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Sonoma County’s largest freshwater lake, sacred site was drained by a farmer with dynamite

One thing you won’t see at Tolay Lake Regional Park: a giant lake.

It was once Sonoma County’s largest freshwater lake, according to Sonoma County Regional Parks. But Tolay Lake was drained by a 19th-century German immigrant farmer using dynamite, and with his action a sacred gathering place for Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo tribes for thousands of years washed away.

Thousands of charmstones were found at Tolay Lake after it drained, and many are more than 4,000 years old, according to a 2017 Bay Nature magazine article by Greg Sarris, chair of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

Charmstones were usually flat, rectangle or oval-shaped stones a few inches long and used for a variety of reasons, including for luck in hunting or healing. At Tolay the charmstones came from places as far away as Mexico, Sarris wrote.

“What we’ve always known is that Tolay Lake was a great place of healing and renewal, that Indian doctors came from near and far to confer with one another and to heal the sick,” Sarris wrote.

The first Sonoma County atlas, published in 1877, noted an 1823 expedition by Fr. José Altimira, founder of Mission San Francisco Solano, who came across Tolay and called it a “large lake.”

“This lake, from which Lakeville was named, was drained by its present owner (a utilitarian) and is now a potato patch,” the 1877 atlas says.

Draining of the lake was catastrophic for Coast Miwok and other nearby Native American tribes, according to a 2017 Doctor of Philosophy dissertation by Peter Andrew Nelson, UC Berkeley.

“The water had protected people from all of the charmstones and sicknesses from thousands of years of doctoring, and when the lake was drained, these sicknesses were released into the world,” Nelson wrote.

Sonoma County purchased Tolay Lake from the Cardoza family in 2005, and Tolay Lake Regional Park officially opened in 2018.

Information on hiking trails at the park is available online at parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Visit/Tolay-Lake-Regional-Park/Trails/

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