To understand the origin of the rivalry between Santa Rosa and Petaluma, think of the relationship between the Smothers Brothers.

In their classic comedy routines Dick (the one who plays bass) is the smarter of the pair, cool and sometimes smug; Tommy usually plays the man-child, a dumb cluck who becomes flustered and petulant when Dick deflates his goofy ideas. (Yes, I know Tom is actually older than Dick, Tom was the genius behind their legendary TV show, these are just their comic stage persona, &c. &c. so don’t start blasting angry tweets.)

I don’t want to press this analogy too far, but in the late 1850s Petaluma was something like Dick Smothers, needling his kid brother when he would screw up or begin crowing as if he were cock of the walk. And Tom/Santa Rosa would usually be on the defensive, sometimes getting a bit whiny about not getting his due respect even though he was trying really, really, hard.

Santa Rosa was voted to be the county seat in 1854, although at the time it was little more than a camp staked out at a muddy crossroads with only about eight actual houses. The place had no purpose to exist other than to be a county seat; the numerous squatters in the surrounding area needed a centralized courthouse for pressing their shaky homestead claims. For more background on all that, see “CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS.”

Sonoma Democrat, May 5, 1859



Petaluma had a two-year head start. While Santa Rosa was mapping out its first streets in 1854, Petaluma was already an established community with several hundred residents. They had stores and hotels, churches and meeting halls. A sketch of the town from the following year shows a mix of single and two story buildings – simply built, but not shacks, either.

Part of the deal for Santa Rosa to become the county seat required it to provide a courthouse before the end of the year. This courthouse issue would become the town’s Waterloo – or maybe a better comparison might be an albatross around Santa Rosa’s neck. (Arguing whether a bad situation is more like a dead bird or a lost battle would actually be a great setup for a Smothers Brothers routine, but enough of analogies within analogies.)

Santa Rosa’s first actual courthouse was a rush job – a temporary building later described as “a small wooden building built of rough up-and-down boards and ‘battened'” on Fourth street close to D st. Meanwhile. planning began for a permanent courthouse and jail at the current location of Exchange Bank.

Work on the courthouse/jail began in the summer of 1855 and finished just after Christmas. The Board of Supervisors called a special meeting afterward where they refused to pay the contractor, claiming the building didn’t meet specs. “Both sides got mad,” Robert Thompson wrote with considerable understatement in his history, “Central Sonoma.” After weeks of arguing the Board agreed to accept the work, albeit at a much reduced price.

Now shift forward a couple of years: The 1858 county Grand Jury declared the nearly-new courthouse was unsafe, dangerous and a “public nuisance,” with the roof leaking and walls cracked. Those drips and cracks foreshadowed a decade of woes ahead; later repairs and do-overs would about triple the cost of the original construction.1

By now Santa Rosa had its own weekly newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, which charged the Grand Jury had “an unnecessary amount of spite at the courthouse.” Sure, the roof leaked, but it could be repaired. While there really were big cracks in the walls, “…we sincerely congratulate our county that they remained standing long enough to save the invaluable lives of this Grand Jury, and thereby reserved to future generations the vast amount of wisdom contained in their heads, and which thus far has been so sparingly imparted to their less favored fellows.”

While Democrat publisher/editor E. R. Budd pretended to laugh off the building’s problems, the Grand Jury’s findings clearly rankled; two years later – after many had likely forgotten all about it – he dredged it up again, sulking their courthouse remarks were written by “two or three Petaluma men” on a subcommittee.

The Hall of Records and Courthouse with the jail between them, 1875. View from Third street overlooking the west corner of the original plaza. Main photo Sonoma County Library



Mr. Budd appeared to be a fellow of unusually thin skin for a newspaper publisher as the Petaluma papers teased and taunted Santa Rosa. The same year as the Grand Jury report, the Courier ran a (probably fictitious) story about an out-of-towner visiting Santa Rosa and being unable to find anything that looked like a courthouse. Budd took the bait and reprinted it as part of an editorial titled, “Envy:”

The following specimen of petty spleen, shows how bitterly envious some of the inhabitants of Petaluma are of the place chosen by the people of this county for the county seat…it is quite evident that some of the more selfish denizens of Petaluma have been unable to appreciate Santa Rosa, and would like to make those at a distance look upon it in a similar light…

Budd also complained Santa Rosa was undermining itself. A bit later he wrote a lengthy editorial about his paper not getting the local support it deserved, carping that many local businesses “have not done their part” by taking out ads. There he also made a passing remark that, if close to true, provides valuable insight into how they lived at the time: “…one half the people composing this community go to Petaluma to trade.” As Petaluma was probably 90 minutes away (at least) by buggy or wagon, that shows Santa Rosa was still mostly an outpost in 1858.

But Santa Rosa’s fortunes began looking up the following year. We have an unofficial census of Santa Rosa from 1859 showing the town’s population and an inventory of businesses. (There’s a similar census of Petaluma from 1857, which enables us to neatly compare both towns at their five-year mark.)2

Primary among the new businesses was the Wise & Goldfish general store on the east side of the plaza – Santa Rosans finally had a real place to shop. “Dry Goods, Clothing, Boots, Shoes, Groceries, Hardware, Crockery, Glassware, Fancy Goods, Bonnets, and a general assortment of Ladies’ Goods,” boasted their first ad in July, 1859. Their prices were also the lowest in the North Bay, they claimed. But now that Petaluma’s hegemony over retail sales faced serious competition, the journalistic jibes from that town were no longer quite so brotherly.

Petaluma’s Sonoma County Journal ran an article on that Santa Rosa census which is mostly transcribed below. Read it carefully and you’ll find editor Henry Weston was actually damning Santa Rosa with faint praise.

The article slyly implied land titles in Santa Rosa might be disputed because of legal problems with its underlying Mexican land grant (in truth, the title situation here was among the cleanest in the state, beating Petaluma to approval by eight years). It exaggerated how much had been spent on the county buildings so far while pointing out “their present unfinished state.” And the article noted “the population of the town proper is about 400,” although the federal census the next year would show Santa Rosa was really four times larger after people in the surrounding township were included.

But the worst of it was their long list of Santa Rosa businesses, which included this bit: “…one shoemaker shop, one jeweler shop, eleven Jews, one paint shop…” (emphasis added).

Needless to say, the actual 1859 census did not include “Jews” as a business category (you can find the entire list in Thompson’s history). This was sheer anti-Semitism by the Petaluma paper and clearly aimed at undermining the Wise & Goldfish store, which was owned by the only Jewish families in town. In the history books H. L. Weston has been admired as the godfather of the Argus and Petaluma newspapering in general, but this calls for his sterling reputation to be reevaluated.

Increasingly nasty potshots between the town papers continued the next year, with the Argus accusing that county taxes were being used to pay for civic improvements in and around Santa Rosa (one of these items can be found below). But the final salvo in this early skirmish was the 1861 effort to move the county seat to Petaluma.3

Very little was written about this at the time or since; it appears neither Santa Rosa nor Petaluma newspapers took it too seriously – and as everyone was preoccupied with the Civil War which had just begun, that’s really not so surprising. The proposal popped up suddenly in California newspapers in March, 1861, as a petition was presented to state legislators. It’s unknown exactly what it said or how long it was circulating. A counter-petition was quickly organized, arguing that it was “unnecessary, unwise and burdensome” to move. The “stay” counter-petition supposedly had far more signatures.

As Sonoma county then was deep in debt, the Santa Rosa paper argued taxpayers couldn’t pay for a new set of buildings, and it was unlikely that Mr. Petaluma was going to open his purse for the honor. “It may be, however, that some wealthy citizen is about to immortalize himself by presenting some ‘noble edifice’ to his fellows! Happy thought! Toodles forever!” The Democrat also sneered Petaluma merchants were mistaken if they expected a windfall from providing “grub, liquor and lodging” to people coming to the county seat to appear in court.

