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LeBaron: Bennett Valley’s notorious past

Bennett Valley has been recognized by the Federal government as Sonoma County's newest viticultural area. This area is off Sonoma Mountain Road near Bennett Valley Road. (PD FILE 2003)

GAYE LEBARON,

Two questions come before us today. The first is what exactly comprises Bennett Valley? The other, who the heck is Bennett and why is it named for him?

The first one: Bennett’s name is on a small valley that seems to be getting bigger every day.

It was described in the earliest writings about Sonoma County by our first historian, Robert A. Thompson, as “lying south of the town of Santa Rosa and east of the Santa Rosa Valley. It has a length of eight miles, and an average width of four miles.”

That’s a good, clear starting point. Now, with any sense, I would stop right here and go on to another topic.

But alas, it has become somewhat complicated. As the town has filled with people who don’t give a rip what Robert Thompson thought, Bennett Valley has become a favored corner of Santa Rosa’s housing market and threatens to encroach beyond its bounds.

It also seems to be a buzzword for home-sellers. Houses advertised as located “in Bennett Valley” can have addresses ranging from Rincon Valley to Montgomery Village and too often are either wishful thinking or “mistakes” in the listing.

All this is caused by the state education system’s high rating for the Bennett Valley School District, which does have boundaries that creep a bit beyond Thompson’s 150-year-old geography. But not as far as some would like to believe.

The district boundaries are on a map available from the district office. Maybe it should be required reading for real estate agents.

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That’s Bennett Valley question No. 1. The other one — who is Bennett? — is a lot more interesting. He was James N. Bennett, a Missourian who came to California after the discovery of gold and settled on an unclaimed land grant south of Maria Carrillo’s Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa.

Bennett did not stay long, two or three years at the most. Just long enough to leave his name on the valley and its signature mountain — and to change the course of Sonoma County history.

The snug little valley with a dramatic peak to mark it had been offered to a soldier in Gen. Mariano Vallejo’s garrison at the Sonoma pueblo. The land was dubbed Rancho Yulupa. Yulupa is believed to be the Native American name for the peak — some say it means ”Mountain of the Burning Bird,” but I’m not going there. Native American languages are way out of my league.

Lt. Don Miguel Alvarado neither built on nor cultivated his gift, tasks that were requirements for a deed, and it became, by default, the property of Gen. Vallejo, who was the local authority on Mexican governmental matters.

Bennett was a squatter, which was an uncomplimentary term for Americans who staked their claim on land that was part of the spoils of the Mexican War. The treaty ending the war provided that all Mexican land claims would be honored, but only after review by the United States Land Commission and an automatic suit in the federal courts.

It took almost two decades for California grants to clear the courts. Sonoma County was a little better. I think the average was about eight years. But it was, proportionately, the largest population increase in the state’s history in those years and, California being officially a new state, all those squatters had a vote.

There was little the outnumbered grant owners could do to protect their property.

When James Bennett was nominated to run for the state Assembly at a local “Settlers’ Convention” in 1853, he came up against a high-profile Sonoma resident in the person of retired U.S. Army Col. Joseph Hooker.

Hooker had come with the American troops stationed in the pueblo when the war ended. He would be back in uniform within the decade and would be remembered by military historians as the Union Army’s “Fighting Joe” Hooker in the Civil War — and by lexicographers studying word origins as a possible reason for the term “hooker” based on the “camp followers” who trailed his army during the war years.

But in Sonoma in 1853, he resigned his commission, bought a piece of the Agua Caliente grant and prepared for a new life in politics in the brand new state.

He was a popular figure, both in and out of the several saloons in the old pueblo. He took on the office of county road commissioner, a job which, needless to say, was considered important as trails became routes between new towns.

He looked like a shoo-in for assemblyman.

But Bennett, remember, was a squatter. And there were a couple hundred Americans like him scattered across the territory designated as Sonoma County when California became a state in 1850. It was a close election. Some accounts say it was a tie, with a run-off. And Bennett went off to the Legislature to fulfill a campaign promise and introduce legislation enabling counties to call elections to make the county seats as centrally located as possible.

The old pueblo of Sonoma was teetering on the northeastern shore of San Francisco Bay, while a couple of ambitious merchants in the Carrillo Adobe in the Santa Rosa Valley were moving down the creek to join Julio Carrillo, who had inherited the land, in the establishment of a new town. The county seat would be just what Santa Rosa needed.

So a vote was called. Santa Rosans invited everyone from Petaluma to Fort Ross, to a Fourth of July celebration. Julio provided a steer for a pit barbecue. There was music and dancing. It probably lasted a day or two. I would assume they drank a toast or two to Assemblyman James Bennett.

When the election was called, Santa Rosa won by a healthy margin. Sonoma, Petaluma and, inexplicably, the precinct at Fort Ross, voted for Sonoma. All the other precincts voted for Santa Rosa.

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Old Sonomans — and young ones who hear the stories — still like to say that Santa Rosa “stole” the county seat from them.

And it is true that, before the day designated for removal of the county records to the new, temporary courthouse in Julio’s home, there were rumors there would be resistance and the records might “disappear” for safekeeping.

So a pair of civic-minded Santa Rosans, Jim Williamson and Horace Martin, left for Sonoma in the dead of night with a team of four fast mules, liberated the records and came roaring back into town, shouting with triumphant glee as they passed the trading post at the Carrillo Adobe.

So that’s the Bennett Valley story, which is entwined with how Santa Rosa — readying itself for a 150th anniversary of becoming an official chartered city next year — became the county seat.

But it does still rankle a bit in Sonoma.

It came up again just last week. I was asked about the “stolen” county seat in an interview for a nonprofit documentary film some keepers of history in the Sonoma Valley are making about pioneers, events and the old stories.

I’m always happy to have an excuse to visit Sonoma Valley. And I came home through Bennett Valley which — thank you, Robert Thompson — “has a length of eight miles, and an average width of four miles.”

And stops well short of Montgomery Drive.