Set your time machine for Santa Rosa, 1910; there was no better time during the early 20th century to live here. Even now, it’s an absolute pleasure to read the old newspapers and watch that year’s adventures unwind.

It was an election year and that always charged the air electric, particularly over at the Press Democrat where politics was something of a blood sport. There were four sensational murder/attempted murder cases, one which occurred during the performance of a play and one which was dramatically reenacted in court (more on that later). It was the year for Halley’s Comet and for a week or so it seemed that almost everyone was holding a “comet party,” sprawling on their lawn after dark in their nightgowns (more on that later, too).

But more than anything else, it was the year when Fred J. Wiseman and his airplane mesmerized the town. Over forty articles about him appeared in the local papers that year alone, many to report that the machine was being repaired, moved somewhere, or something was supposed to happen but didn’t. When the public even wants to hear about what you didn’t do, congratulations; you have achieved celebrity status beyond today’s Kardashians.

Even without Wiseman’s boost, Santa Rosa joined the rest of the country in going plane crazy that year. So wrought the brothers Wright that barely a week went by without newspapers reporting a flight record being broken or a plucky aviator barely escaping death by plummet. Sunday editions offered poems about flying, features about industrious children building gliders that were surely destined to break their limbs, photo spreads of dinky aircraft silhouettes flying in the distance and silly essays about impossible things, such as someday there would be trans-oceanic voyages by air (at 100 miles an hour!) or that wars would be fought by armies of bird-men.

Americans were hungry to participate by watching all that record-setting (and maybe plummeting) but opportunities were few. The first public West Coast flying exhibition came in Los Angeles during January, 1910. There French aviator Louis Paulhan flew for 35 minutes under ideal conditions, even bravely venturing out over the ocean. Others flying at that show included Charles Hamilton (more later) and aircraft designer Glenn Curtiss. Also: An Army officer in a dirigible tried to drop dummy bombs on a target, always a crowd favorite. The “air meet” moved to the Bay Area a week later, promoted by William Randolph Hearst – stop by an Examiner office for a half-price admission coupon – but Paulhan was the only pilot who flew. Weather was bad with 30 knot gusts; after a two day wait he finally made an eight minute hop when winds calmed at sunset, yet there were still 20,000 waiting to see that moment. Such was the fascination.

A few weeks later, the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce announced “initial steps were taken for holding a big aviation meet here at an early date…There will be at least three major flights scheduled for each day, one of which will be a cross country flights and back, with Petaluma, Healdsburg or Sonoma as the objective point. There will be at least three aviators present.” It was just big talk by a couple of promoters and nothing came of it, but there are a few details worth noting.

First, Chamber of Commerce President Ernest L. Finley seemed enthusiastic about the idea, judging by the article in the Press Democrat, which was edited and published by Ernest L. Finley. Was he the same Ernest L. Finley who wrote a 1905 editorial declaring that “the so-called flying machine [will never be] useful for any practical purpose”? Why yes, he was.

The only aviator apparently contacted about participating in the Santa Rosa air meet was Frank Johnson, a portly San Francisco clubman who was just learning to fly – somewhat. Johnson had purchased a Curtiss biplane for $8,000 at the Los Angeles exhibition but sold it a few months later after dropping it into San Francisco Bay. The SF Call wryly noted he had “other harrowing adventures in which his aeroplane crashed into fences and chased crowds of spectators around the field.” Perhaps it was a good thing that there was no air meet here for him to exhibit his skill at terrorizing audiences and general mishaps.

It’s also interesting that the PD article did not include any local “bird-men.” Charles Hamilton flew at the LA exhibition and elsewhere as the main demonstration pilot for Glenn Curtiss’ biplanes, but he was well known in Santa Rosa as a parachuting balloonist in prior years and in 1910 bought a home nearby. More significantly there was no mention of Blaine Selvage, who apparently made the first controlled flight in California (and probably the West Coast) a few months earlier in Eureka, an event covered in the Press Democrat. Selvage was still in the area with his custom-built plane. And, of course, Wiseman was not named as a flyer; just a day before the PD mentioned the planned air meet, an item appeared on the front page of the paper noting that he had given up auto racing and “will henceforth devote his time and attention to aeronautics.”

