Dusty press in Sonoma barracks may have been used to print county’s first newspaper
In a dark room, on the dirt floor of the servant’s quarters that once were part of the Sonoma home of General Mariano Vallejo, historical artifacts have been collecting dust for years.
A jumble of cast-off antiques linked to the early days of the town are stored there: a cast iron stove, a fireplace mantel, bed posts and mounted deer antlers, to name a few.
But perhaps none of the items is more significant than two almost forgotten printing presses amidst the clutter.
Though broken, with parts bent or missing, one of them may be the press that in 1852 published the first newspaper in Sonoma County.
The Sonoma Bulletin, the first news sheet in the North Bay, was founded by Alexander J. Cox, a soldier, actor and publisher who converted the east half of the adjacent Sonoma Barracks into a printing office.
From June 1852 until September 1855, he intermittently put out his four-page weekly tabloid there, before taking his small hand press to launch newspapers in Vallejo, Napa and Healdsburg.
Cox had a wry perspective described as an able forerunner of Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce.
Sizing up neighboring Santa Rosa, he said “although everyone considers it a pretty little town, some think the opposite.” He then went on to quote an anonymous Sonoman who said there was nothing in Santa Rosa but “dogs, dust and whisky drinkers.”
His account of the removal of the county courthouse from Sonoma, (then the county seat) to Santa Rosa in 1854, epitomized his droll humor:
“Departed - Last Friday the county officers with the archives left town for the new capitol amidst the exultant grin of some and the silent disapproval (frowning visages) of others. We are only sorry they did not take the courthouse along - not because it would be an ornament to Santa Rosa, but because its removal would have embellished our plaza.
“Alas old ‘casa de adobe!’ No more do we see county lawyers and loafers in general, lazily engaged in the laudable effort of whittling asunder the veranda posts - which, by the way, required little more to bring the whole fabric to the ground. The courthouse is deserted like some feudal castle, only tenanted perhaps by gnats, rats and fleas. In the classic language of no one in particular, ‘Let ’er rip.’?”
A native of Charlestown, South Carolina, Cox came to Sonoma in April 1847, less than a year after the infamous Bear Flag revolt in which a motley band of American settlers captured General Vallejo and the pueblo of Sonoma. They established a short-lived independent republic that presaged the end of Mexican rule in California and the southwest.
Cox arrived during the subsequent Mexican-American War - as a soldier in Company C of Col. Jonathan D. Stevenson’s regiment of New York Volunteers. They were recruited from some of the toughest neighborhoods of New York City, according to Press Democrat columnist and historian Gaye LeBaron.
Stevenson himself was a controversial figure, a powerful Tammany Hall politician, former state senator and aide to the governor. As the regiment’s three ships sailed out of New York harbor they managed to outrun a sheriff’s boat with a warrant for Stevenson’s arrest on a political charge.
They made the long, sometimes perilous journey by sailing ship around Cape Horn before landing in San Francisco.
Because the 70 or so men of Company C had almost nothing to do, Cox and several others - including a former professional actor from New York - set up a theater soon after their arrival in Sonoma, according to Peter Meyerhof, a Sonoma dentist and amateur historian who scours archives and research libraries to uncover interesting stories. He noted it was the first theater in California, opening several months before the one in Monterey that claims the title.
Productions were performed in the Salvador Vallejo adobe and later a second season in General Vallejo’s Casa Grande, although many of the men wound up deserting for the gold fields before Company C was disbanded at the end of the war in 1848.
The history of the Sonoma Barracks is immensely significant, Meyerhof said. It not only represents an important headquarters of multiple military units under three flags, including the first American government in all of California, it’s also where the prototype of California’s most recognizable symbol - its flag with a grizzly bear - was created.
And it was the site of Sonoma’s first hospital and its first newspaper office.
In later years, Cox wrote that he was among 13 “practical printers” - an apparent reference to experienced printers - in Stevenson’s Regiment, adding to four who were already residing in California.