Can someone please explain why we will be celebrating Santa Rosa’s sesquicentennial on September 9, 2018? Because on that day 150 years ago, absolutely nothing happened here.

I suppose that date was selected because Sept. 9 is also Admission Day and a legal state holiday, like César Chávez Day (as Chávez was a great champion of education, it drives me nuts that we celebrate his birthday by closing libraries as well as state offices). While our 1850 statehood certainly was a noteworthy event, I seriously doubt the city was otherwise planning to throw a 178-year anniversary party.

But my gripe isn’t really with that chosen day and not particularly with the month – we could celebrate the sesquicentennial year anytime between January and December. No, it’s the year that rankles, because if you drill down to the core, we’re actually commemorating a 1968 PR event which cheered that much of historic Santa Rosa was being destroyed in the name of progress.

Before we get to 1968, some historic background is in order:

It all really started in 1854, as explained earlier in “CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS.” Santa Rosa didn’t really exist as the year began; it had only two houses and five little businesses including a tavern. Yet despite its drawback of being almost non-existent, a group of men were about to make it the county seat.

After the state legislature gave approval for a vote on moving it away from Sonoma,  Julio Carrillo and the other Santa Rosa promoters invited the entire county to an epic Fourth of July party that went on all night. The election was held September 6 and Santa Rosa won. When the voting results were announced there was another BBQ feast even more riotous than the July shindig, this event supposedly lasting two days.

Afterwards the Board of Supervisors met with “the proprietors of the town of Santa Rosa” (Carrillo, Hartman, Hahman and Hoen) who promised to build a courthouse and provide spaces for county officers within two months, with everybody crowding into Carrillo’s place until then. The vote was certified by the Supervisors and the county records were moved to Santa Rosa.

There are three points to remember for the test: Nothing happened on September 9 of that year, either. Although Santa Rosa was now the county seat, it was still just the self-declared name of a crossroad settlement and not an officially recognized town. And not the least of it, there was lots’o partying by our ancestors in 1854 because they clearly believed all this was a significant event.

The other historic date was March 16, 1868, when the state approved Santa Rosa as an officially incorporated town. Here’s how Santa Rosa’s newspaper covered this milestone:


Sonoma Democrat notice of incorporation



That’s it – three itty-bitty lines (1½ actually) in the column of local news briefs. An item lower down the column which praised a new saloon in town, “The Snug,” was five times longer. Needless to say, there was no blowout incorporation BBQ.

Let’s zoom forward to the first big anniversary: Fifty years after Santa Rosa became the county seat.

“This is Santa Rosa’s Golden Jubilee Year – Should Have a Big Celebration,” read a Press Democrat headline in March 1904.

A fifty year anniversary is also called a “semicentennial,” and for reasons unknown there was no celebration at all; it could be because 1904 was a major election year both locally and nationally, with emotions running high. In Santa Rosa the “Old South” conservatives lost their grip on the town to Teddy Roosevelt progressives after months of shrill newspaper editorials on both sides; it seemed half the town wasn’t speaking to the other half. What we did get on the Sept. 21 anniversary was a very reliable history of the 1854 events in the PD, including a first-hand account from Jim Williamson on how the county records were moved, as explored here in “THE FABLE OF THE STOLEN COURTHOUSE.”

In March 1918 came the 50th anniversary of incorporation. No ceremony that year either, nor a single mention of it in the newspapers, as far as I can tell. They had a great excuse, however; the U.S. had entered WWI less than a year before and Santa Rosa – like every other place in the country – was preoccupied with war rallies, bond drives and all other things patriotic.

Okay, so Santa Rosa (mostly) ignored both golden jubilees in the early 20th century; I don’t think we should make too much of that, given the distractions mentioned here, plus that our society generally doesn’t put on the party hats for 50 year anniversaries. But centennials are usually a big deal, right? Right?

Thus in 1954 it was exactly one hundred years after Santa Rosa came into existence – plus hosting two legendary bacchanals, drawing its first map of the place and settling into its role as the hub of Sonoma county. All of that was memorable, and the Press Democrat offered several articles on the centennial…of the Mare Island shipyard. Not one word about their hometown’s 100 years.

Our consistent indifference to the past changed on Sept. 19, 1967, when Thomas Cox suggested, “we should make something of it” at a Flamingo Hotel luncheon. “It” would be the 1968 centennial of incorporation.


Historical Year in Santa Rosa and a Brief Glimpse of the History Connected with the Change

This is a year of historic importance in Santa Rosa, it is her golden jubilee year.

Santa Rosa should in some appropriate manner celebrate September 18, 1904, that date being the golden jubilee of the city’s existence as a county seat. On September 18, 1854, fifty years ago. the Supervisors of Sonoma county met in the City of Sonoma and having canvassed the votes polled at the election held to determine the matter, officially declared that Santa Rosa was legally the county seat of Sonoma county and after this formal action the county archives were brought to Santa Rosa in a four-horse wagon, and with them came the now venerable ex-Supreme Judge McKinstry, then district judge of Sonoma.