There were no rallies for or against, as far as I can tell, and editorial support for the move in the Argus was tepid, particularly after it was mentioned some subscribers were so opposed to the idea they might boycott the paper. When it came to voting day the measure was soundly defeated, passing in only three of the county’s 18 voting precincts (including Petaluma, natch).

And with that, the bell rang to end the first round of Petaluma vs. Santa Rosa. The next part of the slugfest saw the editors of the Argus and Santa Rosa’s Democrat take off their gloves for bare-knuckle fighting over the Civil War, as told here in “A SHORT TRUCE IN THE (UN)CIVIL WAR.”

Before wrapping up this survey of 1855-1861, my newspaper readings from those years also turned up some details that may shed light on an important but murky question in Sonoma county history: Why was almost everywhere outside of Petaluma so anti-Lincoln and pro-Confederacy before and during the Civil War?

In 1859 there was a meeting in Santa Rosa to organize a local Democratic party committee endorsing “popular sovereignty,” which was the concept that every state and territory had a right to set its own laws and rules, even on slavery. While there were meetings like that nationwide with the general goal of getting pro-slavery delegates elected to state Democratic party conventions, here in Sonoma county it piggybacked onto the politically powerful settler’s movement, which had its own definition of sovereignty – namely, it wanted California to declare the Mexican and Spanish land grants “fraudulent,” in violation of the federal treaty with Mexico that ended the Mexican War. (Interested historians can read the full set of resolutions in the Sonoma County Journal May 20, 1859.)

This fusion of “settlerism” with “popular sovereignty” may help explain why Sonoma county overwhelmingly voted against Lincoln the next year in favor of the Southern Democrat candidate who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right. Maybe it wasn’t so much that the majority of the county was saying “we like slavery,” as “we’ll vote for any guy who might get us clear title to our land claims.” This is an important distinction I’ve not seen historians discuss.


1 The courthouse construction in 1855 was just for the first story, not the two story building with cupola seen in all photos. In 1859 the top floor was built and again there was a fight with the contractor. His final bill included a whopping 75 percent cost overrun, presumably related to fixing structural problems with the underlying building. Again it went to arbitration, this time the contractor settling for about a quarter of what he asked. Problems with the original shoddy construction still were not over – the jail had to be torn down and completely rebuilt in 1867, just eleven years after it originally opened.

2 In 1857 Petaluma encompassed about a square mile, with a population of 1,338. Santa Rosa in 1859 was still its original 70 acres, with 400 residents. The decennial federal census of 1860, however, shows Santa Rosa with the larger population: 1,623 compared to Petaluma’s 1,505. This is due to counting people in the entire Santa Rosa Township, not just within city limits. The 1860 census of Santa Rosa proper was 425 residents.

3 One legislator hinted the proposed move of the county seat to Petaluma was (somehow) part of a scheme to have Marin annex Petaluma away from Sonoma county, and just the year before Marin actually had asked the state to expand their border northward and make Petaluma their new county seat. Those two efforts are probably linked but I haven’t found anything further on that angle, or who was behind either effort. It sounds like a good story, tho, and I’ll write more about it should more info surface.
Sonoma Democrat, May 5, 1859

SANTA ROSA–OUR COUNTY SEAT.– To those who have only heard of Santa Rosa as the county town of Sonoma county, and as being one of the most beautiful and thriving places in the State, the following facts and figures, condensed from the Santa Rosa Democrat, may be interesting:

The town of Santa Rosa is built on the fertile valley or plain of the same name, and on the old Santa Rosa “grant,” midway between Petaluma and the flourishing town of Healdsburg, on Russian River. To the enterprise of Berthold Hoen is the site of the place, and much of its prosperity, due. The site was fixed by him, and by him surveyed and mapped in the spring of 1854. In the year 1855, it was declared the county seat, Mr. Hoen tendering the county a building gratuitously, to be used for county purposes. The entire cost of the county buildings will be about $35,000, and even in their present unfinished state, present an appearance in structure and design creditable to the rich county of Sonoma. When completed, they will, in elegance and design, be surpassed by but few such buildings in the State. The private residence are mostly one-story cottage buildings, and for neatness and comfort will vie with those of any other county village we have knowlege of. The soil of the valley is a rich alluvium…

…Beside the public buildings, there is a fine academy for males and females, (accommodating 250 pupils); a district school, (numbering over 60 children); two churches, two resident preachers, nine resident lawyers, five physicians, two notaries public, one printing office, from which two publications are issued, seventy-five private residences, nine dry goods and grocery stores, one drug store, one hardware store, two hotels, two restaurants, two drinking saloons, two daguerrean galleries, one saddler shop, one barber shop, one tailor shop, one shoemaker shop, one jeweler shop, eleven Jews, one paint shop, three carpenter shops, two butcher shops, one cabinet shop, six blacksmith shops, one pump shop, one bakery, and two first-class livery stables. The population of the town proper is about 400. The climate is mild and salubrious, not being troubled so much by fogs and head winds, as the towns bordering on the coast. The greatest drawback is the unsettled condition of land titles — not peculiar to our own county — and these are in process of adjustment.

– Sonoma County Journal, November 25 1859

…Below, we give a small specimen of this talk, taken from the Argus of the 13th Jan. The editor goes so far as to call his statement “the prevailing opinion in this section,” (Petaluma):

“That Santa Rosa and Santa Rosa interests are being built up and protected, at the expense of the whole County, and to the detriment of some particular sections. That this has been, and now is, the policy of the citizens of Santa Rosa, no observant man, with any regard for truth, will dare deny. The governing policy for the last four years, has been to concentrate everything at Santa Rosa. No roads could be made unless they centered there. No bridges built, unless they benefit Santa Rosa. No regard is paid to the wants of Sonoma, Petaluma, and Bloomfield. But if Santa Rosa wants anything, even to the fencing of the plaza, the door of the county safe is thrown wide open. It is time these outrages upon the people at large should cease—this squandering of the public money for the benefiit of a few property-holders in and about Santa Rosa.”

We believe that the statement that the above is “the prevailing opinion” in that section, is untrue. That there are a few discontents in Petaluma, who find fault with this, as they do with everything else in and about Santa Rosa, is quite likely ; and that these compose the associates and intimates of the editor of that sheet, is still more probable. But we have no reason to believe that he is ever entrusted with the opinions of respectable men, even of his own vicinity. The quotation above, contains as much bare faced untruth, as we ever saw distilled in so small a space…

[lists county officials from Petaluma and Healdsburg, the 1858 Grand Jury report was the work of “two or three Petaluma men” on a committee]

…It is indirectly assorted, that the county authorities have paid for the fencing of the Plaza. This, of course, is just as reasonable as any other assertion; and yet not one dollar, directly or indirectly, has ever been paid or asked for for any such purpose. Equally false is his assertion of the building of bridges and roads for the exclusive benefit of Santa Rosa. Not one of the kind has ever been made. Altogether, we regard these complaints as very remarkable, even as coming from Pennypacker — certainly, they could come from nowhere else. [J. J. Pennypacker was the first publisher of the Argus 1859-1960 – JE]

Notwithstanding all this Billingsgate we speak of, seems to come from Petaluma, we are happy in the belief that the community in and around that place are not chargeable with them, but that among the respectable portion of that locality, a more liberal feeling exists.

– Sonoma Democrat, February 2 1860

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At the very top of Mount St. Helena is a marker commemorating the founding of Fort Ross in 1812. Why there is a sign concerning a place 32 miles away is not explained, and should anyone examine the monument further, a deeper meta-weirdness is revealed: It’s really a sign commemorating an earlier sign.

After slogging up that steep and unforgiving trail for about three hours, a weary hiker also gets a mental workout in trying to grasp what the monument actually stated – which was that on this spot in 1912, a group of descendants of famous people put up this sign because on this spot there used to be a sign reading, ‘two Russians were at this spot in 1841’ which was removed from this spot in 1853.


