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Nathanson Creek bears name of pioneer family with tragic tale

Detail from 1877 Sonoma County Atlas, showing Nathanson homestead at top. Courtesy of Sonoma County Historical Society.

ARTHUR DAWSON,

Nathanson Creek rises in the Mayacamas, flows through the City of Sonoma just a few blocks from the Plaza and empties into San Pablo Bay. It gets its name from a pioneer family who lived along this creek, in the hills northeast of town.

In February 1849, German newlyweds Martin and Dorothea Nathanson boarded a sailing ship, the Steinberger. They were bound for California, where gold had been discovered a year earlier. After a whirlwind courtship, the two teenagers had been married on Dorothea’s 16th birthday. When Martin’s family promptly disowned him, Dorothea’s father agreed to finance a journey to America, where they hoped to make a fresh start.

On the way around Cape Horn, the ship was badly damaged by several storms and barely made it to Valparaiso, Chile. There, Dorothea gave birth to their first child, a daughter they named Caroline.

For three weeks she nursed her newborn while the Steinberger lay at anchor for repairs, but on the first night back at sea, Caroline died.

Dorothea begged the captain to return to port so she could bury her child on solid ground, but the ship was already long overdue and he refused. Taking off the gold engagement ring Martin had given her, Dorothea pressed it into the hand of a sailor and asked him to retrieve her wedding veil from a trunk in the ship’s hold.

When the sailor returned, she sewed Caroline’s remains in it.

At dawn, while the captain read the burial service, Dorothea walked to the rail and dropped the bundle overboard. It spun a few times in the wake of the ship and disappeared beneath the waves. Overwhelmed with grief, Dorothea fainted and crumpled to the deck.

The Steinberger finally reached San Francisco after a nine-month voyage.

Dorothea was not yet 17. She and Martin opened a restaurant right on the water; they could see the bay through cracks in the floorboards. Women were scarce in Gold Rush San Francisco and Martin grew jealous of the customers flirting with his wife. After accusing her of flirting back, he decided the only solution was for the two of them to leave town.

The couple moved to Sonoma in 1851, at first sharing Casa Grande with the Vallejo family while the General waited for his new home at Lachryma Montis to be finished. Martin ended up purchasing a lot from Vallejo and, using surplus lumber from a newly completed church, built a grocery store next to the barracks.

Eventually the family homesteaded a farm east of town, on the banks of the creek that now bears their name. Martin and Dorothea went on to have seven more children, all of whom reached adulthood.