Fred J. Wiseman was already somewhat a local hero for his winning record in auto racing; as an exhibition driver for a San Francisco dealership, the 34 year-old Wiseman had raced the powerful Stoddard-Dayton automobiles sold by his boss throughout Northern California and Nevada to much acclaim. But his attendance at the Los Angeles air meet that January cemented his ambitions to take up flying and to build an aircraft with his long-time racing partner and mechanic, Jean Peters (AKA J. W. Peters, Julian Pierre and John Peters). Funding the venture was a $10,000 investment by Ben Noonan, an old Santa Rosa friend and former business partner of Wiseman’s as well as a race champ in his own right, having won the California Grand Prize Race a year earlier (Wiseman came in third). If they succeeded, it would be a sound investment; there was lots of money to be made in exhibition flying in those days. Louis Paulhan was reportedly earning $250,000 a year for appearances, the equivalent of over $6 million today.

Working under a tent in a pasture – appropriately, about a mile northeast of today’s Sonoma County Airport – they began assembling the flying machine the pair had started designing in San Francisco. About six weeks later their first test flight occurred.

Fred J. Wiseman and Jean Peters working on their aircraft at the Laughlin ranch, 1910. PHOTO: National Air and Space Museum

The Press Democrat printed a lengthy description of that version of their aircraft that will probably be of interest to historians (although not without mistakes; what they called “macadamite” was probably phenolic, for example, and poor Jean Peters was cleaved in twain, ID’ed simultaneously as “Julian Pierre and M. W. Peters”). The PD also erred in writing they were building a “Farman biplane.” Today it’s recognized that they ended up mixing features from Farman, Curtiss, and the Wright brother’s designs. Given that the Wrights were already suing Curtiss for patent infringement, the hybrid Peters-Wiseman plane had the potential to win any competition for Aeroplane Most Likely To End Up In Court.

Again the PD jumped the gun and promised the plane would fly a few weeks later at the Rose Carnival and they did participate, of sorts – but that’s getting ahead of our story. For this installment we’ll leave Fred soaring over the fields of Windsor to the delight of neighboring farmers. “Frequently the humming of the motor which is attached to the propeller of the flying machine has been heard of recent days,” reported the Press Democrat, “and the people there have been on the tiptoe of expectancy awaiting the time when the big machine would be lifted into the air.” If not a single other thing happened in 1910 worth remembering, that alone made it a terrific year.

Special Meeting of the Directors of the Chamber of Commerce to Be Held This Afternoon

Edward Foley and Archie Levy, two well-known amusement agents, are here trying to arrange for an aviation meet. If given the proper encouragement they will bring Johnson, who operates a Curtiss biplane, and at an early date give a meet lasting two days.


– Press Democrat, February 1, 1910
The Chamber of Commerce Appoints Committee to Make All the Necessary Plans and Arrangements

There Will Be Three Major Flights Each Day, One Being a Cross Country, and in Addition Efforts Will Be Made to Secure Dirigible Balloon

At a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce held Thursday evening, the initial steps were taken for holding a big aviation meet here at an early date. After a lengthy discussion of the matter, President Ernest L. Finley was authorized to name a committee to handle the proposition and sign all necessary contracts, when in its judgement, a satisfactory agreement with the aviators shall have been arrived at. The committee consists of…The committee will begin work at once, and unless something unexpected happens in the meanwhile, complete details will be forthcoming inside of the next few days.

Varying programs will be arranged for each day, and it is possible that prizes may be offered for special achievements. There will be at least three major flights scheduled for each day, one of which will be a cross country flights and back, with Petaluma, Healdsburg or Sonoma as the objective point. There will be at least three aviators present. In addition to Frank Johnson and his Curtiss biplane, an attempt is to be made to have Roy Knabenshue and his big dirigible balloon take place in the meet. The arrangements now under contemplation provide for a two-day’s meet some time this month and as soon as can be properly provided for. The meet is sure to draw an immense crowd, as Johnson will not show at any other point within a hundred miles of Santa Rosa, with the single exception of Sacramento.

– Press Democrat, February 4, 1910
Well Known Driver Quits Automobiling and Will Devote Time and Attention to Aeronautics

Fred Wiseman, well known in this city as a daring automobilists, [sic] has severed his connection with the firm of W. J. Leavitt and Company of San Francisco and will henceforth devote his time and attention to aeronautics.

In conjunction with a number of other enthusiasts, Mr. Wiseman is now engaged in the construction of a Farman biplane, which it is expected be completed inside of a couple of months. A new and improved motor is a feature expected to work wonders in connection with the machine now in process of construction.

Associated with Mr. Wiseman are several Santa Rosans, who have likewise become interested in the new form of locomotion. They claim to have a machine that will surprise all comers, and say their motor has many advantages over any now in use.