The final event of any importance in the county of Sonoma in the year 1854 was the passage of Bennet’s bill authorizing the taking of a vote on the question of transferring the county seat from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. As the summer of that year half a century ago advanced, the fight between the partisans of the contending cities became very keen and finally the citizens of Santa Rosa made big arrangements for holding a barbecue on the Fourth of July. In speaking of the occasion the late Robert A. Thompson said;

“It was a master stroke of policy — the people came and saw, and were conquered by the beauty of the place and the hospitality of the people, who, on that occasion, killed the fatted calf and invited to the feast the rich and poor, the lame and halt and the blind — in fact everybody who had, or who could influence or control, a vote. The smoke of the sacrifice of whole sheep and huge quarters of beef ascended to heaven freighted with the prayers of the Santa Rosans to dispose the hearts and ballots of the people in their favor, and, like the pious Greeks of old on similar occasions, when the smoke had ceased to ascend and the offering was cooked to a turn, they partook of the sacrificial meat — the incense of which had tickled the nostrils, whetting at the same time their appetites and their devotion.”

At this Fourth of July barbecue some 500 people were present from all over the county and great enthusiasm prevailed. The oration was delivered by the Rev. A. A. Guernsey. The Declaration of Independence was read by James Prewett and the speakers were Joe Neville, John Robinson and Sylvester Ballou. The feast was held in an oak grove on Commodore Elliott’s place.

The Santa Rosa of half a century ago receiving the distinction of becoming the seat of government of the imperial county of the state was a far different place from what it is today. Then there was a Masonic hall, a store and two or three other buildings. Nevertheless there was great rejoicing, when on that fair eighteenth day of September the county fathers in meeting at Sonoma formally declared that Santa Rosa was to henceforth be the county seat.

At the golden jubilee celebration this year there will be a number of men gathered here who saw the transference of the county seat to Santa Rosa. It should be made a memorable occasion.

Just what form the jubilee celebration shall take will be a matter to be determined. Several prominent citizens who were seen Thursday were enthusiastically in favor of having an appropriate celebration of the day in Santa Rosa. September 18, 1854 was Santa Rosa’s and Sonoma county’s “Admission Day” into the after progress and prosperity which is hers today and which will continue. Much could be made of such a celebration and its importance would be felt as a great, attraction towards advertising the products of Sononia county.

– Press Democrat, March 25 1904


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It will always be a popular rip–roarin’ tale of Santa Rosa’s early days: How a few guys sneaked into the town of Sonoma, snatched the county records, then raced back to Santa Rosa amid fears that a furious mob of Sonomans were in pursuit. Unfortunately, it’s not true – well, not much, anyway.

Santa Rosa was born in 1854, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it was declared by fiat. The previous summer Barney Hoen and his partners joined with Julio Carrillo to lay out a future town of 70 total acres – from the creek to Fifth street, from E to A street – small enough for anyone to walk across any direction in a couple of minutes or three. At the time there was only one house (Carrillo’s) and a store. It had no reason to exist, much less thrive, except for roughly being at the crossroads between Sonoma city and settlements north and west.

But in the state election of 1853 a local land squatter, James Bennett was elected to the Assembly. The only accomplishment in his single term was to pass an act in 1854 calling for a vote on what town should be the county seat, which came as a surprise to residents of Sonoma city, which had been county central since statehood. To sway county voters (who were mainly squatters), promoters of the nascent town of Santa Rosa threw a blowout Fourth of July BBQ that was said to draw 500 people, and is heavily credited with Santa Rosa winning the vote a few months later – a story told here earlier in “CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS.” When the voting results were announced on September 18, Hoen and Julio Carrillo threw another beef-a-palooza even more riotous than the July shindig, this event supposedly lasting two days and involving firing an anvil one hundred times.1

(RIGHT: James R. Williamson portrait from the Press Democrat, September 21 1904)

Besides all the free meaty eats, another argument for making Santa Rosa the county seat was that the existing county courthouse in the town of Sonoma was on the verge of falling down (that old adobe actually did collapse in 1862) and had been condemned by a grand jury. Hoen et. al. promised to donate land and build a new courthouse within six months and until then court could be held at Julio’s house, in part because he also had room to store the official county record books.

And here our questionable adventure begins – those important books had to be transferred from Sonoma once Santa Rosa was officially the county seat. And the person to do that was Jim Williamson.

Today’s housing shortage in Santa Rosa pales in comparison to the lack of places to live when the town became the county seat in the autumn of 1854. As there were then only eight (or so) houses in Santa Rosa, Williamson likely still had his camp near the corner of Fourth and D streets. Jim later boasted he was “the first white man to reside on the actual site of the city,” which I hope was a clumsy joke about the Pomo village which was here and not a racist slur against Julio Carrillo, who had an actual house on Second street.2

Jim may have been living in a tent, but he did have a light spring wagon and a pair of good mules. Here’s the version of the story which appeared in the first published history of Sonoma county:

On the day appointed, Jim Williamson, with a four-horse team and wagon, accompanied by Horace Martin and some others, went down to Sonoma, captured and brought up the archives, amid dire threats of injunction and violence from the Sonoma people, who saw, with no little chagrin, the county seat slip through their fingers. The Santa Rosans had the law, wanted only possession, and would not have hesitated to use all the force necessary to get that; as it was, they captured the archives by strategy, and the dry and dusty documents of former drowsy old alcaldes were whirled over the road as fast as Jim Williamson’s four-in-hand could take them to the new capital…

That was written in 1877 by Robert A. Thompson. When it comes to evaluating the accuracy of a historic account, generally the closer an author is to that time and place, the better – which would seem particularly true in this case, as Thompson lived here and was writing after only 22 or 23 years had passed. But it turns out Jim Williamson later was interviewed and told the story himself, revealing almost nothing in Thompson’s version was true.

