This past weekend my wife and I skedaddled to Sonoma for a romantic getaway to celebrate our wedding anniversary. My first priority of course was to bask in her company and to enjoy the chic yet homey North Bay town. However, on the way up I confessed to Paulette that, you know, if on a stroll around the Plaza we just happened to stop by the mission for a minute and maybe take a quick look around, well, that would be pretty cool, wouldn’t it? She said, “riiight.” Am I that transparent?
Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma is in fact a very special mission. It was the final mission established and the northernmost one in the chain. It was founded so late, 1823, that the missions weren’t even outposts of Spain anymore. By that time Mexico had declared its independence from the motherland and Alta California was Mexican territory. Sonoma is literally and historically where El Camino Real ends. There are historic El Camino Real bell markers on Broadway, SR-12, the road that leads right into the heart of town. Saturday, June 11 was International Yarn Bombing Day so the bell in the Plaza was charmingly bedecked with hand-knit California Poppies by a tagger who blogs at knitibranch.com.
I mentioned to Paulette that there were two things I wanted to explore while in Sonoma. The first was a question: how did the padres travel from San Francisco to Sonoma? There was no Golden Gate Bridge to span the mouth of the Bay and the tides there are too treacherous for easy crossing. As coincidence would have it, in our hotel room was the Spring, 2011 edition of Sonoma Magazine which was all about…water! In his article titled “Coming to Sonoma by Water,” Gerald Hill confirmed that Padre José Altamira deliberately sited the mission near Sonoma Creek so ships could sail passengers and cargo from San Francisco into San Pablo Bay up the slough to an embarcadero. “A bridge over the gate was more than a century away, roads were primitive and at times impassable, there was yet no railroad nearby, so in every real sense, the road to Sonoma was water.” El Camino de Agua?
The second thing I wanted to explore was the famous Bear Flag Revolt monument in the Plaza. There, in a coincidence beyond coincidence, we hit pay dirt. That very Sunday, June 12, happened to be the day Sonoma was holding their annual Bear Flag Revolt Celebration. We couldn’t have picked a better time to visit.
The Bear Flag Revolt is a quirky chapter in California history. In 1846 Alta California was still Mexico but it hosted numerous settlers from the United States. Relations between the Mexican government and the Americans were strained over issues of land claims, property ownership, and religion. The recent struggles in Texas were fresh in minds of the gringos who remembered all too well the Alamo. On June 14, 1846—165 years ago today—thirty-three armed Americans stormed Sonoma, took the local Mexican commander Mariano Vallejo prisoner, and pronounced themselves free of Mexican rule. They weren’t authorized to do this in the name of the United States, so they declared California to be a new democratic republic. They raised in the Plaza a hand-painted flag of their own design featuring a lone star in Texas’ honor, a grizzly bear, and the words, “California Republic.” That flag is the basis of the modern California flag flown today. The revolt lasted 25 days after which the U.S. Army arrived and raised the Stars and Stripes. Unbeknownst to the Osos (“bears” in Spanish), the United States had already formally declared war on Mexico and California was on the verge of changing hands yet again.
Happily the brief Sonoma revolt was bloodless; no one on either side was harmed. General Vallejo did catch malaria in captivity but he eventually recovered. History looks fondly on the Bear Flag incident, I think because there is something half-baked and frankly whiskey-soaked about the whole affair. It is after all in the heart of wine country. The revolutionaries were audacious but ultimately successful, and I imagine they fancied themselves Western sons of the Founding Fathers as they played their parts in the unfurling of Manifest Destiny.
So now, every year (off and on) the Native Sons of the Golden West Sonoma Parlor #111 commemorate the Bear Flag Revolt with a festival in the Plaza, traditionally with barbecued chicken dinners. After a whirlwind tour of the mission, Paulette and I stood in the shade around the amphitheater and watched the citizens reenact the revolt with a costumed, scripted play. Well, most of it was scripted. The locals in cowboy hats who portrayed the uprising mob mostly ad-libbed, punctuating dialogue with hearty “Hyahs!” as they fired blanks into the air from their period replica firearms. All the participants clearly enjoyed themselves and so did we.