– Press Democrat, February 3, 1910

The Peters-Wiseman Machine Will Soon Be Used

The Peters-Wiseman aeroplane, upon which Fred Wiseman, Julian Pierre and M. W. Peters have been working since last October, was brought up from San Francisco yesterday by freight and unloaded at Mark West station, a few miles north of this city. There it will be re-assembled and its construction completed. The machine is housed in a huge tent that has been erected for the purpose on the Laughlin ranch, and when finished will be tested in the broad field adjoining which is admirable adapted to the purpose.

The machine is about forty-five feet long and thirty-six feet wide, and is of the biplane type. Accompanying the outfit are several mechanicians [sic], all of whom are enthusiastic in their predictions as to what the machine will accomplish. Julian Pierre is in charge and under no circumstances will visitors be admitted to see the aeroplane or even allowed in the field where the tent is located. As near as can be learned, the first test is expected to take place about two weeks from date.

– Press Democrat, March 2, 1910
Triumph of Flight Crowns Many Months of Labor, Experiment and Study by Wiseman and Peters

Bi-plane of Local Aviators Will Be Shown to the Crowds that Come to Santa Rosa in the First Week of May

Following several minor tests the Wiseman-Peters bi-plane made a perfect flight on Friday night in the big pasture field at the Laughlin ranch at Mark West, several miles from this city, where it has been assembled since the middle of March. Not only was the bi-plane built in Sonoma county, but the genius of Santa Rosa boys has achieved a triumph. They have a machine that won’t stay on the ground, and in the air is perfectly under control of the aviator.

As stated Friday night was really the first big test, the others having been principally to tension the mechanism. Twice on Friday night Aviators Wiseman and Peters circled the big field, soaring to a height of fifty feet, not attempting to fly high, however. This is but a foretaste of what may be expected. People in the neighborhood saw something Friday they had never seen before, and are loud in their praise of the achievement of the energetic young men who have done so nobly.

Will Fly at Carnival Time

 Thousands of people will be delighted and interested to know that the Wiseman-Peters bi-plane will fly here at Rose Carnival time, and will be a special feature for Sunday afternoon, May 8, the day following the fiesta. In the meantime other tests will be made, and it is especially requested that people refrain from going to the Laughlin ranch to see the machine as in doing so they will only be hindering the finishing touches. Naturally everybody is excited and interested but the aviators and designers say they cannot explain things to the people just now as they have no time. People will have plenty of opportunities to inspect the machine as it will be on public exhibition here during carnival week and all parts will be then explained.

 Worked Industriously

It was on October 17, 1909, that Wiseman and Peters got their heads together and commenced the actual construction of the bi-plane, which is now an assured fact, and is claimed by experts to be possibly the most perfect one in existence. At the time both were employed in the automobile business of J. W. Leavitt and Co., of San Francisco, both fearless as auto racers, and both well skilled in mechanical art. From October until January 1 of the present year they worked with automobiles during the day and spent their nights evolving their ideas in connection with the bi-plane and in the manufacture of parts. In January they severed their connection with the automobile business to devote their entire attention to the construction of their airship.

They took in the aviation meets in San Francisco and Los Angeles, examined carefully and intelligently the mechanism of the machines used there, and upon a comparison of notes determined to manufacture a bi-plane which would eclipse any of the great machines used in flights in either of those cities.

Their knowledge of machinery and years of experience in the auto business was just the thing, particularly in the matter of engine construction. A San Francisco firm turned out the engine they designed. Then Wiseman and Peters rebuilt it and triumphed in the construction of an engine developing fifty horse power and weighing 148 pounds, including propeller, gasoline and dual Bosch system.

Some idea of the fine points of construction can be gained when it is stated that in the manufacture of the sockets the builders have sixty-three different patterns on them and own them all, and have applied for patents. The sockets are made of Macadamite, which is stronger and lighter and looks like aluminum.

The Wood Work

The woodwork is all laminated, two, three and four piece, and is cut tapered to the wind. The ribs of the bi-plane are three lamination making the ribs about a quarter of an inch thick and half an inch wide. Yet one of these ribs is so strong that a big man can stand on it and it will not bend.

The cloth is the best that can be procured anywhere in the world, and is manufactured specially for the purpose for which it is used.

The Wiring System

Three different styles of wiring have been employed in the construction of the bi-plane, similar to the network of wires one finds in a piano. In the network of wires in the airship there are 585 wires. The turnbuckles of different sizes are made of macadamite. The smallest turn buckle will stand a test of 1,150 pounds pressure; the middle one will not yield at a pressure of 1,940 pounds, and the largest one will not break at 4,000 pounds pressure. Before they got the kind of turn buckle they wanted for the machine Wiseman and Peters made hundreds of them and threw them away.

