Exploring California History in Sonoma

Sonoma Plaza

In the mid-1800s, Mexico ruled the region, owning hundreds of thousands of acres of ranchos in what is now much of Sonoma County. Yet it wasn’t long before the U.S. government and the territory and state of California claimed its centerpiece – the burgeoning little town of Sonoma.

Even as modern Sonoma has evolved, it has much to cherish about its past.

Some of the most interesting landmarks to explore (reflecting the town’s deep cultural roots) are found in Sonoma State Historic Park, which consists of multiple locations centered around Sonoma Plaza.

As the largest plaza of its kind in California, Sonoma Plaza is now a community center ringed with charming shops and popular restaurants. However, its roots were planted centuries ago as the northernmost Franciscan Mission in California and birthplace of the California State Bear Flag.

Tucked all around the plaza are reminders of the town’s significant past, with a half dozen historical attractions including Mission San Francisco Solano, the Blue Wing Inn, Sonoma Barracks, the Toscano Hotel, the Servants Quarters (the remains of La Casa Grande), and Vallejo’s Home. 

Although they are in different locations in downtown Sonoma, they are all considered part of the Sonoma State Historic Park, and can be visited in an easy day of walking, with plenty of stops for snacks and wine tasting in between.

Mission San Francisco Solano

Mission in Sonoma on a sunny, blue sky day
Mission San Francisco Solano

The mission is the 21st and northernmost mission on California’s mission trail. The graceful white stucco and red tile structure was originally founded on July 4, 1823. The parish and church were part of the 27-room living quarters used by the mission padres 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.

Docent-guided tours are available. 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.

Sonoma Barracks

The white adobe building sits along the Sonoma Plaza
Sonoma Barracks

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 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.

After that the barracks served as a military post, home to United States soldiers, sailors, and militiamen. In 1860, Vallejo remodeled the building into a winery; in later years other owners used it as a store, law office, and private residence. The state of California bought it in 1958. Today 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.

General Vallejo’s Home

Also called Lachryma Montis, this two-story, wood-frame house 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 structure showcases a dramatic gothic Victorian style.

Acquired by the state of California in 1933, it is now a museum. Vallejo’s home is authentically preserved with original furniture, such as plush red velvet chairs, elaborate chandeliers, and hand-carved wood bedroom headboards. An adjacent chalet outbuilding holds other historical fixtures and tools of the time.

The Blue Wing Inn

This adobe building first rose from the ground in 1836, as a small inn and pub for visitors. In 1975, the Blue Wing Inn was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a member of the Sonoma Plaza National Historic Landmark District.

Over the years, the original small building 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 stages of renovation, but can still be viewed from the outside.

Toscano Hotel

This wood-frame building next to the Sonoma Barracks was built during the 1850s as a general goods store, library, and low-cost hotel, catering to Italian (Toscano) immigrants, among others. Then the gray, two-story, wood-frame building evolved into a kitchen, dining room, and boarding house stretching over two buildings. Docent in period costumes lead tours of the building, including offering details on the antique cooking implements in the kitchen.

La Casa Grande

The historic Sonoma Barracks are available to tour
Sonoma Barracks

This 1836 adobe building on the west side of the plaza once housed Captain Salvador Vallejo, brother of General Mariano G. Vallejo. Built as one of the most important mansions in the area, it was the center of social and political life north of San Francisco Bay, as visitors streamed in to see various city leaders of the Bear Flag revolt.

From 1858 to 1864 it was home to Cumberland College, a Presbyterian co-educational boarding school. Eventually it became a retail store, then a city council chamber, and finally a girls’ school. The main wing of the house was destroyed by fire on Feb. 12, 1867, leaving only the low two-story servants’ wing on Spain Street, which still stands today. That wing now houses several small retail businesses.

For a unique guided tour of Sonoma, Gourmet Food & Wine Tours offers a 90-minute walking tour that’s topped off with Sweet Scoops Ice Cream.

Written by Sonoma Insider Carey Sweet.

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