Intrigued but hopelessly confused, our intrepid hiker pulls a mobile phone from his/her backpack, certain that the cell towers also at the summit will provide a blistering signal (and hopefully not enough microwave energy to cause actual blistering).

From the internet, our visitor learns the monument actually describes how the mountain was named – which is a bit odd considering “Helena” does not appear anywhere on the marker. To paraphrase the top three results currently found by Google: During the 18th century Baron Count Rotchef visited Fortress Ross with his beautiful young wife Princess Helena, who was held in high regard by her people because. Helena joined a Russian survey party who ascended the peak in 1841, where they left a copper plate inscribed with her name and the date.

And that wasn’t all; had our hiker Googled a bit further, (s)he would have discovered that as the Russians came down from the mountain, an Indian chief tried to kidnap the princess.

As Gentle Reader can surely guess, there’s a whole lot of hokum to this story – problems that began even before the strange marker-about-a-marker was placed up there in 1912. It’s been like a very old and pretty tangled ball of yarn that everyone likes to handle but no one bothers to unwind and fix.

Here is what we know to be facts: Some Russians actually climbed the mountain in 1841 and left a copper plate there. There really was a “Princess Helena” around here at the time. End of facts.

We don’t know who the “Helena” was in the name, if the Russian named it before the day of their visit, or even that the Russians named it at all. Alexander Rotchev – the last administrator of Fort Ross and Helena’s husband – did not mention the mountain at all in his memoirs.1

The only written evidence the Russians were on the mountain at all comes from Ilya Voznesensky, who was sent to the Russian colonies by the Imperial Academy of Sciences to document the territory. All he states in his travel journal is that on June 16, 1841 he climbed “one of the highest mountains on whose summit no one had then yet been.”2

His journal didn’t mention the plaque or that anyone else was with him, but there were two names scratched into the metal: His and Yegor Chernykh, an agronomist who was at Ft. Ross to train the colonists in better farming techniques. Together they traveled widely in the area, visiting Pomo villages and mapping the Russian River as far as modern Healdsburg.

And, of course, there’s the copper plaque, which we know was actually on the mountain from a sighting of it in 1851. A letter to the Daily Alta California (transcribed below) described how nine men climbed the mountain and found a copper sheet about three feet square, “upon which was engraved hieroglyphics not by us decipherable.” The group – none of whom had obviously seen Cyrillic – wondered if it could be Aztec, or the “handiwork of the Mongolian race as far back as the time of Confucius.” The (un)helpful editor of the newspaper explained they saw the “latitude, longitude and altitude of the mountain, as ascertained by a party of Russian navigators,” and that “it is said that similar copper-plates were placed on several other high peaks in the vicinity of the coast.”

By 1866 the sign was gone. Another correspondent to the Alta wrote, “some years ago a fool or vagabond vandal removed an inscription that had been left on the summit” and the next year another informed the paper, “at the summit I found the post on which the Russians affixed the copper plate which was taken down several years ago by some persons who gave it to the State Geological Survey.”

And that’s the last we hear from anyone who had first-hand knowledge of anything related to the sign. Notice, too, that no one had yet claimed the Russian visit or the copper sign had anything to do with naming the mountain “Helena.” That all changed forty years after the Russians had gone away.

(By the way: The village of St. Helena was given that name in 1855 because the local chapter of the Sons of Temperance men’s group already called itself the “St. Helena Division.” As their Division names usually reflected a town or landmark, it’s safe to presume the mountain was commonly called Mt. St. Helena by then.)

From what I can find, the 1880 Sonoma county history was the first place the princess-namesake story shows up. The claim appears in a lengthy quote from Charles Mitchell Grant, an explorer and member of the Royal Geographical Society who then lived in the Bay Area. He had no expertise about the Russian colony at Fort Ross but twenty years earlier he had bummed around China and Russia, so apparently that made him an authority on all things Russian.3

Besides Grant’s matter-of-fact claim that the mountain was named for the administrator’s lovely wife, he also dishes up the first printed version of the kidnapping story. Grant wrote, “The beauty of this lady excited so ardent a passion in the heart of Prince Solano, chief of all the Indians around Sonoma, that he formed a plan to capture, by force or stratagem, the object of his love…”

That’s a paraphrase from a story in General Vallejo’s unpublished memoir, where supposedly Vallejo’s key Indian ally, Chief Solano (Suisun tribal leader Sem-Yeto), meets Princess Helena while she and her husband are visiting Vallejo in Sonoma. That night Solano tells Vallejo he planned to abduct her and asks for Vallejo’s approval. Vallejo is horrified and shames Solano into abandoning the notion. A translation of the full tale is found in the footnote.4

This isn’t the place to really dive into a full analysis of the story, but I’ll say only I don’t believe it happened as Vallejo described. It fits too perfectly with the school of humor which could be called the “wise captain and the fool,” where a stupid person is the butt of the joke because he must be instructed on how to behave properly. Vignettes with that theme were popular in newspaper entertainment pages during the 19th and early 20th centuries, usually with an underlying racist message – “those people” have strange ideas and aren’t as good as the rest of us.

The less titillating info in the 1880 history was further news about the Russian plaque: “In the year 1853 this plate was discovered by Dr. T. A. Hylton, and a copy of it preserved by Mrs. H. L. Weston of Petaluma, by whose courtesy were are enabled to reproduce it. The metal slab is octagonal in shape, and bears the following words in Russian: RUSSIANS, 1841 E. L. VOZNISENSKI iii, E. L. CHERNICH”.

Unfortunately, that terse description left unexplained whether Dr. Hylton took it away with him or just traced over what was written. Nor was it explained how large the original was. It was later stated the paper copy given to Mrs. Weston was only about five inches across and shaped like an octagon.5

If nothing more was written of the tale of the Russians on Mt. St. Helena, it would have ended up as an obscure anecdote to the history of Fort Ross. But starting in the early Twentieth Century, the story was transformed into a myth about the mountain of the beautiful princess and her thwarted Indian paramour. And all that is thanks to Miss Honoria R. P. Tuomey.

Honoria Tuomey was born in 1866 at her family’s ranch off of Coleman Valley Road. Most of her life she was a grammar school teacher and principal in West County; the Sonoma County Museum has a box of her memorabilia which is greatly filled with yellowed photos of her posing with farmkids in front of one-room schoolhouses. She started by writing poetry and had a lengthy profile of Luther Burbank printed as a Sunday feature in a 1903 Los Angeles paper; Gaye LeBaron wrote a 1990 profile of Tuomey worth reading for general background on her life and works.

(RIGHT: Honoria Tuomey, 1912. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum)

Tuomey is best known today for her two-volume Sonoma county history published in 1926, and although LeBaron’s remarks about those books might seem unkind, they really are worthless except for the biographies that makes up the entire second volume. The first book is interjected with a mish-mash of random facts, dubious hand-me-down stories and bits of melodramatic narrative  – complete with made-up dialog. Parts are even irrelevant to Sonoma county history; while there’s hardly a word about the Chinese there is a full chapter on “the French in California.” Overall it’s even worse than Tom Gregory’s 1911 history, and I suspect some of his research came from tall tales he swept up in Santa Rosa barrooms.

Honoria’s history focused on West County – which isn’t at all a bad thing, as all the other local histories dwelled heavily on Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sonoma. Still, LeBaron quipped, “It weighted so heavily toward the coast that it threatened to tip the whole county into the Pacific Ocean.” So it’s not surprising Tuomey’s book contains much on the history of the Russians and Fort Ross, with four chapters on it – far more coverage than she gave the Bear Flag Revolt and founding of the state.

Her passion for the Russian colony extended to the legend of the lost marker on Mt. St. Helena, twice climbing the mountain in search of clues, as she later revealed in an article.  “For several years I had read and researched, and interviewed old settlers, and all to no avail so far as obtaining a clue either to the existence and whereabouts of the plate, or its possible location on the mountain.”6

Tuomey’s quest for the marker ended when she came across an old pamphlet mentioning the business about Dr. Hylton and Mrs. Weston. That she didn’t realize the same info could be found in Sonoma and Napa county histories published in the early 1880s says lots about her scholarship.