The wheels re manufactured after the most approved style of workmanship for the purpose for which they are intended.

In the rear of the bi-plane a light skid is used. The skid is of hickory which on the rear kite acts as wheels.

The plane in front works alternately with the plane in the rear kite. In case the driver wishes to rise he raises the plane in front and that drops the one in the rear and the machine ascends. In balancing on a curve or turn or in a current of air he manipulates the controls with his shoulders.

The seat is situated in front of the engine. There is an attachment in reach of the foot of the aviator by which he can control the height area of flight and speed.

The total weight of the Wiseman-Peters bi-plane is 670 pounds. Five gallons of gasoline and three gallons of oil are sufficient for a twenty-mile flight.

All California Material

In the construction of the Wiseman-Peters bi-plane all the material used is California product with the exception of the cloth and propeller. The cloth and propeller were secured in a foreign country. In the selection of the wood used over thirty thousand feet of lumber was gone over and the selection made. Fred Wiseman has had entire charge of the construction work. In conjunction with Mr. Peters, and with the assistance of Don Prentiss they have carried out their design to a triumphant finish and Santa Rosa can well be proud of the fact that a Santa Rosa boy has figured so prominently in the invention. Ben Noonan is the general manager and treasurer of the company, Wiseman and Peters are aviators, and Don Prentiss is the secretary of the concern. All are deserving of the warmest congratulations.

Wiseman and Peters are in San Francisco now selecting lumber for the construction of another bi-plane for use in case of accident.

Second American Machine

Another important feature about the Wiseman-Peters bi-plane is that it is practically the second American machine built outside of the Wright and Curtiss machines.

– Press Democrat, April 23, 1910
Wiseman and Peters Both Make Trips Into Air

The huge flying machine which was recently taken to the Laughlin ranch near Mark West station has been making successful flights into the air for several nights past. This is a great distinction for Santa Rosa boys Fred J. Wiseman, the racing automobile driver, is one of the aviators who has been making the flights and Peters, the mechanician, has also been seated in the big bird machine when it soared into the atmosphere.

Residents of the vicinity have been much interested in the maneuverings of the big flying machine, and have matched its dainty evolutions in the air. The flights which have been made have been extremely successful, and demonstrate that the activities of the young men connected with the trials have been along proper lines.

Don Prentiss, when seen Saturday morning, would not admit nor deny that flights have been made, but from the people residing in the vicinity it is learned that on Friday evening the big machine was frequently in the air with its burden of humanity, handling the levers.

Frequently the humming of the motor which is attached to the propeller of the flying machine has been heard of recent days, and the people there have been on the tiptoe of expectancy awaiting the time when the big machine would be lifted into the air and perform evolutions. On Friday evening the residents had the satisfaction of witnessing the flight and of seeing the macine in maneuvering and turning in the air, indicating how easily it is controlled.

From the descriptions given of the aerial flights, the machine is in every way an unqualified success, and much is expected of it in the future. It is most likely that the machine will be exhibited here during the carnival and probable that flights will be arranged for the afternoon of Sunday, May 8, the day following the carnival.

The machines is known as the Wiseman-Peters bi-plane, and the young men have been building the machine at the place where the flights were made since the first part of March. At that time the parts of the machine were packed in boxes and at the ranch the machine has been assembled and gotten into splendid working condition. It is one of the strongest flying machines on the market, and its dimensions are about thirty-four by forty-four feet.

Associated with Wiseman and Peters are Don C. Prentiss and Ben Noonan of this city. They have made a great success of their undertaking.

The huge bird-like machine was off the ground for quite a goodly length of time Friday evening, and this performance was repeated many times.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 23, 1910

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Who knew? The actors in those century-old silent movies were actually cussing up a storm. The lip readers knew about it, of course, and some were in high dudgeon as a result, demanding censorship. And who can blame them? While watching the hero profess his undying love to his maidenly ingenue, for example, it would be a bit disconcerting to discover he was actually swearing like a lumberjack on Saturday night.

Santa Rosa learned about photoplay profanity in a 1910 Press Democrat editorial, where Ernest Finley called it “one of the strangest stories of the year,” apparently because he was astonished that such a thing as lip reading existed.

