“It is like a monster ever unsubdued,” wrote Jack London in his novel “John Barleycorn.” “This stubborn land that… survives them all, the men who scratched its surface and passed.”
Working hard to bring his own vision to life at his Beauty Ranch on Sonoma Mountain, London was keenly aware of “the dreamers of yesterday who dreamed their dreams” on his own warm hills, from the indigenous tribes to Mexican explorers, American homesteaders and tourists like London who liked what they saw and stayed. Before his death, London had amassed 1,500 acres of the forested mountain.
Picture Sonoma Mountain as the First Peoples of southern Sonoma County did. They called it oona-pa-is and told stories of how its summit was an island in a primordial ocean at the beginning of time. After the water retreated, o-ye, the Coyote-Man, threw feathers from the top into the air. The next day, wherever those feathers landed, there were people living.
We can’t know what dreams the first humans brought. Certainly they must have recognized the mountain as an abundant place, covered with redwood and Douglas fir forests, grasslands, oaks and chaparral. Grizzly bears, elk, pronghorn and salmon made their homes on the mountain and in the valleys below.
Villages and hunting camps were established at its foot and by the springs on its slopes. First Peoples managed the land carefully to provide for their needs — tending patches of plants for basketry and arrow shafts; pruning and fertilizing oak trees for plentiful acorns; and intentionally setting fires every few years. This kept the brush down, made rich forage for game by recycling soil nutrients, and kept acorn worms in check.
Father Jose Altimira came in 1823 with the dream of founding a mission. He described Sonoma Mountain as “well-covered with trees fit for building a pueblo.” Sixteen years later, General Vallejo established one of the first sawmills in California on what is now Asbury Creek, and the cutting of the forests began.
By the 1840s, Americans were emigrating to Mexican California with their own dreams. The Asbury family was among them. Arriving from Missouri by wagon train and finding the valley lands already claimed, they settled on the mountainside. Their homestead encompassed parts of Jack London State Historic Park and included milk and beef cows, chickens, oxen and fields of corn, wheat, potatoes and onions. Elsewhere on the mountain, logging continued until 1856, when the sawmill became a grist mill.
Some dreams never reach fruition. The Asburys soon gave up, leaving behind only their name on Asbury Creek. London’s great nephew, Milo Shepard, described the 19th-century settlers as mostly Scotch-Irish, of the same heritage as the people who settled the Appalachians. This included the Cowans, homesteaders of the upper park. Cowan Meadow commemorates them.
Hazen Cowan, London’s foreman, was still around in the 1970s. His brother Norman was a rodeo rider. During a competition, Norman broke his leg. Unwilling to accept defeat, he spent the night with his leg between blocks of ice and went on to win the finals.
Tough as they were, even the Cowans were ultimately unable to keep their homestead going. Scrambling to feed themselves during the Depression of the 1880s, they hunted out the deer and finally abandoned the mountain.
Special Section: Jack London Centennial