Fort Ross State Historic Park in Sonoma County
Fort Ross State Historic Park

5 Amazing Historic Sites You Should Explore

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In the mid-1800s, Mexico ruled the Northern California region, owning hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchos in what is now much of Sonoma County. Russians and Alaskans also played a major role in the region's development, settling the coastal area near Jenner.

History buffs and sightseers of all kinds will enjoy these salutes to Wine Country's colorful past.

Fort Ross State Historic Park

Fort Ross State Historic Park in Sonoma County

This gorgeous destination offers a rich adventure, as a former Russian colony established in 1812. Back then, a Russian sailing ship anchored at what was then the home of a Kashia band of Pomo Indians, on a precious stretch of land they called Mettini, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The ship disgorged some two dozen Russian and 80 Alaskan immigrants, who promptly made themselves at home, building a camp, then houses and a stockade for their bluff-top community.

And they helped build the California coast we know today. This crew built the state's first ships and windmills, introduced glass-paneled windows, created the first brickyard, cataloged the local flora and fauna, completed detailed maps and were, as noted by Fort Ross Interpretative Association officials, among California's earliest entrepreneurs. Through this band of pioneers, Sonoma County established its Russian River region.

Some of the ancient wood structures still remain on the 3,200-acre cliff-top site, as does an antique canon and water tower. The visitor center features ongoing interpretive presentations about Russian-era buildings, neighborhoods, intercultural relations, agriculture and trade. 

19005 Coast Highway 1, Jenner, 707-847-3437

Mission San Francisco Solano

Docent-guided tours are available of this graceful white stucco and red tile structure that was originally founded on July 4, 1823. The parish and church was part of the 27-room living quarters used by the mission padre and young Indian converts. Now, it operates as a museum and art gallery, displaying Jorgensen watercolors of Missions of California, and cutouts of the building's unique construction of adobe bricks, adobe mortar, and mud plaster coated with lime plaster. Items of interest include an antique wafer iron for making Communion wafers, an 1840 weekly Devotional prayer booklet, and an anvil dating back to 1766, used for pounding out metal trim.

114 East Spain Street, Sonoma, 707-938-9560

Sonoma Barracks

interior of Sonoma Barracks in Sonoma County

Lieutenant Colonel Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was Comandante-General of the Northern Alta California's frontier forces and founder of the town of Sonoma. In June of 1846, Americans, under the banner of California's Bear Flag, staged a revolt against their Mexican rulers, eventually taking possession of California for the United States. The barracks served as a military post in 1852, home for United States soldiers, sailors, and militiamen. Now, the building depicts the life of the soldiers and displays an extensive collection of post-mission era items, including a well-preserved cannon and the original Bear flag.

Spain Street East and First Street East, Sonoma, 707-938-9560

General Vallejo's Home

Also called Lachryma Montis, this was the estate of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Military Commander and Director of Colonization of the Northern Frontier. Built in 1851-52 about a half mile west of The Plaza, the two-story, wood-frame house showcases a dramatic gothic Victorian style. Acquired by the State in 1933, it is now a museum, authentically preserved with original furniture like plush red velvet chairs, elaborate chandeliers and hand carved wood bedroom headboards. An adjacent chalet outbuilding holds more historical fixtures and tools of the time.

Third Street West and West Spain Street, Sonoma, 707-938-9559

The Blue Wing Inn, Sonoma

In 1975, the Blue Wing was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a member of the Sonoma Plaza National Historic Landmark District. Yet the adobe building first rose from the ground in 1836, as a small inn and pub for visitors. Over the years, it was expanded, developing it into a full hotel and store. Known by the locals as the Sonoma House, it hosted John C. Fremont, U.S. Grant, Kit Carson, Fighting Joe Hooker, William T. Sherman, Phil Sheridan, and members of the Bear Flag party. The building today is in the early planning stages of renovation, but its majesty can still be viewed from the outside.

East Spain Street, across from the Mission