But it is a bit of surprise (at least to me) to find that salty language was common in films so early.   Movie cussing was well known and acknowledged as a problem during the roaring part of the 1920s, and headed the list of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” compiled by the studio execs in 1927. Some films – particularly “What Price Glory?” released the previous year – made no effort to rein in the actors; a review at the time noted, “Victor McLaglen takes the honors in acting and unbridled profanity, and the film leaves no doubt as to what words are being used.” (Those interested in exercising their lip reading skills can practice on this clip, starting at around the 5:15 marker.) Movie controversy of the 1920s is off-topic here, but for anyone wanting more info there’s a cinema blog that has an enjoyable discussion with clips from other movies. I’ll only add that, wow, Gloria Swanson really had a mouth on her.

The PD didn’t publish the original wire service story, but it’s pretty easy to find in other newspapers, given its sensational nature. It seems Mrs. Elmer Bates of Cleveland, a “noted deaf mute instructor and lecturer,” visited a half-dozen theaters and found “shocking language was used in all the shows visited.”

Mrs. Bates made a tour of the downtown shows yesterday accompanied by a reporter who wrote down the picture talk, and at times the language was so vile that she had to stop…Curses, vile names and vile comments are indulged in by the performers while being photographed, often without the least semblance of relation to the play being performed. The profanity and obscene language seem to be addressed by members of the companies to one another on the spur of the moment.

Mrs. Bates tried to get the mayor to do something, but he passed the buck to the Humane society. (Meaning the American Humane Association, not today’s Humane Society of the United States; the Association’s activities include the protection of children as well as animals.) The Association told her it wasn’t for them and she should take it up with the movie studios. Her protest presumably faded there. 

Obl. Believe-it-or-not twist to the story: Mrs. Bates’ husband was Elmer E. Bates, a famous Cleveland sportswriter. He was best known for covering the disastrous 1899 season of the Cleveland Spiders (later renamed the Indians) when the National League team lost 134 games, which still stands as the worst performance in baseball history. Had Mrs. Bates visited the ballpark with her husband during those games, I’m certain she would have heard language far, far more ripe than anything shown in one-reel melodramas and slapstick flickers.


 One of the strangest stories of the year comes from Cleveland, Ohio. The deaf-mutes of that city have protested against certain of the moving pictures exhibited in the theaters there. None but deaf mutes can detect anything wrong with those pictures, but to them they are objectionable. By reason of their affliction, the deaf become proficient in what is known as “lip reading.” This proficiency enables them to derive more enjoyment and profit from moving pictures than their neighbors get who are endowed with good hearing. That is, if the actors stick to the text of the play. But it has become a common thing for the performers whose “stunts” are photographed for the moving films to vary the text to suit their own moods and minds, and where the practice is allowed they have numerously lapsed into profanity and obscenity, meanwhile keeping up all the “stage business” so that to any but a lip reader their acting is correct. But to the deaf mutes the silent profanity is as real as vocal profanity is to the rest of mankind, and the mutes in Cleveland ask that the city authorities have the reels censored by a lip-reader before they are exhibited in public.

 – Press Democrat editorial, December 25, 1910

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Pity the Petaluma Adobe, the Rodney Dangerfield of local state parks; it don’t get no respect. It was on the short list of parks slated to be closed in 2012 but even after a reprieve when the state discovered a hidden pile of cash intended for park operations, it’s not clear whether it will remain open past June of 2014. Through its authentically boring displays, countless urban schoolchildren have learned all that they never needed to know about 1840s cattle farming and the life and times of General Mariano Vallejo, a man known for speeches so stultifyingly dull that he inspired the creation of the Squeedunks.

(RIGHT: The Petaluma Adobe, which was “falling into decay” when it was purchased in 1910 by Native Sons of the Golden West. This 1934 postcard created for its centennial shows the building in markedly better condition than seen in turn-of-the-century photographs)

To make matters worse, the venerable place is being slowly  pecked to death by birds because the state stripped off the adobe plaster in the 1950s. Kids, there’s your homework assignment: Describe what happens to a fragile historic property when decades pass without significant preservation efforts. Now let’s get back on the schoolbus to visit Santa Rosa and the slightly later Carrillo Adobe, which has no preservation plan whatsoever and which the homeless are tearing apart for firewood.

The Petaluma Adobe is what it is, and that’s a glimpse at the agricultural side of California’s Mexican past. Nothing of note happened on the property; General Vallejo himself was only there occasionally, and when he sold it to a farmer in 1857, even that ho-hum link to history ended. Come about a half century later, the section of the property with the old Adobe – “gradually falling into decay,” as a 1910 Press Democrat editorial noted – was bought by the Petaluma branch of the Native Sons of the Golden West, a fraternal lodge open only to men born in California. For them, something very important had happened there indeed: The birth of the first American in the state.