Thompson either made up/exaggerated details or swallowed a dramatic interpretation he might have heard told over beers at local saloons. And this is not the first time he seems to be caught writing historical fiction; it appears he also invented Chanate, the friendly Indian who supposedly discovered the bodies of Bear Flag martyrs Cowie and Fowler.

The oldest version of Jim Williamson’s ride is exciting, but mostly fiction


The easiest parts of Thompson’s tale to debunk are simple facts; Williamson had two mules, not a team of four horses. Thompson omits mention County Clerk Menefee who played a major role in the doings, but claims Horace Martin was an accomplice. Martin was a remarkable fellow – see extended footnote – but it’s clear he wasn’t part of this adventure.3

Then there’s Thompson’s claim of “dire threats of injunction and violence” from Sonomans who wanted to keep the records in town and that the Santa Rosans “would not have hesitated to use all the force necessary” to get away with the books. Williamson certainly had some concern there might be legal pushback (discussed below) but he never feared being chased like a survivor on The Walking Dead.

To the contrary, the editor of the Sonoma Bulletin seemed resigned, if not downright pleased to be rid of the county seat. In his first comments right after the election, A. J. Cox remarked, “The up-country people battled furiously against us, and have come out victorious…’it is as it is, and can’t be any ’tis’er,’ which incontrovertible truth consoles us, at least.” A week later, Cox added:

Last Friday the county officers with the archives left town for the new capitol amidst the exulting grin of some, and silent disapproval (frowning visages) of others. We are only sorry they did not take the courthouse along – not because it would be an ornament to Santa Rosa, but because its removal would have embellished our plaza…

The editorial continued with a mock lament that they were now going to lose the political blowhards and “country lawyers and loafers in general” who hung around the veranda of the courthouse whittling. (Other sources mention they were not whittling so much as carving stuff into the posts holding up the veranda, which might help explain why the place went to pieces.)

Thompson later backed away from his melodramatic tale. In a smaller 1884 history just about Santa Rosa he didn’t mention the “capture” at all, only that Jim was paid $16 “for getting away with the records.” Of the six local histories which were later published, only half describe something about Williamson’s wagon ride, as summarized here.4

So what’s the real story about how the county records got to Santa Rosa? According to Jim Williamson himself, the events were more comic than dramatic.

Jim’s own telling appeared September, 1904 in the Press Democrat, which followed an April article providing further details from Williamson and others involved. My summary here mixes the two sources, but everything is transcribed below so anyone can untangle the details if desired. As it turns out, only Tom Gregory’s county history came closest to being accurate. It was written while Williamson was still alive and he loved to gab about the old days, according to his PD obituary, it is quite likely Tom heard the story directly from Jim, as they both lived in Santa Rosa. But be forewarned Tom Gregory was also a serial exaggerator and unreliable historian, so the colorful additional details he provided have to be carefully swallowed.

The first Board of Supervisors meeting following the vote was to be Friday, September 22, 1854 at the courthouse in Sonoma. After an official canvass of the returns, they were to formally declare Santa Rosa as the new county seat. Daniel Davisson, a Sonoma real estate investor with his own horse stable, was asked to have a team ready to move the official records – but when word got out around town he was apparently threatened with a boycott or harm, so he declined. This likely was where historian Thompson got the idea that there might be danger lurking.

Plan B was to hire someone from out of town, so County Supervisor R. E. Smith tapped Santa Rosa’s Jim Williamson, who was not known in Sonoma City. Smith told Jim to take his wagon there the day before and keep a low profile. He hitched up his mules (named “Jim” and “Liza” per Tom Gregory) and he and the team camped that night in a creek bed outside of town.

The next day Jim walked into town and hung around the courthouse, waiting for a signal from Smith. Once the meeting was over Smith gave the sign and Williamson fetched his wagon. “The Supervisors and clerk helped to load the archives into the wagon,” Williamson later wrote. In other words, there was nothing at all sneaky about it – the records left via the front door in the middle of the afternoon. And there really weren’t that many books; Jim recalled there was only about two wheelbarrow worth.

Riding back to Santa Rosa with Jim was County Clerk N. McC. Menefee, who had a jointless peg leg. He must have lost his leg above the knee, as the artificial limb was so long he could only ride comfortably in the wagon by resting it on the top of the footrest, which meant it was sticking straight out towards the backside of the mules. “[W]hen the wagon wheels struck a chuck hole and there would be a jolt, first one and then the other mule would receive a prod from the tip on the end of his wooden leg,” Williamson wrote.