With an eye on placing a replica on the very same rock to mark the centennial of Fort Ross, Honoria got busy. She asked the Kinslow Brothers – a company more accustomed to carving tombstones – to donate a marble plaque, with this engraved in the center: “RESTORED JUNE 1912 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FOUNDING OF FORT ROSS.” She asked a Santa Rosa jeweler to engrave three copper plaques: a reproduction of the original Russian, another with an English translation, and the largest of all with the names of some of Sonoma county’s famed Mexican and American families. And she trekked up the mountain for a third time by herself to make sure she knew the proper place for all this to go. Say what you want about Honoria Tuomey, but she had remarkable dedication to her mission; she was around 45 years old while doing all this.

And thus on the 20th of June, 1912, Honoria led a small army of celebrants climbing up the mountain. At the summit the American flag was raised, messages and poems were read and speeches delivered. There was a stirring benediction and everyone sang “America” at the end. I have absolutely no doubt this was the happiest moment of her life.

Honoria Tuomey at the dedication of the Mt. St. Helena plaque. 1912. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum


A few weeks later the San Francisco Call presented a Sunday feature on the ceremony with an article by Tuomey. Per the Russian visit in 1841, she wrote:

…The complete personnel of this doughty expedition is not revealed in any records of history, but besides Doctor Wosnesenski and his friend, E. I. Tschernech, it included the handsome young Helena, Princess de Gagarine, wife of Alexander Rotcheff, the last governor of Ross settlement, and John Edward Mcintosh, grantee in 1837 by General M. G. Vallejo of the rancho Estero Americano to block Russian encroachments inland; also a small guard of soldiers. There were some lively thrills on that trip of some forty miles, not the weakest being occasioned by the attempt of old Chief Solano to abduct the princess. Up the rough, almost perpendicular side of the mountain the party mounted to the summit of the north peak, the highest point of elevation. Here upon a flat rock the copper plate was spiked and additional blocks were fitted to form a cairn. While the others knelt, the princess, raising her right hand, proclaimed the name of the mountain forever “Helena” in honor of her royal mistress and namesake, Helena, empress of Russia…

In this new, never-before-told version, it’s getting pretty crowded up there at the summit, what with the princess, the soldiers and all. But thank goodness an armed escort was along on this trip because an Indian chief tried to snatch the princess. It’s all a perfect example of classic Honoria Tuomey: 10 percent was probably true, 10 percent was iffy, 10 percent was clearly junk and the rest was stuff she heard somewhere and thought it sounded good.

It would be easy to presume she just made most of that up, but thanks to her 1924 article, we learn her embroidered details came from Dan Patton, who ran the Mount Saint Helena Inn (7 miles from Calistoga on highway 29) back when Tuomey was on the hunt for all things Russian.

It seems Patton was pals with William Boggs, a notable figure in Sonoma and Napa counties in the decades after statehood. Boggs had known a guy (no name given) who supposedly was one of the soldiers in that pack of Russians who went up the mountain in 1841; when the rest of his countrymen abandoned Fort Ross and left for Alaska at the end of that year he was left behind for some reason. The Russian told the story to Boggs who told the story to Patton who told the story to Tuomey.

“Documentary evidence may not always be obtainable, may not exist,” she wrote, “but the free testimony of those who have lived and made history can be accepted, when known to have come down to us through veracious channels.” Dear Honoria; I know a few people who might disagree with you on that – namely every historian.

Tuomey had other novel and elaborate ideas about how the mountain came to named that won’t be detailed here. In a series of coincidences which Robert Ripley might have found hard to swallow, she believed it was independently christened “Saint Helena” three times – first by a Spanish friar, then by the Russians, and finally by Captain Stephen Smith of Bodega Bay.

Honoria R. P. Tuomey died in 1938. Besides the plaque on the mountain, she left hand-painted signs all over the county marking historic events – most (all?) are gone now, or stored away. But her real legacy is the unfortunate trail of misinformation about the Russian connection to Mt. St. Helena.

One afternoon I dived down the rabbit hole to see what people were writing about it since Honoria’s heyday. In travel guides, books, newspaper and magazine articles I found 27 new and unique details to the three Tuomey theories before I stopped counting. Some lowlights:

The princess on the mountain named it after her aunt, the empress of Russia (who wasn’t her aunt or named Helena); her arms were flung wide, Christlike, or she knelt in prayer as she named it after her patron saint; Russian sailors prayed or sang hymns. Another thread had Chief Solano and other Indians capturing the party at the base of Mt. St. Helena when Salvador Vallejo happened to come riding along to rescue them, or General Vallejo having to negotiate their release with the Vallejo silverware being Rotchev’s gift for saving his wife. The original plaque was given to the Society of California Pioneers museum in San Francisco by Dr. Hylton, where it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake although it was never there.

Never, ever, is the simplest and most likely explanation discussed: That the “plaque” was possibly just the equivalent of 19th century grafitti – two guys taking a break after a long hike and scratching their names on a piece of scrap metal.

As of this writing (December, 2017) the park is closed because Mt. St. Helena burned in the Tubbs fire. I have been unable to reach anyone in the park service who can tell me whether the marker is still intact; the copper could have melted or the whole thing could have been run over by a big CalFire truck.

But if it’s really gone, let’s not rush to replace it – we don’t need to keep inspiring people to write phony history. Should the sign be indeed replaced, let’s at least offer an honest representation of what it said: “Russians Eli and George, June 1841.” And just leave it at that.

1 Most of Rotchev’s papers were destroyed in a 1974 fire, but in the Argus-Courier, October 12, 1963, there was a quote from a 1942 letter from Mrs. Harold H. Fisher: “Mr. Redionoff (chief of Slavic Divison, Library of Congress) wrote me that the A. G. Rotchev memoirs do not mention the mountain…”

2 The odyssey of a Russian scientist: I.G. Voznesenskii in Alaska, California and Siberia 1839-1849 by Aleksandr Alekseev, 1987

3 An overview of Charles Mitchell Grant’s travels appeared in the Royal Geographical Society’s 1862 proceedings. Grant had only one leg and frequently had to travel in a cart when the only transport available was via camel or mule.

4 When Senor Rotcheff…came to see me, he was accompanied by his wife, the Princess Elena, a very beautiful lady of twenty Aprils, who united to her other gifts an irresistible affability. The beauty of the governor’s wife made such a deep impression on the heart of Chief Solano that he conceived the project of stealing her. With this object he came to visit me very late at night and asked my consent to putting his plan into effect. The story horrified me, for if it should unfortunately be carried out my good name would suffer, for no one would be able to get it out of his head that my agent had acted on my account; and besides seeing the country involved in a war provoked by the same cause which actuated the siege of Troy, I, who had never hesitated at expense or trouble to please my visitors…would be stigmatized as the most disloyal being that the world had ever produced. It was necessary for me to assume all the authority that I knew how to assume on occasions that required it to make Solano understand that his life would hang in the balance if he should be so ill-advised as to attempt to break the rules of hospitality. My words produced a good effect, and that same night, repenting of his conduct, he went to Napa Valley, where I sent him to prevent him from compromising, under the impulse of his insane love, the harmony which it was so urgent for me to reestablish with my powerful neighbors…But, fearing that Solano might ambush them on the road, I went to escort my visitors to Bodega. (Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez translation as found in “Spanish Arcadia” by Sanchez, 1929)

5Dr. Thomas A. Hylton was a Petaluma physician in the mid-1850s, and H. L. Weston was the publisher of the Petaluma Journal, having purchased it from Thomas L. Thompson in 1856. His wife was mentioned in 1868 for her skilled needlework for having crocheted portraits of famous men and even De Vinci’s Last Supper. Caroline died in 1909, having lived in Petaluma for 52 years, and Henry died in 1920.