According to the account that appeared in their lodge magazine, The Grizzly Bear,” in November of 1846, General Vallejo came upon a family of settlers camped by a creek during a rainstorm. Vallejo discovered the leader of the troupe was ex-governor of Missouri Lilburn Boggs and insisted they be his guests at the Adobe:

The next morning Governor Boggs’ family were all moved over to the large adobe building on his Petaluma rancho, which was well stocked with horses, cattle and sheep. “Make yourself perfectly at home here,” said General Vallejo, “kill all you want for beef and mutton, and ride all the horses you wish, and if there is anything more you need just let me know and you shall have it.” Just the, or soon after, a wail and a cry from Mrs. William Boggs and general distress of the female portion of the family. A child had been born and apparently dying, if not already dead.

 As quick as a flash, General Vallejo drew his knife, jumped into the corral, and killing a young ram, stripped off its hide while still warm and wrapped that baby boy, who was apparently dead, up in it. Asking the parents if they had any objections to the child being baptized, they said, “No!” “What name will you give him?” he inquired. “Give him your name, General,” they replied, and so that baby boy was baptized by the General and named Guadalupe Vallejo Boggs, when all declared he was dead.

 However, there was a spark of life remaining in him, and he revived, and the child had a second and miraculous birth from the spirit of God.

It’s a ripping good yarn that was reprinted in newspapers over the years, including the paper in the town where Guadalupe Vallejo Boggs raised his family. Unfortunately, none of the dying-baby-ram-skinning part is true. In a 1910 letter to the Press Democrat, G. V. Boggs’ father rambles a bit about the Adobe and mentions that Vallejo showed up a week or two after the baby was born and asked that the child be named after himself. (Baby Boggs got off lucky; Vallejo stuck one of his own kids with the monicker “Napoleon Primo.”)

The claim that the baby was the first American born in California is also silly, considering California was then still part of Mexico and the Mexican-American War wasn’t quite over. It is more truthful to say that this was probably the last child of American immigrants born in Alta California, but that doesn’t have quite the ring.

But the Boggs’ didn’t need to photoshop their image to make themselves appear more interesting; theirs is a family whose trails criss-cross American history so often it is nearly unbelievable.

Patriarch Lilburn Boggs was governor of Missouri during the 1838 Mormon War, where confrontations between non-Mormon settlers and the growing population of Joseph Smith’s followers led both sides to violence and vigilante terrorism. Boggs ended the conflict by declaring “Mormons must be treated as enemies” and ordering the estimated 10,000 Mormons in the state to abandon their property and get out, a directive so extreme that it outraged even Mormon opponents. Nearly four years later, an assassin came close to killing Boggs by shooting him the head while he was reading a newspaper at home. It was widely assumed that the gunman was the notorious Porter Rockwell, a personal friend of Joseph Smith who was called “the Destroying Angel of Mormondom,” but he was acquitted at trial. Years later, son William wrote the family believed Joseph Smith had a death warrant out for him.

(RIGHT: Lilburn Boggs)

Completely recovered from his gunshot wounds, Lilburn and his family joined a wagon train headed west. Lilburn soon was recognized as the leader and the group became known as “Boggs Company.” As they reached the Continental Divide there was disagreement on how to proceed; Boggs’ faction continued following the well-marked Oregon Trail, but some of the others opted to try another route said to be shorter; that faction called themselves the Donner Party.

The Boggs clan settled in Sonoma and Napa Counties and Lilburn, who hoped to spend his senior years quietly as a merchant (and presumably under the Mormon’s revenge radar), became involved with politics in the post-Bear Flag Revolt period when California was not yet a state. He was named Alcalde for all of Northern California, which made him the only recognized legal authority for the vast territory above San Francisco Bay. A story circulated years later that he broke the news about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, but that’s not true. (Many other examples of misinformation about the Boggs’ family abound and continue today; a well-reviewed academic book published in 2011, for example, claims it was Lilburn who directed his grandson to be named after Vallejo in order to forge a strategic alliance and it was Vallejo – despite his shaky legal status after Mexico lost the war – who arranged to have his buddy appointed to the powerful position of Alcalde. Say what?)

Lilburn’s children became notable figures in their own right. His son, Thomas, spent part of his childhood with his uncle, Albert Boone (did I mention Lilburn’s wife was Daniel Boone’s granddaughter?) who was an Indian trader on the Missouri River. Tom Boggs learned several Indian languages and struck out on his own at age 16, where he worked in the Southwest for the Bent brothers, who were also his uncles. Tom and his wife formed an extended family with Mr. and Mrs. Kit Carson and when the famous frontiersman died, the Boggs’ raised Carson’s five orphaned children. His is another adventure story but it has little to do with Sonoma County; you can read a detailed (if flawed) biography here.