Williamson and Menefee believed there was a chance they might be stopped. After the results of the vote were known, Lilburn Boggs, the most influential man in Sonoma after General Vallejo, asked Menefee to issue a restraining order blocking the transfer – but the County Clerk demurred “on account of pressing business.” Why Boggs sought to keep the records there is not clear; he was not challenging the validity of the election. It was probably because Boggs had been Alcalde for all of Northern California during the last years of Mexican rule, and the county books included those pre-statehood court records; had Boggs planned to write his memoirs he certainly would have wanted access to his decisions from those crucial years.

Menefee thought Boggs still might seek a restraining order from the court in Napa and send the sheriff after them. If they were pursued, their plan was for Menefee to get off and hide in the brush. As no one knew Williamson, any court order would have had to name Menefee, so the plan was for Jim to claim he was alone. (Always the colorful fabulist, historian Tom Gregory claimed the handicapped Menefee “intended to take to the woods giving the injunction a run through the brush.”)

But nothing happened. The constant poking from Menefee’s wooden leg is probably why the mules made the trip back to Santa Rosa supposedly in the record time of a hundred minutes – it was considered good time for a man on horseback to travel between Sonoma and Santa Rosa in two hours.

A more realistic interpretation of what happened


Then just as they reached Julio Carrillo’s house and were getting ready to unload the books, “we heard the thud of a horse’s hoofs in the distance,” Jim Williamson wrote.

As the sound came nearer and nearer, we saw that the rider was Israel Brockman, the sheriff. His horse was panting furiously, and was covered with foam. We saluted the sheriff and inquired what was the occasion of his apparently fast ride from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. He replied. “I just thought that I would get over here quick and find an office so as to avoid the rush.”

And there you have it – no hot pursuit, no attempted arrest, no vigilante threats and no actual showdown over the county records. The biggest concern of the day was really about someone finding housing in Santa Rosa.

Was ever thus.



1 “Firing anvils” was a popular way to celebrate political victories in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It involved packing the indentation on an iron anvil with gunpowder and placing another anvil upside down above it. When the gunpowder was ignited, the top anvil flew into the air making a deafening boom remarkably like a cannon. It was insanely dangerous – hopefully the anvil straight up, and not arcing into a crowd – and one has to ponder what sort of reckless idiot thought of trying it in the first place. Watch a video here where a “world champion anvil shooter” launches one 200 feet in the air.

2 Jim Williamson (1830-1913) operated Santa Rosa’s main livery stable through the Civil War at the corner of Third and Main, but there’s no evidence it was yet built in September 1854. The previous year he was found growing barley on ten rented acres just east of the town plaza. Farming and camp details from “Early Recollections of Santa Rosa”, Sonoma Democrat, October 6 1877; first resident remark from “Coming Golden Jubilee in Santa Rosa Recalls Memorable Drive With the County Records,” Press Democrat, April 10 1904

3 Few in Sonoma county today will recognize the name Horace Martin but we’re all familiar with his work; he was County Surveyor 1861-1862 and a contract surveyor for the county for several years before and after. He laid out the road from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg, several roads in West County, the plat map for Bodega, and probably lots of other work we don’t know about. You’ll still sometimes see mention of maps by “H. B. Martin” in the property notices which appear in the Press Democrat. But Horace’s real talents lay in inventions. He engineered miniature steam engines to run home sewing machines and ones large enough to power the printing plant of the Sonoma Democrat. It was reported he further designed a machine for making rugs, a rain-making machine he called the “Pluviator,” San Francisco’s first hydraulic elevators in office buildings, a fast steam-driven plow called “Old Jumbo” that burned through a ton of coal a day and a “Magic Calculator,” which supposedly was particularly adapted to calculating taxes. His brother-in-law, Richard Gird, operated a stock farm called Gird & Co. on the Russian River in the 1860s before moving to Arizona. There he happened to meet a penniless prospector with a bag of rocks which he had been told were mostly lead. Gird – who had a background in assaying but was himself nearly penniless – recognized the samples actually were rich in silver. They perfected the mining claim and created the Tombstone Mining District, which became the town of Tombstone. Gird and his partners walked away with millions. (More in The San Bernardino County Sun, March 31, 1963 or an internet search for “Dick Gird”.) Gird returned to California and used his wealth to buy the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino and adjacent land in San Bernardino County, creating a 47,000 acre ranch. Horace joined him there and platted out the town of Chino. Horace B. Martin died in Chicago in 1903.