6 “Historic Mount Saint Helena” by Honoria Tuomey, California Historical Society Quarterly, July, 1924


The reproduction plaque and English translation (Image: Wikipedia Commons)
In The Presence Of Representatives Of The Sonoma Pioneer Families Of
General M. G. Vallejo – Senora M Lopez De Carillo
Captain Henry D. Fitch – Captain Stephen Smith
Jasper O’Farrell – C. Alexander
Donner Party – Bear Flag Party
And Of
The Native Sons Of The Golden West
The Spanish, British, Russian And Mexican Consuls At S. F.
Dr. T A Hylton Removed The Original Plate From This Rock
In May 1853 And Gave A Copy To H. L. Weston Who Has
Authorized Miss Honoria R. P. Toumey
To Make This Restoration
The Mysterious Copper Plate on the Top of St. Helena.

A correspondent of the Marysville Democrat writes as follows:

“Napa Valley is unquestionably one of the loveliest spots on this earth… At the upper end of the ralley rises St. Helena, an abrupt, lofty mountain — the highest peak north of the bay — upon the very highest point of which there rests, or did rest, a copper plate, the history of which is buried in the silent tomb of oblivion.

“As wonderful as that relic of by-gone ages is, I do not recollect ever having seen even a newspaper paragraph in relation to it. Eight years ago last July, three gentlemen from San Francisco, three from Sacramento city, two from Napa and myself, having heard of the existence of said plate, ascended that mountain’s rugged form and gratified as far as possible, our curiosity. It was indeed a wonder. The plate was thin, about three feet square, upon which was engraved hieroglyphics not by us decipherable, notwithstanding that our company, altogether, understood five different languages.

“While wondering over the defunct history of that old copper plate, we could not help speculating upon the probable race so advanced in the arts which could possibly have occupied this interesting country at so remote a period. Is it not possible that this continent mar have once been connected with the north-eastern coast of Asia? One might be led to look upon that valuable plate as a piece of handiwork of the Mongolian race as far back as the time of Confucius, were it not that the characters do not resemble their language.

“Again, it is not impossible that the original Aztec tribe, the founders of those splendid ruins of Yucatan, may have originated from the Caucasian stock, and gradually worked their way towards Bhering’s Straits [sic] down the continent, having temporarily occupied different portions of the now Alta California in the course of their gradual migration.”

The mysterious character alluded to in the above correspondence, are those of the latitude, longitude and altitude of the mountain, as ascertained by a party of Russian navigators, who made a hasty survey of the coast, when the Russians had possession of the coast near the mouth of Russian river, and expected to hold a large part of California. It is said that similar copper-plates were placed on several other high peaks in the vicinity of the coast.

– Daily Alta California, January 1 1860

Places of Note.

…To me, one of the most interesting points is Mt. St. Helena, not because of any peculiar natural attraction, but it haa bern consecrated by the footsteps of the great Humboldt, and I never look up to that dark mountain pile without feeling as if it had been rendered a sacred spot by the influence of such a presence. Some years ago a fool or vagabond vandal removed an inscription that had been left on the summit by that greatest of philosophers. It was a copper plate set in the rock, and was a valuable memento of long years of the past.

– Daily Alta California, August 30 1866


…At the summit I found the post on which the Russians affixed the copper plate which was taken down several years ago by some persons who gave it to the State Geological Survey. It should be replaced with another plate containing a translation of its inscription…

– Daily Alta California, May 3 1867



…St. Helena, the highest and most shapely mountain in this lofty chain, is visible from base to crest, the line of light and shadow on its rugged slopes is so plainly marked, its clean-cut outline against the sky is so well defined that it is difficult to realize the intervening space of foot-hill, valley and wooded Slope, which makes up the foreground of this far-reaching and surprisingly beautiful landscape. This view of St. Helena, or at all events a similar one, doubtless, inspired the Russian naturalist Wossnessensky, who was the first to ascend it, and who named the mountain in honor of his sovereign, the Empress of Russia. He imbedded, in a rock on the summit a copper plate, to commemorate the event. Upon the plate was inscribed the date of the ascent, “June 12, 1841,” the name Wossnessonsky, and that of his companion, Techernich, and the word “Russians,” twice repeated in the Russian language and once in Latin. This plate was removed by some vandal and afterwards came into the possession of members of the so-called State Geological Survey, who probably took it out of the State where it has no local interest.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 28 1881



Miss Honoria R. P. Tuomey read a charming description of the life and writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, having secured the local color for her sketch by a visit to his old camp on the southwest side of Mount St. Helena. It was here that he wrote “The Silverado Squatters.”

– Press Democrat, June 19 1910


Old Spanish Families Represented at Notable Ceremonies on the Mountain’s Summit Thursday

On Thursday last, June 20th, the great Mount St. Helena was awakened from its sleep of age into a new historical life. Its rocky gorges, its thorn-brushed ridges and its lone wild peak away up against the blue sky, all rang with the echo of a Voice. It was the Voice of the age one hundred years distant from the white hand of the Czar of all the Russias. One hundred years away from the black bearded Muscovite who toiled and climbed from old Fort Ross by the Pacific, through primeval redwood forests o’er meadowlands deep grassed, but angered into life by the growl of the grizzly and the leap of the stag. On and on they came, those Russians of the frozen sea and the aurora land of ice. Wosnesenskl, the Third, Tschernech, and their beautiful princess, up and up the steep mountain side, scaling the cliffs and tearing their chaparal pathway to the wild, desolate peak of the great unnamed mountain.

The story is of June, but the pathway was as December, wild in its every setting. The sacred burden of their pilgrimage was a rudely carved copper plate bearing the inscription
E. I. Tschernech
This in the rude character lettering of the kingdom of the Czar. This they bolted to a rock of the peak in June of 1841, and as they stood on this great mount “Helena.” Later, woven in a triple story of romance, it became the “Sainted” mountain.

The years that made this story of christening have gone, and too, the rude plate of record was taken from its fastenings and lost to the world forever, save its replica on a film of paper, almost miraculous in its preservation.

Another age has come, the years of the city, the orchard, the vintage; the years of the puffing engine, the harnessed bird of the air, and conquered light of the clouds. It is the day of “Restoration,” and the great mountain feels the footprints and hears the sound of the English-speaking voice.

Sonoma county may well be proud of the little lady who made possible this day of restoration on the old mountain peak.

The notable historical event in all its minute detail and plan, was under the skilled management of Miss Honora R. P. Tuomey, an educator and writer of Sonoma county. She bears a great love for the preservation of these historical landmarks and, too, of telling the story in writing of those days and times, of those men and incidents of early days of this western life.

To Miss Tuomey was given the authority of restoration, and well did she complete the task in every detail. As a princess of the Russians first gave the mountain name, so it was but fitting that a lady of this western land should replace it under the western sun.

It is a long, interesting story, the story of the original plate, of its placement and its final untimely destruction, of which limitations deny in this brief article.

The day of the restoration last Thursday was one of threatening clouds and storm. Invitations had been issued to representatives of the pioneer families of the county and a few guests. Those going to the summit of the mountain from the southern portion of the county chose to go by the Patton toll house trail; those going from this city and section were to climb the mountain from the west, over a trail of steep ascent and heavy with overgrown brush. Those in the party from the Healdsburg section were…

… The copper plates were given by Hood Brothers of Santa Rosa, and the marble tablet by Kinslow Brothers. Harry Parks had charge of the masonry work and bolting to the rock, and was assisted by Mr. Frates…

.. Bolted to the rock on the peak of the great Mt. St. Helena, the story retold, a companion of the mighty storm, the blow of the wind; the drift of the snow and the flash of the clouds of heaven, this tablet bolted to the mountain peak shall stand forever, a leaf from the page of history of the great State of California.

