General Vallejo gets his own statue in the Sonoma Plaza

General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo is finally getting his due in Sonoma with a statue that will grace the plaza and town he created more than 180 years ago.

The life-size bronze likeness of him sitting on a bench won’t just be a convenient place to snap a selfie with the general - it will highlight his importance as one of the most influential figures in early California history.

“We wanted to make a contribution to the founder of our wonderful town,” said city historian Robert Demler, chairman of the citizens committee that raised the money to pay for the statue. “A small group of citizens did this. It took effort and time and patience.”

The statue was installed this week but sits under wraps, awaiting a formal unveiling ceremony at 4 p.m. Saturday.

“Adding a statue of Vallejo fits into the historic nature of the Plaza,” said Mayor Rachel Hundley. “It probably is overdue, considering the efforts of Vallejo in laying out the Plaza.”

But Vallejo’s heritage extends far beyond the attractive central plaza. He exerted an outsized influence and role in Sonoma and California history during a crucial time when its future was being shaped.

Well-regarded, he had high military positions in California when it was under Spanish and then Mexican rule. Popular with visiting foreigners, he learned English, French and Latin.

When California became a state, he helped draw up its constitution and was elected a state senator. Vallejo also was California’s first commercial wine grower.

“He was a baronial figure, very interested in European culture who liked the finer things in life,” historian Stephen Pitti said. “He enjoyed his wine and grew grapes.”

The statue faced some opposition when it was first proposed a few years ago, including those who didn’t like the casual depiction of Vallejo sitting on a bench, his arm stretched over the back.

Critics drew comparisons to similar poses of the clown character Ronald McDonald. One naysayer said it might open the door to a glut of statues memorializing significant figures in Sonoma Valley history such as Jack London, General Hap Arnold, California Native Americans and Chinese workers.

Last year, the city’s Cultural and Fine Arts Commission narrowly approved the statue on a 4-3 vote. But the City Council unanimously embraced it and the legacy it represents.

Locals and the thousands of tourists who visit Sonoma on weekends will be able to visit with the general on his bench, on the north end of the Plaza across the street from the Sonoma Cheese Factory.

There is also a small digital code that school children and other visitors can scan with their smartphones to access photos and information on Vallejo.

The statue is a stone’s throw from the barracks that housed Vallejo’s troops and the site of his original two-story home, Casa Grande, later lost to fire.

Vallejo is shown holding a book, “Recuerdos,” the title of his memoir, in a nod to his fondness for reading and writing.

Jim Callahan, the statue’s sculptor, said the sitting position is part of a genre of similar works around the world of other great figures ranging from Gandhi, to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Einstein.

“It is helping people become more aware of their own history and the continuum of history,” he said of the Vallejo statue.

Some people, he said, don’t even know it was the general who founded to the town and ask why the statue is being placed “in Sonoma and not in Vallejo?”

He noted that not everyone sees Gen. Vallejo in the same light.

“There are lots of opinions on what a good, reasonable, honest, forthright and forward-thinking man he is, and still others find exploitation and enslavement of Native Americans to be the dominant thing about him,” Callahan said. “I’m uncertain about the enslavement part. Clearly there was an exploitation of the local population.”

Native American labor was used to construct Sonoma’s adobes, and the natives were considered servants at best. But unlike his brother Salvador, Vallejo did not relish battling the Native Americans. Instead, he attempted to weave a net of protective treaties among the tribes north of San Francisco Bay to reduce conflict, according to biographer Alan Rosenus.

The statue’s dedication on Saturday corresponds to the same day in 1835 - June 24 - when Vallejo’s orders were signed by Gov. Jose Figueroa to establish a military post at Sonoma, next to the mission that had been built about a dozen years earlier.

Twenty-seven years old at the time, the then-lieutenant was sent to settle and colonize Alta California, extending north from Monterey, to counter the presence of Russians who established Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast.

Vallejo also was given title to a land grant known as the Rancho Petaluma, which would grow to 66,000 acres stretching from the Petaluma River to Sonoma Creek and help him become the richest and most powerful man in Northern California.

His holdings at one time encompassed about 175,000 acres, according to his great-great-granddaughter and historian Martha Vallejo McGettigan, and he donated land to establish the cities of Benicia and Vallejo.

McGettigan is scheduled to attend the ceremony Saturday and deliver remarks along with Vallejo great-great-grandson Earl Douglass Jr.

Vallejo wound up losing almost all of his lands - other than a few hundred acres - by the time he died in 1890 at the age of 82. Most of his holdings and livestock were lost to squatters and settlers amid failed attempts to get American courts to recognize his title.

“The Wheel of Fortune is very fickle,” the impoverished Vallejo observed.

It was the Bear Flag Revolt in June of 1846 that marked the beginning of the downturn in Vallejo’s fortunes, when a motley band of American settlers surprised sleepy Sonoma and declared the short-lived California Republic. They imprisoned Vallejo, the Mexican military governor.

Even though he was sympathetic to Americans and had expressed a desire to make California part of the United States, Vallejo was taken to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento by the Bear Flaggers, endured months of poor treatment, contracted malaria and almost died.

The Mexican-American War soon broke out, leading to California becoming part of the United States in 1848.

The Gold Rush the following year would usher in tens of thousands of fortune seekers and immigrants to overrun Vallejo’s lands and way of life.

Currently, the only permanent statue in the Sonoma Plaza is the century-old Bear Flag monument, although there are several large abstract pieces by metalsmith Albert Paley that will be exhibited temporarily beginning next month.

The Vallejo likeness gazes in the direction of his final home, “Lachryma Montis,” (mountain tear in Latin), but his back is turned to the Bear Flag monument.

“It would be hard to have a benign look when you are looking back at (the Bear Flag monument),” Callahan said of Vallejo’s countenance, “although he did seem to be a forgive-and-forget kind of guy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or ?On Twitter@clarkmas.

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