4 Notes of local history book coverage:

1877 (Thompson; Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County, California) “On the day appointed, Jim Williamson, with a four-horse team and wagon, accompanied by Horace Martin and some others, went down to Sonoma, captured and brought up the archives, amid dire threats of injunction and violence from the Sonoma people, who saw, with no little chagrin, the county seat slip through their fingers. The Santa Rosans had the law, wanted only possession, and would not have hesitated to use all the force necessary to get that; as it was, they captured the archives by strategy, and the dry and dusty documents of former drowsy old alcaldes were whirled over the road as fast as Jim Williamson’s four-in-hand could take them to the new capital, where they safely arrived, and were deposited pro tem. in Julio Carrillo’s house, which was rented for that purpose…”

1884 (Thompson; Central Sonoma) Thompson did not mention the “capture” at all, but quotes the editorial reaction from the Sonoma Bulletin: “When the archives were finally taken the irrepressibly witty Sonoma editor gets off the following: Departed.–Last Friday the county officers with the archives left town for the new capitol amidst the exulting grin of some, and silent disapproval (frowning visages) of others. We are only sorry they did not take the Court-house along–not because it would be an ornament to Santa Rosa, but because its removal would have embellished our plaza…” Thompson continued: “Board District Attorney McNair put in a bill for $250, for helping the Supervisors to get legally out of Sonoma; he was allowed $100. The Board thought they did most of the work–at least two-thirds of it. Jim Williamson modestly put in a bill of $16, for getting away with the records, which was allowed, without a groan, as it ought to have been.”

1880 (Munro-Fraser; History of Sonoma county, including its geology, topography, mountains, valleys and streams) quotes Thompson 1877. Per the vote, Sonoma City was “feeling a presentiment of impending evil [and] were afraid to raise the issue”

1889 (Cassiday; An illustrated history of Sonoma County, California) repeats Thompson 1884

1911 (Gregory; History of Sonoma County California) Section, HOW JIM WILLIAMSON STOLE THE COURTHOUSE: By a vote of 716 to 563 the “court-house” left Sonoma, as a newspaper man of that period graphically writes, — “On Jim Williamson’s two-mule wagon.” Even with the popular decision against them the Sonoma people were loth [sic] to let the institution go, but a little head-work by N. McC. Menefee, and no little foot-work by Jim Williamson’s team of mules quietly passed the county government from the pueblo. The man and the mules also have “passed,” but their part in “the stealing of the court-house” merits honorable mention. Menefee was the county clerk, having only one leg, but he could get around rapidly. “Jim” and “Liza” were the team, but unlike the general run of mules, could, and would — and did — move with speed. By arrangement with the supervisors Williamson camped near Sonoma the night before the day of the removal, and next morning having received a quiet notification that the board had officially adopted the “move” resolution, he was at the door of the building. William Boggs and several other persons anticipating the move were trying to get out an injunction, even rushing a courier off to Napa for that purpose — but before the citizens in the vicinity were fully alive to the job, the county records, including the dusty old documents of the alcaldes, had been “rushed” aboard the wagon, and Jim and Liza were treading the “high-places” for Santa Rosa. Williamson was at the brake — which he never used in all thai wild, twenty-two mile flight, and which lasted just one hundred minutes. Menefee beside him on the spring-wagon seat, had to let his jointless artificial leg — a mere wooden stick — rest on the dash-board, the end of the “peg” only a few inches from Liza’s lively body. If she lagged ever so slightly in the mad pace she touched Menefee’s peg-leg and this would almost jump her through the collar. Dropping down into a gulch or any of the many low places of the rough road and starting to rise in the corresponding ascent Liza would not fail to get “a good punch,” and this, reports her owner, “sent the team up faster than it had come down.” Menefee expected they would be overhauled by Sheriff Israel Brockman with the writ, and he intended to take to the woods giving the injunction a run through the brush; knowing that as an official he would be sought for service of the paper, and Williamson would be left to continue the journey. Even with a wooden-leg he grittily determined to keep Brockman on the trail until Jim and Liza got home. They were not overtaken, but landed the “court-house” in Santa Rosa, — time, 4:54. Jim Williamson — everybody calls him “Jim,” is yet a citizen of the county-seat he “stole,” and the petty-larcenous character of the act in nowise detracts from his popularity. Liza and the other Jim are no more, but their famous Hundred Minute Run is a living record. District Attorney McNair for his services allowed himself $250, but the supervisors amended it to $100. Jim Williamson modestly thought $15 was enough for the mules and himself, and the board thought likewise.

1926 (Honoria Tuomey; History of Sonoma County California) No mention of the ride

1942 (Finley; History of Sonoma County, California: Its People and Its Resources) No mention of the ride

1985 (Lebaron et. al.; Santa Rosa A Nineteenth Century Town) Summarizes Thompson 1877, repeats Thompson 188. Has Williamson and Martin stealing the records at night, then riding back to Santa Rosa at daybreak “standing up in the wagon, whipping the mules, and emitting whoops of triumph.” Also claims the two-day BBQ was held to celebrate obtaining the records, not the announcement of winning the vote four days earlier.