– Healdsburg Tribune, June 27 1912



By Honoria R. P. Tuomey

EARLY in June, 1841, there arrived at Fort Ross an adventurous naturalist attached to the national museum of zoology at St. Petersburg, Dr. P. L. Wosnesenski, commissioned to make collections on the northern Pacific shores of Asia and North America. From the summit of Mount Ross this enterprising man of science saw on the far eastern horizon a quadruple peaked mountain looming conspicuously above the lower summits of the Coast range. Speedily he organized a party, caused a copper plate to be made and inscribed by the artisans at Ross and pioneered a journey to the mountain that until then had been unvisited and unnamed by the Russians who had seen it from afar for a generation.

The little riding party passed across pastoral Sonoma, occupied by Indian tribes not wholly friendly and claimed by Mexico, always hostile to the Muscovite “intruders,” whose stout stronghold she dare not attack.

The complete personnel of this doughty expedition is not revealed in any records of history, but besides Doctor Wosnesenski and his friend, E. I. Tschernech, it included the handsome young Helena, Princess de Gagarine, wife of Alexander Rotcheff, the last governor of Ross settlement, and John Edward Mcintosh, grantee in 1837 by General M. G. Vallejo of the rancho Estero Americano to block Russian encroachments inland; also a small guard of soldiers.

There were some lively thrills on that trip of some forty miles, not the weakest being occasioned by the attempt of old Chief Solano to abduct the princess. Up the rough, almost perpendicular side of the mountain the party mounted to the summit of the north peak, the highest point of elevation. Here upon a flat rock the copper plate was spiked and additional blocks were fitted to form a cairn.

While the others knelt, the princess, raising her right hand, proclaimed the name of the mountain forever “Helena” in honor of her royal mistress and namesake, Helena, empress of Russia.  The party returned without mishap to Ross, and the close of 1841 saw the settlements at Ross and Bodega abandoned in obedience to the imperial decree to quit this region, since it had finally been found unsuitable for the purpose for which it was founded in 1812—the victualing of the Russian possessions In the Aleutian islands.

The plate disappeared from the mountain and, while our California historians mention its disappearance, they do not claim to have seen it, and all give its inscription incorrectly in part and misstate the method of its depositing. They give the first word as “Helena,” whereas, that name does not appear, the christening by the princess de Gagarine being entirely verbal. Nor did she call it “Saint Helena.” By two successive coincldences the mountain was named “Saint Helena,” first by a missionary in the early 30’s and in ’42 by Captain Stephen Smith, whose ship, the St. Helena, brought him to Bodega bay. It is stated that a post was erected and the plate nailed thereto, while in fact it was secured to a rock.

The lost Russian plate became one of my quests in my study of local history. For a long while I could find no clew. Finally, while a guest at the Mount St. Helena inn – the tollhouse of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Silverado Squatters” – I was shown by the host Dan Patton, a venerable and widely known Napa pioneer, a copy of an ancient local publication that led me soon to make a pilgrimage to Petaluma. There I called upon a courtly old gentleman for half a century prominent In Petaluma’s business and social life, now, at four score and six, retired within the beauties of his fine old home and big, old fashioned flower garden. After a little teasing of his memory, crowded with the recollections of his long and busy career, Mr. Weston unearthed in his antique secretary a long forgotten scrap of paper, the only copy In existence of the Russian plate. It is of heavy, white linen paper, an octagon 5 1/8 inches in diameter. The face bears this inscription, given here in English:

“Russians, June, 1841, P. L. Wosnesenski III, E. I. Tschernech, Russians.” The latter word, “Russians,” is in Latin. “Jose,” Spanish for Joseph, appears across the upper left corner, and we may but conjecture that this Jose was an Indian or Mexican guide. The remainder of the inscription is in Russian. Upon the reverse side is penned the autographic certification: “Exact copy of the inscription found on a copper plate nailed to a rock on the summit of Mount St Helena by T. A. Hylton in May, 1853.”

“Doctor Hylton gave me this copy, made by himself In 1853,” said Weston. “He was an old friend and fellow townsman. He died on his way east In 1859.”

The seeker after rare historical relics can best appreciate my rapture on that day.

The year 1912 is the centenary of the founding of Ross settlement, and June the anniversary month of the Wosnesenski party’s visit to Mount St Helena. Therefore June, 1912, was fixed as the time to erect a memorial tablet.

The north peak is accessible from more than one point But the only cleared trail leads up the south peak and along the summit, starting at the Mount St. Helena inn, 2,300 feet elevation, on the highway between Calistoga and Middletown. The inn possesses a superabundance of hospitable spirit, but is rather limited as to actual bed and board accommodations. So invitations to the restoration ceremonies were limited to those whose presence was deemed necessary to give dignity and significance to the occasion. The list included Hon. Hiram W. Johnson, governor of California; the consuls at San Francisco of Spain, Great Britain, Russia and Mexico, since each of those countries in succession claimed this territory.

Rev. John R. Cantillon, representing the early mission fathers and particularly Padre Benito Sierra, who as chaplain of the sloop Sonora celebrated at Bodega bay the first religious services ever held on Sonoma soil.

Mrs. L. Vallejo Emparan, daughter of General Mariano G. Vallejo of distinguished memory. Juanita Bailhache Waldrop, Temple Bailhache, Benjamin E. Grant Sr., Benjamin E. Grant Jr., descendants of Captain Henry D. Fitch, accomplished New England shipmaster, Pacific coast merchant and grantee of several large tracts, including the peninsula of Coronado, the Potrero in San Francisco and the Sotoyome rancho near Healdsburg; also relatives of Senora M. I. Lopez de Cabrillo, grantee of the Rancho Cabesa de Santa Rosa and mother of Mrs. Vallejo, Mra Fitch and Mrs. J. B. R. Cooper.

Mrs. Stephen M. Smith and daughter. Mrs. E. Juanita Smith-Rose, of San Francisco, relatives of Captain Stephen Smith, who In ’42 received title to the great Bodega and Blucher ranchos without renouncing his prized American citizenship, but only on condition that he establish certain manufactories. Captain Smith brought round the Horn from Massachusetts a whole shipload of machinery, including the first steam engine ever brought to California, plants for a saw mill, grist mill, tannery, distillery, etc., and four skilled mechanics to erect and manage them. He came the best equipped pioneer that ever settled on this coast. On his way he called at a Peruvian port and married a young Castllian lady, Dona Manuela Torres, to whose brother, Don Manuel, was granted the region about Fort Ross, known as the Muniz rancho.

Miss Elena O’Farrell. daughter of Jasper O’Farrell, who surveyed much of San Francisco, one of whose streets bears his name, and who barely escaped lynching at the hands of irate owners of lots along Market street because he sliced deeply enough into their property to give to the infant city the wide thoroughfare he foresaw it would need. Mr. O’Farrell bought the Ranchos Estero Americano and Canadade Jonive adjoining the Bodego rancho. He made his home at Freestone, renaming his estate the Analy ranch in memory of the principality of Analy in Ireland, ruled for centuries by the O’Farrells, princess of Analy.

Mrs. J. V. A. Frates. daughter of the venerable James McChristian, survivor of the Bear Flag party, and niece of Mrs. Jasper O’Farrell.

George Donner Ungewitter, grandson of George A. Donner of the illfated Donner party.

Mr. Julius M. Alexander, nephew of Cyrus Alexander, a pioneer settler in Alexander valley.

Mr. H. L. Weston, possessor for 59 years of the only existing copy of the Russian plate.

Mr. Donald Mcintosh, grandnephew of John Edward Mcintosh, present at the ceremonies of June, 1841.

Claude O. Howard, district deputy grand president of the Native Sons of the Golden West.

Mr. George Madeira, Mr. Dan Patton and a few other friends, including Mr. and Mrs. Fred. Cummings, Mr. and Mrs. Jirah Luce, Mra A. H. Graeff, Miss Nina Luce, Emile Bachman, T. G. Young, Calvin E. Holmes and Harry Parks, who as a member of the establishment of Kinslow Bros., marble workers of Santa Rosa, who generously donated the marble slab, went along and, assisted by Mr. Frates, made a capital piece of work by securing the tablet In place.

