The McDonalds were the best known people we knew almost nothing about.

Readership of the previous article, “THE McDONALDS vs SANTA ROSA,” was unusually high and the reaction on social media trended to expressions of shock. I likewise confess to being astonished as I began looking closely at the legendary figure of Mark L. McDonald; after all, historians have told us for over a century about his boundless generosity toward Santa Rosa and everyone here.

But as introduced in that piece, quite the opposite was true. He fought against all efforts to improve Santa Rosa unless it would put a dollar in his pocket and he was given credit for projects he had little or nothing to do with. Modern historians have further burnished his reputation because they haven’t realized how badly it was actually tarnished.

Commenters on social media seemed particularly surprised to learn about the family’s support of the Confederate cause, so more details about that are provided below.

Most misinformation about Mark and his family can be traced to his 1911 profile in the county history written by Tom Gregory and “McDonald Avenue: A Century of Elegance” privately published in 1970 by Ann M. Connor. Gregory’s biographical details came from Mark himself, as was common in all “mug book” local histories. Connor did not cite her sources aside for names collectively mentioned in the acknowledgements.

Some of the McDonald stories fall into the category of probably not true, or at least not completely so. For example, it’s now often said Luther Burbank helped landscape McDonald Avenue. The street was originally lined with only eucalyptus trees, a species Burbank never used (and nor would he have approved of planting such a bland monoculture). Yet Burbank – who arrived in Santa Rosa during 1875, the same year as Mark McDonald – might well have later donated trees or other plants to the McDonalds for the street or their private garden; there are still all sorts of Burbank novelties to be found in the older neighborhoods of town.

McDonald Avenue c. 1900 lined with eucalyptus trees. Photo Sonoma County Library
McDonald Avenue c. 1900 lined with eucalyptus trees. Photo Sonoma County Library


There are some stories that would be interesting to explore but lie outside the bounds of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County.

One astonishing claim in Mark L. McDonald’s 1911 profile was he came to California in the early 1850s as the captain leading a wagon train with sixty wagons, fighting Indians along the way. As he was then twenty-something, had never been out west nor seemed to be much of an outdoorsman, there are reasons to be skeptical about his account.

Mark’s San Francisco stockbrokerage went bust at least twice before his adventures began in Santa Rosa, with events in 1871 being so serious that newspapers nationwide were saying he was ruined. That could mean he was not as wealthy as everyone believed and explain some of his bullying and uncivility, as it was critically important to him for investments in Santa Rosa to be highly profitable.

Also in 1871 James McDonald, his lesser-known brother who would come to own quite a bit of real estate here, was principal owner of the Keystone gold mine during a particularly dark moment in early labor conflicts, which included miners setting fire to a mineshaft. Called the “Amador War” by the newspapers, James was acting as manager during the crisis and directing company actions.

The lives of the McDonald children are well documented and not particularly interesting – except for Mabel. She died of pneumonia in Berlin, Germany in 1917, having made it her permanent residence about two weeks after the start of WWI. (She renewed her U.S. passport Aug. 15, 1914 at the U.S. consolate in Hamburg, so she could have gotten out of the country if desired.) Her husband and six year-old son remained in San Francisco. Why she chose to live in wartime Germany was never explained.

What is never mentioned by any of the historians were details of Mark and wife Ralphine’s Southern roots – and how both grew up in families who owned slaves.

According to the federal 1850 “Slave Schedule,” James M. McDonald of Washington Kentucky had seven, three of them adult men and one woman. The youngest child was two years old. Ralph North of Natchez Mississippi had six slaves on the same Schedule, including two adult women and a man. The enslaved children were ages seven (twins?) and nine.

James came to California in Mark’s wagon train (or maybe an earlier train which included two other sons). Ralph stayed in Mississippi and joined the Confederate Army, serving as 2nd Lieutenant in the home guard despite being nearly 50. He organized charity drives to collect clothing – particularly, wool socks – for soldiers, so it’s in character for him to have helped organize Santa Rosa’s 1867 “Southern Relief Fund” mentioned in the previous chapter. Other than that he was a respected attorney and resumed being a judge after he returned to Mississippi, admired for having written what was considered a definitive text on probate law.

Another family mystery is how and when Mark and Ralphine met. Her father Ralph appeared in California quickly after the end of the Civil War; he was admitted to the state bar in July 1865 and in September began advertising as an attorney in the Santa Rosa papers. We might assume Ralphine and her mother went west with him, but it’s possible they came ahead. Given the McDonalds were married in Santa Rosa on January 15 1866, they either had a whirlwind courtship or met in San Francisco before her father joined them.

In 1875 Mark bought the waterworks and announced he was selling lots in his new subdivision. After that things happened fast. T. J. Ludwig, the town’s premier builder, constructed at least four houses on McDonald Ave in 1877, four more the next year, and in 1879 built “Mableton,” also known today as the McDonald mansion. Additionally, it seems to be lost history that the architects for Mableton were Townsend & Wyneken of San Francisco, who specialized in the “modern” Eastlake style.*

There are several muddled parts of the early history of the street, aside from the unlikelihood of Burbank planting eucalypti. One of the early houses built by Ludwig was #1104, a stately house with a classical portico. Modern writers think the McDonalds lived there when in Santa Rosa before Mableton was finished. It could be true, but it was sold in February 1879 to Thomas L. Thompson – editor of the Democrat newspaper, and in whose earlier home Mark and Ralphine were married. That sale was at least six months before Mableton was ready, so they would have needed to put furniture et. al. into storage for the duration. Everything about this story falls into the possible-but-unlikely bin.