Supervisor R. E. Smith employed Jim Williamson, still an honored resident of Santa Rosa Township, to go for the records. Jim hitched up a two-horse team one afternoon, went to, and through the town and camped on the other side. The next morning he drove up to the Court-house door, the records were hustled into the wagon and County Clerk Menifee on the box with Williamson, who cracked his whip, and in less time than it takes to tell it, the dusty old documents were rolling out of Sonoma…At the second meeting of the Board in Santa Rosa, Jim Williamson modestly put in a bill of sixteen dollars for getting away with the records — and the Clerk. That bill was allowed, as it ought to have been, without a groan.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 29 1884


Coming Golden Jubilee in Santa Rosa Recalls Memorable Drive With the County Records

In connection with Santa Rosa’s golden jubilee in September which celebrates the fiftieth anniversary as the county seat of imperial Sonoma many interesting bits of history are recollected of that memorable day half a century ago when the Board of Supervisors met in the historic town of Sonoma and after a canvass of the votes formally declared Santa Rosa to be henceforth the county seat.

There are several old pioneers residing in this county who have vivid remembrances of the stirring times circled about the making of Santa Rosa the capital city. Among this number is J. R. Williamson, who resides near this city. He is the man who handled the ribbons over the stout pair of mules who hauled the wagon carrying the county documents from Sonoma to Santa Rosa after the formal declaration of the change of county seats. It was a memorable drive across the apologies for roads leading from Sonoma to Santa Rosa of 1854. Mr. Williamson prides himself as being the first white man to reside on the actual site of the city, and the man “who stole the county seat,” as he smilingly puts it.

Some time before the canvass of the election returns in view of the bitter agitation over the removal of the county seat, Robert Smith, a brother of W. R. Smith, the pioneer Santa Rosa blacksmith, saw Mr. Williamson and arranged with him to be on hand with his wagon and team as soon as the vote was canvassed for the purpose of hurrying the county records to Santa Rosa. Mr. Williamson took his light spring wagon and span of mules and drove over to Sonoma the day before the Supervisors met. He did not go into the town as that would have been dangerous. He camped over night beside a little creek in order to avoid anybody’s suspicion as to Santa Rosa’s expectations regarding her victory.

Mr, Williamson recalls that the canvass of the election returns was held in the little adobe courthouse on the south side of the historic. Sonoma plaza. Before the meeting Smith and Williamson had agreed that the latter should be within hailing distance when the formal order should have been made by the County Fathers. The sign was to be a note from Smith to which Williamson was to get the wagon without delay.

The meeting was called and if any one hand to look from the old courthouse they would have seen a man standing outside leisurely whittling away at one of the posts supporting the porch, a favorite pastime judging from the appearance of the posts as described to a Press Democrat interviewer.

The vote was finally canvassed and Williamson got the tip and hastened to get his team. This was accomplished and in less than fifteen minutes he was at the door of the old Courthouse. Not a moment was lost as it was feared that an attempt might be made to stop the removal of the records from the old town to the new capital. All five of the Supervisors and County Clerk Menefee assisted Mr. Williamson in loading the books into the wagon. Mr. Williamson remembers that there were about two wheelbarrow loads of volumes.

Former Governor Boggs, was one of those opposed to the moving of the county records and he sought to have County Clerk Menefee to issue a restraining order to stop the taking away of the books, as he knew that they would never be returned. Mr. Menefee declined to issue any papers, “on account of pressing business,” Mr, Williamson says, and taking his seat beside Mr. Williamson in the wagon, the lash fell smartly upon the anatomy of the mules and the hurried drive to Santa Rosa with the county records was commenced.

Mr. Williamson says that they knew there was no time to lose and they fancied that in his wrath Boggs might go across into Napa county and endeavor to get the restraining order there. Both Menefee and Williamson cast their eyes behind ever and anon to see whether they were being pursued. If the restraining order was secured they knew that the Sheriff would endeavor to stop them. Menefee and Williamson planned in the event that the man of the law hove in sight that Menefee was to alight from the wagon and hide in the brush. The Sheriff did not know Williamson and Williamson was to try and bluff him out of his purpose.

The road to Santa Rosa, as stated, lay over a rough country. When the whip failed to meet with the response desired from the mules, there was another method to urge them forward. County Clerk Menefee had a wooden leg, and it was of the pegleg style. He had to let the peg rest on the dashboard of the wagon out over the backs of the mules. Consequently when the wagon lurched at every chuckhole in the road Menefee’s wooden leg served as a goad to the mules and kept them going at a breakneck speed. Mr, Williamson fifty years later cannot restrain a smile as he recalls Menefee’s pegleg goading the mules. So that a man’s wooden leg has somewhat of an important motive factor in the removal of the county records to Santa Rosa on that memorable day.

Spurred on by Menefee’s wooden prod the mules fairly flew across the country. Mr. Williamson remembers how tired he was in holding anything like a check on the animals. Santa Rosa was reached in a little over two hours. They drove direct to Julio Carrillo’s house. It had been arranged, Mr. Williamson says, as a temporary place for the keeping of the records until some other arrangements could be made. The men had not been far wrong In their guess that they would be pursued. The last of the county records had not been carried into the house when up the road, riding for dear life, his horse panting and covered with foam came the Sheriff, Isreal Brockman. If he had any papers to serve or whether he would have stopped Menefee and Williamson is a matter for conjecture. When he saw the last of the records disappear Into Carrillo’s house he explained that he had come over hurriedly to secure office room in Santa Rosa, “before the rush begun.” There were no up-to-date office buildings with electric lights and free Janitors in those days.