Upon a roughly set tufa platform some 4,500 feet above the level of the Pacific a streak of blue to the west, the party assembled after a reunion and lunch. Three-quarters of California lay smiling below under clear skies. The long serrated wall of the Sierras ran along the eastern horizon, sharply notched where the Truckee flows. Shasta’s white peak to the north, Whitney lording it In the south, Hamilton, Diablo, Tamalpais, Lassen, the northern Buttes lesser features. The bay and city of San Francisco lay near. Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties spread immediately below.

The program opened with the raising of the American flag. Father Cantillon’s invocatlonal utterance followed. Messages were read from Mr. Weston, Governor Johnson and the consuls at San Francisco for Spain, Great Britain, Russia and Mexico, accompanied by the raising In turn of the flag of each of those countries. The bear flag again waved and dipped to Its great successor, the stars and stripes The stories were recited of Cabrillo, Drake, Bodega, the Ross settlement the mission at Sonoma, the raising and lowering of the bear flag and Captain Stephen Smith’s Bodega flagpole. Mr. Patton contributed most of these historical sketches. A poem, ‘The Restoration,” by Julius M. Alexander, was recited by Mrs. Waldrop. Mr. Howard, on behalf of the Native Sons, made a stirring address Benediction and the singing of “America” closed the exercises.

The memorial tablet is of white marble, an octagon 18 inches in diameter and one inch thick. The engraved copper plates are recessed and riveted In place and the slab is fastened with long extension bolts set with solder far into the tufa boulder. Americans are finally commencing to learn that memorial tablets and other monuments are meant to be left intact and not carried away piecemeal as souvenirs. So we feel that this newly erected memorial to the Russians and the Sonoma pioneers will be safe under the sun and the snow on the summit of Mount St. Helena.

There were many intensely funny and a few near tragic incidents on the trip. There was the surreptitious attempt of a well known Healdsburg physician and his son to circumvent the Healdsburg section of the party and scale the mountain by an almost inaccessible ridge to raise a crude Russian flag on the summit and throw bombs at the rest, but the attempt failed ingloriously because those burlesque adherents of the czar got lost and had to return home in chagrin. Then there was the veteran mountain climber, who sat down to rest on the Kellogg trail, was left by his fellows, wandered miles to the inn and finally left on the outbound stage for San Francisco, still laden with 15 pounds of ham, an American flag and a canteen. Again there was the modest Healdsburger upon whom some wag had palmed two left shoes for the climb, and who will, because of an innocent but unlucky observation of Father Cantillon’s, be known for the rest of his life as “the left legged man.” And then the fair daughter of an ancient house, who showed the fearless blood of her ancestors by hastening to view an old, yellow, fierce eyed rattlesnake, declaring it the first of its kind she ever had encountered, and which, through the mercy of providence, was pleased to continue gliding into the brush instead of turning upon its admirer, almost, in her eagerness, treading on its many rattled tail.

– San Francisco Call, July 28 1912


Two Thousand Pounds of Red Fire Will Burn
In Every Direction Will Be Seen The Call’s Best Wishes and Faith in Great State

When selecting a location to make a red fire display upon the night of July 4, The Call chose a spot full of historical significance, for on the very top of Mount St. Helena, where, on the night of July 4 The Call’s red fire will blaze, stands a bronze tablet defying time and weather and telling of a visit made there in 1841 by the Russians.

The original tablet was long ago removed from its place upon the rocks because of the value attaching to it as an historical relic. This removal took place in May, 1855, in the presence of representatives of the Sonoma pioneer families of General M. G. Vallejo, Captain Henry D. Fitch, Jasper O’Farrell, members of the Donner party and Senora M. Lopez de Carillo, Captain Stephen Smith, C. Alexander of the bear flag party, the Native Sons of the Golden West, the Spanish. British. Russian and Mexican, consuls at San Francisco.

Actively in charge of the work was Dr. T. A. Hylton,. who. took a literal copy of the inscription and gave it to H. L. Weston, who a little over a year ago authorized Miss Honora and P. R. Toumey to place upon the rock which bore the original tablet the copy which is now there. The inscription is as follows: “Russians. June, I841. C. L. Vosnisenki III. E. I. Tschernegi. Russians.”

The original tablet was destroyed when the Pioneer building was lost during San Francisco’s great fire, and today all that remains to mark the visit of the Russians to this part of California at that early period of the state’s history is the present tablet, which stands defying the winter’s winds and snows .and the blaze of the summer sun to tell of that visit of the Russians who scarcely realized the splendor of the domain, which they overlooked.

Within 10 feet of the spot where this tablet rests will flare on the night of July 4 a message of good will, from The Call to its California friends…

– San Francisco Call, June 15 1913


Untouched original image of featured graphic. Courtesy Sonoma County Museum

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As the presidential election approaches, the Santa Rosa paper is relentlessly attacking the Republican candidate. Readers are told he lies about his past to impress voters and he won’t listen to others because he foolishly believes he’s always right. His own party wants nothing to do with him. His proposals are simplistic as well as unworkable and unconstitutional (a document he’s obviously never read) and he will destroy the country if he gets within a mile of the White House. Plus, he looks funny.

The newspaper is the Sonoma Democrat. The Republican is Abraham Lincoln. The year is 1860.

The Sonoma Democrat was the direct ancestor of the Press Democrat and before, during and after the Civil War was relentlessly pro-Confederate. Most of Sonoma County shared those sentiments to some degree – this was the only place in the state which did not vote for Lincoln either time. But editor Thomas L. Thompson shaped the Santa Rosa newspaper into the sort of rag that might have been published in the Deep South at that time, not only pro-slavery but astonishingly racist. Now that the Democrat is online we can search it and find there were at least 330 uses of the “n-word” between 1857 and 1886. To squeeze that many hateful slurs into a four-page weekly reveals Thompson to be an awful person and probably a little crazy. There’s no question he was certifiably nuts when he committed suicide in 1898; the coroner’s jury ruled he was “mentally deranged” after ranting that the Odd Fellows’ Lodge was out to get him.

(RIGHT: Abraham Lincoln May 20, 1860, two days after winning the Republican party nomination)

In the run-up to the election, sample items from the paper transcribed below show Thompson fed his readers a steady diet of anti-Lincoln, anti-abolitionist bile. To make sense of some of these articles it’s important to know this was an odd four-way election with both Northern and Southern Democrats in the running. Besides Lincoln, the official Democratic Party candidate was Stephen A. Douglas, who thought he could somehow forge a grand compromise to keep the United States patched together; Southern Democrat Breckinridge, who wanted to uphold slavery as an absolute Constitutional right; and third-party candidate Bell, who wanted to appease the South by ignoring the slavery issue altogether.

The Sonoma Democrat introduced readers to Lincoln that summer with ad hominem attacks. Lincoln had “neither firmness in his countenance nor fire in his eye” and lied about being a rail-splitter in his youth, as people in that part of Illinois made their fences from pieces of wood picked up in swamps (having grown up near there, I can attest there are no prairie swamps). During his service in the Black Hawk war, the paper claimed he forgot to untether his horse and fell with the animal when he tried to ride away; believing his horse had been brought down by an ambush, “Old Abe” tried to surrender to the non-existant Indians.

Sonoma county readers were told that some delegates at the Republican convention were “mad as March hares, and swear they would as soon go for Jeff. Davis, Douglas or any other minion of slavery, as for this third rate, rail-spliting Lincoln.” Items reprinted from like-minded journals insisted he was a dead weight on the ballot and could not possibly win – although his inevitable loss in New York state would cause chaos, as the outcome would then be decided by the House of Representatives (he won New York by nearly eight points).

But more than anything else, Thompson kept hammering that Lincoln was a “Black Republican.” In Thompson’s argot, this was the worst thing he could call someone because it meant they believed African-Americans were human beings with legal rights. Whatever lip service Thompson and his ilk gave to state’s rights and the constitutionality of slave-holding, its rotten core was always racist hatred.