William Boggs was also a kid when he joined older brother Tom and uncles in running their trading post on the Santa Fe trail, then returning to Missouri to marry and join his family in the famous wagon train. It was William, whose son was born at the Adobe, who apparently had the family’s closest association with Vallejo (although the old general appeared in Judge Lilburn’s court both as the accused and aggrieved). William was primarily a capitalist who made a good living buying and selling land. To promote local agriculture he and others incorporated a nursery to propagate and sell plant and seed, with Vallejo as VP and wine-making pioneer Agoston Haraszthy as President and nursery supervisor. William was also a neighbor of Haraszthy, and together they platted the vineyards for his Buena Vista winery.

But what makes William interesting is that he was also the author of letters and essays that are – or should be – priceless to historians who study that era. His short biography of his father reveals the family thought Joseph Smith personally ordered the attempted murder. He wrote a 1907 reminisce of life at the Petaluma Adobe that is often quoted as an important primary source, as well as the letter to the Press Democrat about the birth of his son transcribed below. (He may have been an important writer, but apparently his penmanship left much to be desired; in the PD item the name of the General’s brother, Salvador, is misspelled as “Salvachons,” apparently because the typesetter couldn’t read the old man’s bad handwriting.)

(RIGHT: Detail of photo showing William Boggs and General Vallejo c. 1885 at the Hotel del Monte in Monterey. Vallejo is extending a Mexican flag on a floral exhibit commemorating the soldiers who fought in the Mexican-American War. Photograph courtesy UC Berkeley/Bancroft Library; click here for complete image)

And that’s just the well-known stuff. William also authored a book-length essay about his time with brother Thomas and their “life among the Indians,” with an edited and abridged version appearing in the March, 1930 issue of The Colorado Magazine. Thanks to Google Books, I stumbled across a letter by William  that states Vallejo betrayed Mexico and covertly aided the U.S. at a crucial juncture on the eve of the Mexican-American War. If true, this rewrites Vallejo’s biography and history of the war. And finally, thanks to Bancroft, we know William wrote often for the Napa Register around 1872 concerning the war and the Bear Flag Revolt, suggesting there is likely still more to be found. Undoubtedly William M. Boggs deserves some serious attention from scholars. Any PhD candidates out there looking for a dissertation topic?

If you still don’t have your fill of the remarkable Boggs family there’s grandson Francis, who was born in Santa Rosa and became a pioneer of another sort. He was a theatrical actor who became interested in directing some of those new motion pictures, directing about 200 shorts between 1907 and 1911. He directed L. Frank Baum’s “Fairylogue and Radio-Plays,” a pastiche made from several stories from the Oz books performed in a two-hour stage production that mixed live action with color film and slides. But Francis’ most notable contribution to the history of movies was his opening in 1909 the first production studio in Los Angeles over the objections of his boss in Chicago. Within two years almost all of the big East Coast studios moved to LA as well. If not for Francis Boggs, there may not have been a Hollywood.

 Reminiscense of the Late General Vallejo

 From W. M. Boggs, one of the earliest pioneers of California and Sonoma county, the Press Democrat has received a letter of particular historical interest at this time. It refers to the “Old Adobe” near Petaluma, which was built by General Vallejo as a summer home for himself and his family, on his big Petaluma Rancho. Mention was made a few days ago of an offer by its present owner, to present the old building to the City of Petaluma. No man is better qualified to speak of the old historic building than Mr. Boggs, as he lived in it in the early part of 1846. Mr. Boggs’ communication is as follows:

 222 Seminary street, Napa City, Jan. 18, 1910. Editor Press Democrat–Dear Sir:

 In looking over the columns of the Examiner today I noticed an item headed “Old Fort Given to City,” presumably to the City of Petaluma by J. A. Bliss of Washington, D. C., nephew of W. D. Bliss, formerly of Petaluma, a gentleman whom I remember well in the early history of Petaluma City.