This Is but a glimpse of the historical significance of the golden jubilee which will be celebrated in Santa Rosa in September. Williamson and others of the pioneers who remember the incidents of fifty years ago, have enough to make an interesting novel with the central plot the removal of the county seat from the old town of Sonoma to Santa Rosa.

D. D. Davisson, the pioneer of this city, is well posted on the doings of those memorable days. He was living in Sonoma at the time and he had a number of teams. He was approached and asked if he would have a team ready to haul the county records to Santa Rosa. It had leaked out that a proposition had been made to him and he was given to understand that it would be dangerous for him and his business if he lent his team, and he did not do so. Pioneer Williamson will never forget the ride he and Menefee took or the incident connected with the pegleg.

– Press Democrat, April 10 1904


How the County Records Were Brought to This City

The accomplishment of the purport of Supervisor Fowler’s motion, namely, the removal of the archives from Sonoma to Santa Rosa, occasioned some foreboding. There were open
threats of violence from those who disliked to see the county seat removed from Sonoma, and it was also hinted that the law of injunction might be called into exercise to balk the removal of the records. It was realized that to remove the documents in safety and with success strategy would have to be employed. And so it came to pass that James R. Williamson, the well-known pioneer, whose picture appears in connection with this historical sketch, and who, still hale and hearty, resides just outside the city limits at the extension of West Third street, proved the man for the occasion. Here is Mr. Williamson’s graphic description of the task he performed.

“It was Supervisor Smith, who was by the way, a brother of William R. Smith (the latter the well known pioneer blacksmith of Santa Rosa), who importuned me to steal with the archives from Sonoma into Santa Rosa. He arranged with me to drive from Santa Rosa to Sonoma the day before the Supervisors were to pass the resolutions declaring Santa Rosa the new county seat and ordering the removal of the documents to the new seat of administration. I was to keep out of sight as much as possible until after this preliminary work had been accomplished.

“‘Jim Williamson,’ Smith said, ‘you are the only man to do this job, and do it right. When you get near the old town get around back somehow so as not to excite the suspicion of people, camp with your team somewhere for the night, and tomorrow about the time when we are in session you come up to the hall in town and be on hand where I can get a glimpse of you without delay after the act is done.’ (meaning the order for the removal of the archives). ‘When you see me give a nod in your direction, get your wagon and drive up to the door of the court house as fast as you know how.’

“Well, I hitched up the mules to the wagon and drove from Santa Rosa to Sonoma, carefully avoiding going into the town and keeping out of sight as much as possible. That night I and the mules camped in the bed of a little creek where no one could see us, a little outside of the town limits of Sonoma. It was a pretty long night. I took a coffee pot along and made some coffee. Morning came and I fed the mules and myself. I did not go up town for some time as the Board meeting was not called until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Finally I strolled up town after I knew that the Supervisors had been in meeting for sometime, and entered the court house. There were quite a number of people around, and, seeing me there, some of them suspected that I had come on business of some sort. Supervisor Smith and one or two other members of the Board and County Clerk Menefee knew why I was on hand. I had been waiting some little time, always keeping in sight, when suddenly I looked up and saw Smith rise, and, I got the nod that I had been expecting.

“I hurried as fast as could to the camp and in a jiffy had the mules hitched to the wagon and in less than fifteen minutes I drove up to the door of the court house. The Supervisors and clerk helped to load the archives into the wagon and in less time than it takes to te11 it County Clerk Menefee was on the wagon seat beside me and we were whirling over the dry and dusty ground with the documents on tha way to Santa Rosa.”

“Menefee and I knew that we might be overtaken on the way and an effort made to force ua to give up the archives. We had planned as to what we would do in case anyone interfered. There were no roads in those days like we have today. I remember very well that Menefee had a wooden leg, and it was too long to rest in the bottom of the wagon, so he let it hang over the dash board. The wooden leg served as a goad to the mules, for when the wagon wheels struck a chuck hole and there would be a jolt, first one and then the other mule would receive a prod from the tip on the end of his wooden leg.

“Those mules made a record-breaking trip for those days from Sonoma to Santa Rosa, and luck was with us. No one interfered. Soon the old adobe in Santa Rosa hove in sight and it was not long before we pulled up in front of Julio Carrillo’s house, where it had been previously arranged the archives should be stored until Barney Hoen, Hartman and Hahman had built a court house. We had barely got out of the wagon outside Carrillo’s house, which then stood on the site of the feed mill built later by Mr. Cnopius on Second street, and which now forms the rear of two houses on Second and B streets, when we heard the thud of a horse’s hoofs in the distance. As the sound came nearer and nearer, we saw that the rider was Israel Brockman, the sheriff. His horse was panting furiously, and was covered with foam. We saluted the sheriff and inquired what was the occasion of his apparently fast ride from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. He replied. ‘I just thought that 1 would get over here quick and find an office so as to avoid the rush.’ If he had, as we believed, injunction papers to restrain the removal of the archives, he did not attempt to serve them. We carried the books into Carrillo’s house, and’ —well, that is how I brought the records from the old county seat to the new.”