Then there’s the story of Mableton being modeled after the Mississippi plantation home of Ralphine’s childhood. While that may have been the kind of place she always wanted, there’s no evidence the North family ever had such a lavish house; he was a circuit judge, briefly a member of the state legislature and the family didn’t appear to be especially outgoing in Natchez social circles.

Also, it’s a bit of revisionist history to now settle on the name as “Mableton.” The place was surely named after their youngest child, Mabel; the family moved in around her second birthday. (Be thankful construction didn’t lag until her baby sister was born a few months later, or we might be calling it “Edithon.”) For decades it was spelled interchangeably as Mableton and Mabelton; the first mention in the Sonoma Democrat was in 1883 where it was identified as “Mabelton Villa.”

I’ll accept their practice of naming things after children and use it to posit a theory: Lake Ralphine was not called that to honor Mrs. McDonald, but rather in memory of their deceased daughter. While the reservoir was being dug in 1877, seven year-old Ralphine died in San Francisco.

Perhaps there’s an unpublished memoir or diary out there that could sort out some of these questions but we work with what we have. Should any further details appear I’ll gladly correct them here or elsewhere, as needed.


* San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 1887





(All sources from the Daily Democrat or weekly Sonoma Democrat except as noted.)

Application of Ralph North. On motion of Hartley, and filing affidavit, ordered that applicant, late of Mississippi, be admitted to practice law in all the Courts of this State. (Sacramento Daily Union) 12 July 1865

T. J. Ludwig has a contract to build four more residences on McDonald avenue. 19 May 1877

T. J. Ludwig has commenced building a two story residence for Capt. Frasier on McDonald Avenue. (It was really David R. Fraser) 10 September 1877

J. T. Ludwig commenced hauling lumber for the construction of two new houses on McDonald avenue. 21 February 1878

Mr. Ludwig will commence the erection of another residence near the northern extremity of the Avenue, and Col. McDonald has given him a contract to erect another, so that two more elegant structures will soon adorn that thoroughfare. 27 July 1878

Work will be commenced on the new summer residence of Col. M. L. McDonald the first of next week. Mr. Ludwig informs us that he will push it right ahead. 25 January 1879

Summer Residence.- Messrs. Ludwig and Duncan commenced work on the foundation of Col. McDonald’s summer residence on McDonald Avenue, on Monday. We have seen the plans, they were designed by Townsend and Wyneken, of San Francisco, and the building will evidently be most elegant in design, commodious in its appointments and beautiful in finish. It is located almost opposite Col. Rue’s residence. 5 February 1879

False. — A rumor has been in circulation that Col. M. L. McDonald has ordered work on his summer residence on McDonald Avenue, discontinued. We are assured by the contractor, T. J. Ludwig, that there was never anything done to warrant any such statement, and that the work will be pushed to completion. 26 April 1879

Going Ahead.— Work on the McDonald summer residence is going right ahead, and Mr. Ludwig expects to have it completed in about sixty days. 17 May 1879

A ROSEBUD PARTY – One of the most Pleasant juvenile parties that has ever been held in the City of Roses, transpired at Mabelton Villa, the handsome residence of Col. M. L. McDonald, on Wednesday evening, the occasion, being the sixth anniversary of the birth of Miss Mabel McDonald. About fifty of the juvenile friends of the little Miss were present, and the evening was spent in the most delightful manner possible for the youthful participants. A sumptuous repast was thoroughly enjoyed, and a magic lantern exhibition delighted all the spectators. Miss Mabel received a number of handsome presents. 8 September 1883


  1. My grandparents lived on 14th Street just around the corner from the McDonald Mansion. They had moved from Mayfield, Kentucky in 1922. Anyone who’s roots are Southern have Confederates in their tree. My people were too poor to own slaves. Please stop the shaming of Southerners. This reader is tired of everything being connected back to slavery.

    1. Sorry to learn you think I’m deliberately shaming Southerners. My only interest is whether Confederate sympathies are relevant to city or county history.

      In the case of the McDonald’s, it goes well beyond the family happening to have Confederate ancestors. Both Mark and Ralphine spent their formative years in households with slaves (he until age 17 or so, she into her early 20s). This alone is worth mentioning because biographers have conspicuously ignored that when writing about their background, so those are new historical facts.

      As found in the previous article, we don’t know Mark McDonald’s views on much of anything, except he had an unusually deep hatred for the Chinese. He not only refused to employ them, but his first act on City Council was to deprive them of their homes on the east side of the square (another historical fact that’s gone unmentioned). As the antebellum South was uniformly hostile to the establishment of Chinatowns, it’s valid to ask whether it suggests he embraced a wider set of strong views from his Kentucky upbringing.

      We know even less about Ralphine, but father Ralph North lived in Santa Rosa and is important in his own right. His role in organizing the “Southern Relief Fund” charity was highly unusual and historically relevant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *