lasted a month before paving the way for California’s accession to the United States.
Sonoma saw fell into neglect and isolation during the Gold Rush, as wealth poured down to San Francisco. Natural thermal baths discovered at Boyes Hot Springs created a rush of tourists in the 1890s, as Sonoma evolved into a resort retreat. Sonoma County’s wine industry continued growing quietly, surviving both a root disease epidemic and Prohibition. Following World War II, Sonoma was rediscovered and again outsiders poured in. The population swelled, but urban development was kept in check. As neighboring Napa County’s wine industry and tourism boomed, Sonoma continued producing top-quality wines with a fraction of the fuss. This sheltering from the limelight, along with well-managed growth, has allowed Sonoma County to retain the rustic, small-town roots and pastoral beauty that charms visitors. Today, Sonoma County and its wine country have turned into a top Northern California getaway destination.