– Press Democrat, September 21 1904

COUNTY SEAT OF SONOMA. — From the Bulletin we learn that in the late contest for county seat in Sonoma county, Santa Rosa proved to be the successful candidate. The Bulletin “takes on” as follows:

That’s “a gone (or going] case” from Sonoma. The up-country people battled furiously against us, and have come out victorious. What majority the new seat got we are not aware, but whatever it is, why, “it is as it is, and can’t be any “tis’er,” which incontrovertible truth consoles us, at least. By the way, the people of Santa Rosa, after being satisfied” of their success, fired one hundred guns in honor of the event — that is, an anvil supplied the place of cannon, which was “let off” one hundred times. Great country this, fenced in or not.

– Sacramento Daily Union, September 20 1854


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Writing history’s easy if you do the homework and know the facts; what’s hard is getting across the flavor of the time. Even a town like Santa Rosa is a pretty alien place when you reach back to its earliest days, 160+ years ago, because glimpses of what it was like rarely appeared in the local newspapers – why would subscribers want to read about what they saw every day?

While researching the next item to appear, I stumbled across a little poem in a Civil War-era Santa Rosa paper which was supposedly written in 1856. As poetry it’s sheer doggerel (as the editor admits) but it’s not without its charms.

The poet looks back at the old days – meaning a couple of years prior – when Santa Rosa was little more than a saloon, a store, and Julio Carrillo’s corral. Now there were three or four stores, a stable, a hotel, flour mill and a church. Why, there was even a building with two stories! This had “made Santa Rosa a —— of a place,” but it’s left to Gentle Reader to decide whether the author’s missing word was meant to salute or spit upon the changes wrought by progress.

The poem might have been written later or earlier than 1856, although it really doesn’t matter. The last line is a pitch to elect “Dr. Johnson and me,” which is probably a reference to J. Neely Johnson (elected governor in 1855) as no one named Johnson was running for a Sonoma county office in that time period.

(ABOVE: Advertisement from the 1857 Sonoma County Journal)


LOCAL VERSES. – The following doggerel was picked up in the streets of Santa Rosa in 1856. The author of the lines is not known, but suspicion rests upon one “Horace,’ of the olden time:

Not far from the ford at the forks of the creek,
between where Jack Stiles and Peters made brick,
Where Colgan kept bar in a temperance Hall,
Where the small-pox pitched into J. W. Ball—-
Stands a neat little town that was located near
The house of a Spaniard, named Julio Carrillo.

Two years ago you could see nothing more
Where that little town stands, than a tavern and store,
Where they retailed their whiskey at two bits a pull,
And when low, with creek water they kept their casks full;
Where they marked up their goods, and complained of the times,
When they’d get the last red of their customer’s dimes.

But a short time ago, I recollect well,
There were big droves of cattle in Julio’s corral,
And near where that barber has stuck up his pole
Once a horse bucked me head over heels in a hole;
I disliked that arrangement, and whom would it please?
I asked, as I sat with my hands on my knees.

Those times, we wouid work all the week, hauling rails,
And Sundays, were as proud as a dog with 2 tails!
We’d get up our ponies and get a gal each
To ride with to meeting, to hear Riley preach;
Then we’d hump ourselves home and get us some grub,
Then each pop a dirty shirt into a tub;
We’d give it a twist, a squeeze, and a rinse,
Then hang it out doors to dry on the fence;
The dog would soon carry it under the floor,
And we’d sit down and cuss, for we had but one more.

But 2 or 3 years have wrought a great change,
Have swept off the cattle, have fenced up the range,
Built a house for the archives brought over the hills,
And Cameron’s, the Scotchman’s and Leffingwell’s mills;

Made men out of monkeys, and princes of goats,
Old cows of young heifers and bacon of shoats;
Have spread Spanish needles all over the ground,
And brought down potatoes to 2 cents a pound;
Put the deuce in the ladies and mud in the lanes,
And married maids to unfortunate swains;
Drawn the first wrinkle on many a face,
And made Santa Rosa a —— of a place.

We’ve some of the fastest get-ups of the age,
There’s Doc. Boyce’s mare and Chil. Richardson’s stage;
Fast horses, fast youths, with their Jacks, Kings and Queens,
And gaIs who are mas before reaching their teens.

You know Charley Smith (the first of the name)
Who built the log house for the set-em-up game,
Though somewhat religious he couldn’t forbear
To furnish a chance for a strike and a spare;
At daylight, at midnight, at sunset, at noon,
You could hear the pins fall at this bowling saloon,
While their incessant lumbering endangered the quiet
Of a most worthy citizen—Thomas H. Pyatt.

There’s Jim Williamson’s stable, Eureka Hotel,
The house kept by Mat and old Kitty Purcell,
The 2 story hall for the Mason and Son,
Know Nothing, Odd Fellow, and Thousand and One.

Your taverns, your dead falls, your 3 or 4 stores,
And then there are those fruit stands, Billy Gray’s and Mam More’s,
Will make you a city with council and seal
If you’ll put Dr. Johnson and me at the wheel.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 30 1864

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