Young Mariano Vallejo was Petaluma's 'founding father'

Mariano Vallejo had been granted a vast wilderness that included what we now recognize here as the Petaluma River Valley and the adjoining Sonoma Mountains at the young age of 26.|

Known as Petaluma’s founding father, Mariano Vallejo had been granted a vast wilderness that included what we now recognize here as the Petaluma River Valley and the adjoining Sonoma Mountains at the young age of 26. Vallejo, who had been born in Monterey’s Presidio, was to become California’s largest land owner by 1836.

Vallejo was a bright, ambitious young Mexican Army officer. When Mexico’s Governor of California, Jose Figueroa, sent him north to inventory and closely monitor the Russian settlement in Fort Ross, Vallejo’s conclusions that the Russians had colonial ideas caused Figueroa to appoint him Military Commandante-General of “The Northern Frontier” and grant him 66,000 prime acres in an effort to thwart Russian expansionism.

By 1835, the Commandante-General, who had also been given total authority to issue land grants himself, had been instrumental in the growth of the settlement of the Petaluma Valley and of the Pueblo of Sonoma. Vallejo chose Petaluma as the ideal site for his large Rancho Adobe home near a creek.

Vallejo had married Francesca Benicia Carrillo in 1832, and together they developed the huge Rancho that would eventually contain more than 30,000 head of cattle, 24,000 sheep and 6,000 horses. Mariano and Francesca would have 16 children together, only 10 of whom lived to adulthood.

To protect his holdings, General Vallejo commissioned and maintained his own small army of 40 uniformed men. He also utilized the labor of more than a hundred Native Americans to care for his fields and vast herds.

Both Chief Solano of the Suisun Tribe and Chief Marin, to the south, had become friendly with the Vallejos and had volunteered tribesmen to work the Rancho. The Rancho was so large that it was said, “a steer, six sheep and 40 chickens” had to be slaughtered each day, just to feed the hands and their families.

The Russians eventually did decide to leave California due to General Vallejo’s strong urging and the near-extinction of the valued sea otter population. Vallejo had tried to purchase the Russian holdings, but Captain John Sutter of Sacramento, beat him to it and bought all the land around Fort Ross in 1841. Although Vallejo had negative feelings about Sutter, Captain Sutter applied for Spanish citizenship just to make that transaction work.

By the 1840s, Vallejo had become worried that the lack of population in California would again encourage colonialism from other countries. When the government of Mexico didn’t respond to his urgent call for settlers, Vallejo then encouraged California’s annexation to the United States.

However, in 1846, Captain John Fremont, explorer Kit Carson and a wild bunch of about 33 American adventurers forced the issue by raising their own home-made “Bear Flag” over the Commandante’s town of Sonoma. They arrested General Vallejo and took him to the Fort Sutter jail in Sacramento.

It was an outrageous and very unpopular move, and during that jail-time, Vallejo lost an estimated 600 horses, 1,000 head of cattle and 25,000 bushels of wheat to squatters, who had overrun his unprotected lands. The General spent six weeks in prison before he was returned to Sonoma County, where he was to live in peace for another 45 years.

The overly ambitious Captain Fremont was later court-marshaled for his participation in the Bear Flag act, and that pretty much wiped out his well-known presidential goals.

In 1846, the United States Navy had seized Monterey from Mexican protection and, unlike the violence and warfare that had occurred in the annexing of New Mexico and Texas, Northern California became U.S. territory without bloodshed.

The U.S. paid Mexico $15 million in reparations for this effort. Vallejo became a California State Senator, and two years later, he was elected mayor of the town of Sonoma, in which he had constructed a new smaller home with his beloved Francesca.

Just one year after that, gold was discovered in the territory and people from all over the world rushed here in a wild effort to get rich quick. It was a very unruly and unlawful era before California became the 31st state of the Union in 1850. Later, in the 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln was to make sure that California gold went to help finance the Union cause in winning the American Civil War.

Vallejo passed away peacefully in the town of Sonoma in January of 1890. His predictions, made in Petaluma, of the future of California had been proven correct and, through his efforts and continued influence, the Mexican and American communities intermingled their traditions, culture and architecture to form a strong alliance.

(Historian Skip Sommer is an Honorary Life Member of Heritage Homes and the Petaluma Historical Museum. Contact him at

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