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Monday, February 01, 1982

Vallejo’s Petaluma Adobe

Ernest D. Wichels

This column is primarily dedicated to Napa and Solano history, but there has to be room for a brief reference to the largest adobe ranch house in California, built by the man for whom our city is named.

This is California State Monument No. 8. A monument differs from a state historical landmark in that a monument has a full-time ranger in charge, as at the Benicia State Capitol, Hearst’s San Simeon, Sutter’s Fort, and others.  The story of the Petaluma Adobe is one of the treasured tales of early California; it has been fully described by historian Bancroft in Vallejo’s own papers in the Bancroft Library and more recently by Brad Champlin in the October 1978 issue of the California Historical Society’s Courier.

Champlin a retired editor and a graduate student of history at Sonoma State College, is the great-grandson of the man who purchased a ranch from Mariano Vallejo in 1856. Some of the equipment now display at the Petaluma Adobe includes pre-Civil War tools from this Champlink Ranch in that area of Sonoma County.  This Petaluma Adobe, just mile or so east of that city, was one of the stopping places on the Fremont Trail that horseback route through Solano, Napa and Sonoma Counties that connected Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento with Fort Ross in the 1830s and 1840s.

The Rockville Road between Green Valley and Rockville Corners is part of that original trail. The eastern section of the Coombsville Road in Napa County is, likewise, o he original configuration of the trail.  The construction of this adobe started in 1836 by Lieutenant Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, then 29 years old.  It was the headquarters and warehouse for Vallejo’s 66,000-acre Mexican land grant, and across this expanse moved thousands of cattle, hundreds of horses and dozens of vaqueros or cowboys.

The big adobe building was one of the first of its kind to be roofed by shakes, or shingles, instead of the traditional handmade tiles. Legend tells us that the art of splitting shakes was brought to Sonoma by George Calvert Yount in 1834 or 1835. Yount was the founder of Yountville.

The outside walls are 3 feet thick at bottom and 2 feet thick at the top. The longest side, facing west, extends 178 feet, with an additional 24 feet for porches. The two perpendicular wings existing today were originally similar lengths. The missing end of the building was destroyed by fire and storms in the 1870s.

Some 2,000 friendly Miwok Indians were trained here in a sort of factory to manufacture blankets, soap and candles, handmade nails, cloth and shoes.  For trade with people to the south, Petaluma Rancho produced wheat, tallow and hides. A great variety of vegetables was raised to feed the local population of workers. Apparently, wine was also made from the local wild grape or from the introduced Mission variety of grape.

Mariano’s land grant of 1834 required that he build a house within a year; accordingly, he erected a small adobe home on a trout-filled stream flowing west from Sonoma Mountain.

In this house he installed his younger brother. Salvador, to begin preparations for building the “big house” the Petaluma Adobe. Salvador Vallejo later was given a Mexican land grant, called “Napa Rancho,” which included most of the area from Napa’s First Street north to the Yount Grant, and between Napa River and the Mayacamas mountains to the west.  Salvador Vallejo built an adobe house on what is now known as the Longwood Ranch, at the junction of Silverado Trail and Trancas Road. Also, it was Salvador’s daughter who married Dr. Bale, the man who built and operated the famous Bale Flour Mill, the Historic Landmark on the highway between St. Helena and Calistoga.

Champin tells us that the Miwoks manufactured the thousands of adobe bricks, 3 by 11 by 21 inches, patiently stomping the wet adobe mix with dry grass as the binder.  Four Hawaiians sawed and adzed the redwood beams for the second floor and roof beams.

In Gen. Vallejo’s memoirs he said: “In 1843 my wheat and barley crops amounted to 72,000 Spanish bushels, corn about 5,000, besides an overabundance of beans, peas, lentils and vegetables.  Sir George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Co. wrote: “Back in 1841 when the herd was only 15,000, Vallejo took in $18,000 from the sale of hides alone, not counting the tallow.”

Due to financial difficulties, Vallejo sold the Adobe property to a William Whiteside in 1857, who sold it two years later to William Bliss. The building fell into disrepair, and in 1910 the Bliss heirs deeded Petaluma Adobe to the Native Sons of the Golden West, who began restoration.  The state took title in 1951, replaced the roof and continued the restoration.  Today the building contains authentic rancho-period furniture and equipment as befits its historic significance.

Mariano Vallejo’s official title when ordered to Sonoma County in 1834 was “Commandante-General of the Northern Territory;” it is from this office that he derives the current title of Gen. Vallejo, although his highest rank in the Mexican Army was that of colonel.  Napans and Solanoans who have not visited these Sonoma landmarks should do so both the adobe, Vallejo’s Sonoma home, and the Francisco de Solano Mission. And remember, this is the Solano Mission, not the Sonoma Mission.