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LeBaron: Fighting in Sebastopol, across the centuries

  • Credit: Healdsburg Museum.
    Sebastopol ‘s main street in the early 1870s, as seen through the lens of the pioneer Healdsburg photographer Joseph Henry Downing.

It's been about 10 days now since the bedside radio woke me with the news that the city of Sebastopol was an armed camp. Men with guns were in the streets.

Good grief, I thought, has the CVS controversy come to this?

Well, of course. I need not have feared. It wasn't OUR Sebastopol at all, it was Ukraine's, the Crimean city on the Black Sea.

How often are these two metropolises confused? Thereby, gentle readers, hangs a tale of Sonoma County history.

This would be the story, in the realm of folklore (which doesn't mean it isn't true, just that there is no official documentation), of how our Sebastopol got its name.

Was it named after the Crimean seaport? Indeed it was, but not, as many people assume, because the Russians who built Fort Ross had a settlement there. Not at all.

The Russians had been gone from here for a dozen years or so before there was even a hint of a non-native community on the Laguna. The origins were purely American — a couple of erstwhile 49ers engaging in fisticuffs at a general store and saloon in a place called Pine Grove.

Meanwhile, war raged in Europe. Are you still with me?

That Crimean War of the mid-1850s, which pitted Britain and the European powers against Russia, produced at least three lingering memories. One is the battlefield heroics and subsequent medical scholarship of a nurse named Florence Nightingale. Another is the bloody battle memorialized in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson called "The Charge of the Light Brigade." And the third is the epic yearlong blockade of sea traffic in and out of the Russian port that the world watched with great interest.

In fact, news of the Crimean War was a milestone in journalism. It was the first conflict to be photographed extensively and written of prodigiously by a new breed of cat called a war correspondent. The result was that not only the nations involved but Americans — even to the remote corners of California — got information relatively quickly (maybe even within months out here in the West) of the war — especially the effects of the yearlong blockade known as the Siege of Sebastopol.


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