 I wish to correct a historical error in calling the old adobe building erected by General Vallejo on his original Petaluma grant. “An Old Fort.” I am somewhat familiar with the history of that structure since early on 1846. My father’s family and myself and wife were kindly tendered the use of the building by General Vallejo on our first arrival in Sonoma. It was the first shelter we obtained and it was then not completed. The carpenters were yet at work on the interior. The late Henry Fowler of Napa and his aged father, William Fowler Sr., were the men or carpenters employed to do the finishing work in the building which was a large square building with a court on the inside (the usual Mexican or Spanish style.) The wide verandas above were some twelve feet in width. The walls on the south and east side were not completed, but were covered with tule to protect them from the rain. The front of the main building had wide verandas, and round to the northwest corner of the building. The building was constructed by General Vallejo for his family residence on his Petaluma Rancho, and had been occupied by them before the General tendered it to our family to winter in. The lower rooms were used for storing grain, hides and other ranch products. Some of General Vallejo’s family furniture and other household effects were still in the rooms above, where they were kept for use in the summer when the General and his family came from his town residence to spend the summer months.

 On our arrival in the night at the ranch, General Vallejo had gone ahead of our worn-out teams. He had his Indian servants prepare supper for our families. The tables were spread with linen table cloths, sperm candles were in the chandeliers, and we had a regular Spanish-cooked repast prepared by his old family Indian cook. The General withen on the table, helping all the large family. After supper was served he handed my wife a large bunch of keys to the various rooms, and assigned one large well finished room to myself and wife, in which our eldest son was born on the 4th day of January, 1847. This was a month or two after our arrival. With a few volunteers I had crossed the Bay to enlist in the war with Mexico. While I was away the General came over from his residence in Sonoma to visit my father and family, and he found another young American emigrant only a week or two old, who had not yet been named. He expressed a desire to see the new arrival and on being shown the youngster, he enquired his name. My mother told him he was not named yet and requested him to name him. He replied, if you give me permission to name him, I will name him for myself–Guadalupe Vallejo Boggs. Everyone consented with pleasure. That young man is now in his 63rd year and lives in Oregon and claims to be the first white boy born under the American flag in California. One or two female children were born in Sutter’s Fort probably before or about the same time of year. Mr. Fowler Sr., made a fine redwood cradle for Mrs. Boggs which was a very nice finished piece of carpenter work. The madame expressed her fears as to its durability, the work was so finely executed. The old gentleman said it would last to rock all the children she would have, and it was kept in the family until the baby it was made for grew up and had children of his own and they were also rocked in it.

 Now, Mr. Editor, I did not intend to bore you or wish to occupy valuable space in your worthy journal, although I claim to be the first man to sign the petition to start the Sonoma Democrata when the blank was presented to me by my old friend, Thomas Thompson. My object was to correct the error that the Petaluma house was an old fort. It is so called on their pictorial post cards, and the press also speaks of it as the “Old Fort.”

 General Vallejo never build but one fort north of the Bay, and that was the barracks in old Sonoma, where the “Bear Flag” was hoisted, commonly called the Quartel, and the General told me that he worked on that with his own hands.

 By publishing this you will correct an error that has been published time after time. Sutter’s Fort and Fort Ross (built by Russians) and the Barracks in the northeast corner of old Sonoma plaza, were the only forts built by the Mexican authorities, except the old Presidio, at San Francisco, and the old barracks at Monterey. Don Salvachons’ [sic] now large adobe on the west side of Sonoma Plaza has been called an old fort also, that building was not finished until after we came to Sonoma, and Don Salvachons, the brother of the General built it after we moved to Sonoma from the Petaluma Ranch. A frame addition was added to it on the north side or end facing the street that leads out toward Santa Rosa, and a hotel was made of it and kept by the late Hon. George Pearce and Isaac Randolph, his partner. This building has also been designated as an old fort by ye modern historians. Americans did the carpenter work on both of these buildings after we took the country from Mexico.

  – Press Democrat, January 21, 1910


 Although not as well known as some others, one of Sonoma county’s most interesting landmarks is the huge adobe ranch house near Petaluma, erected by the late General Vallejo during the days of Mexico’s supremacy–“before the Gringos came.” This property, together with five acres of land, is to be presented to the city of Petaluma under an agreement whereby the municipality binds itself to care for and preserve the same. Many historic recollections are clustered about the old structure, which for several years has been gradually falling into decay, and it is gratifying to learn that the building is to be preserved as its importance so well warrants. With the expenditure of a little money, the proper amount of taste, and some energy, the old adobe could be made a great show place, serving as still another attraction for tourists and again emphasizing the fact that Sonoma county is one of the most historic portions of the state. Petaluma owes it to the county to do this now that the property is about to come into her possession, and can doubtless be depended upon to discharge her obligation fully and well.

 – Press Democrat editorial, January 20, 1910

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