On election day Lincoln got 1,236 votes in Sonoma county, behind Breckinridge’s 1,466. Petaluma was the only town Lincoln won, with 375 voting for him. Santa Rosa cast 91 ballots for Lincoln and 205 for Breckinridge.

Thompson hunkered down in the final weeks of 1860, bitterly spinning a story of gloom and doom. Stock markets were in a “panic” and banks in two southern states were expecting to be closed. The “free negroes, their aiders and abettors” were plotting to avenge John Brown’s death with help from the Republicans. There was a recurrent theme in the dispatches from the pro-southern papers that the South was keeping a steady keel while the North was falling apart. Charleston supposedly would not allow steerage passengers on steamboats coming from the North to disembark unless there was a guarantee they would not become vagrants.

Thompson also launched a trope that the North was trying to nullify the Constitution and forcing the Southern states to secede against their wishes. Failing to return runaway slaves was nothing short of treason, according to Thompson, who hoped that Congress would mete out punishment “if the present disunion cloud should blow over.” There is the Confederacy mindset neatly summed: 1) we’re the victims; 2) we have the only true understanding of the Constitution; 3) we will never, ever, compromise on slavery. For these reasons and more, one dispatch from Alabama concluded: “Revolution is inevitable.”



DOUGLAS AND LINCOLN. — The men are entirely dissimilar. Douglas is a thick set, finely built man, with an air of self confidence. Lincoln is a tall (six feet four), lank man, awkward, apparently diffident, and when not speaking has neither firmness in his countenance nor fire in his eye.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 21, 1860


News from the Atlantic states.

The Overland stage with the St. Louis mails of the 21st ult. arrived at San Francisco on Monday last. On Friday, the 18th May, the Chicago Convention nominated Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois, for President, on the third ballot, and Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine, for Vice President, on the second ballot. The nomination of Lincoln struck the Republicans of the Middle and Eastern States cold. A forced enthusiasm, however, was got up in some cities…The New Yorkers are as mad as March hares, and swear they would as soon go for Jeff. Davis, Douglas or any other minion of slavery, as for this third rate, rail-spliting Lincoln. They say they can’t begin to carry New York with Lincoln, and the dead weight of their abominable Legislature added. Bets are made that Lincoln will lose N. Y. by 20,000…

– Sonoma Democrat, June 14 1860

…Abe Lincoln has declared, that if he were in the halls of Congress, and the question of the abolition of slavery were to come up, ho would vote for it in spite of the Dred Scott decision. In other words he declared that the highest Tribunal of the land was no authority for him, that he would disregard all principles of law, justice and order, and would by the mere force of physical superiority compel nearly one half of the states of this Confederacy to change their social and domestic institutions, at the beck and nod of a tyranous majority; and this is the candidate of the party who with emulous ostentation denounce the South as disunionists and traitors. This is the party who daily shout and swagger about union and nationality, who complaining of intolerance on the part of the South, deny to her all toleration, all equality, all justice, all rights under the Constitution, and insult her with threats of coercion if she dares resist their sovereign will…

– Sonoma Democrat editorial, July 12 1860

The Pittsburg Post says: An old citizen who traveled in Illinois thirty years ago, and was especially familiar with the district of country where Abe Lincoln resided, says that Abe never split a rail in his life. In those days, he says, the people never thought of such a thing as splitting rails. They went into the swamps and cut hoop-poles and saplings for fences, and used them, round, as nature made them.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 19 1860

At the time of the Black Hawk war, ‘Abe’ enlisted. The company numbered about eight mounted men. They started off in fine spirits to engage in the deadly fray. Arriving at a point on the prairies, about two hundred miles from the Indian lines, the party bivouacked for the night, picketed their horses, and slept on their arms…During the night, the sentinel, whoso mental caliber was in no measure proportioned to his patriotism, imagined he saw the Indians! and immediately discharged his old fusee. The camp was aroused in an instant, and each sprang to his saddle. ‘Old Abe’ shot out in the darkness on his charger like lightning, until the ropes ‘hove taut,’ when over he went, horse and himself, headlong! Thinking himself caught in an Indian ambush, he gathered up, mounted, putting spurs to his horse, took the opposite shute, but soon brought up as before, horse and rider tumbling headlong. ‘Old Abe’ got up, thinking he was surrounded! and shouted, ‘Gentlemen Indians! I surrender without a word. I have not a word to offer. All I want is quarter!’ There ‘Old Abe’s” first campaign ended!’

– Sonoma Democrat, September 13 1860

The conservative and Union loving men of the North are making every effort to defeat Lincoln. All parties concede that should Lincoln lose New York his defeat inevitable.


By reference to our Eastern news today, it will be seen that there has been a complete fusion between all the elements of opposition to the Black Republicans in New York-—the vote of that State to be cast for Douglas, Breckinridge or Bell, as they shall receive the highest popular vote. This will undoubtedly throw the election into the House of Representatives, and secures beyond question the defeat of Lincoln.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 27 1860

…On one side stands Lincoln, proclaiming the social, moral and political superiority of the North over the South, and calling upon men to enter into an “irrepressibly conflict” for the complete and entire destruction of the Southern States. On the other hand we have Breckinridge proclaiming the equality of the States, the harmony of commerce and industry, the sacred and constitutional right of self-government.–N.Y. Herald.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 11 1860

REPUBLICAN MEETING.– Hand-bills have been staring us in the face upon every corner for the last week, announcing that James Churchman, Esquire, of Nevada, would address the irrepressibles of this place yesterday. Well, the eventful evening arrived and so repaired to the Court House expecting to hear the Democracy entirely demolished. We found assembled exactly seven Republicans, most of whom were from abroad; there may have been as many as twelve, since there were three or four persons there whom we did not know. There were besides these some fifteen or twenty snuff-colored gentlemen, and about seventy-five Breckinridge and Bell men. The irrepressible gentleman had already commenced when we arrived, so that we did not hear the first part of his harangue. We listened to him, however, about three quarters of an hour, and we must say, we heard the most pithless, pointless batch of misrepresentations we have ever listened to. Mr, Churchman’s address is pleasing, and his manner well calculated to attract tho attention of a promiscuous assemblage; but he did not make a single point during the time we listened to him, that deserves the space it would take to refute it.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 18 1860

KEEP IT BEFORE THE PEOPLE, that Abraham Lincoln opposed the war with Mexico and declared it unnecessary and unjust.

Keep it before the people, that the Republicans are in favor of placing negroes on an equality with the whites, and in many of the free States sanction amalgamation.

Keep it before the people, that in Massachusetts the Republicans proscribed foreign-born citizens and attempted to deprive them of the right of suffrage, and would have succeeded had the Democrats not opposed it.

Keep it before the people, that in the same State negroes were elected delegates to conventions and assisted in nominating Republican candidates for Congress.

Keep it before the people, that the infidel Garrison, a leading Black Republican, unblushingly declares, that the Constitution of the United Slates “it a covenant with death and an agreement with hell!”

Keep it before the the people, that this same Republican leader Garrison, blasphemously asserts, that if “God had the power to abolish slavery and would not, he wae a very great scoundrel!”

– Sonoma Democrat, November 1 1860

The contest is over, and from the partial returns so far received, it is doubtful if the State has not gone againat us. In this County the Democracy have scarcely deserved anything else. At a time when every element of opposition was combining against them, when every energy was needed to secure success, they have remained passive and indifferent until they have actually allowed the election to go by default…

– Sonoma Democrat, November 8 1860

San Francisco, Nov. 13th, 1860. Editors Sonoma County Democrat: The great battle is over, and although it has resulted in partial defeat, let not Democrats be disheartened, but rather let them organize and prepare themselves better for the next struggle, when the now prevailing party will have been “played out,” as were their immediate successors. Although six days have passed since the election, little is yet known of the result. According to latest accounts Lincoln is about 1100 ahead, but this seems doubtful, as it is strongly suspected that the despatches are not much to be relied on, having been gotten up more for betting purposes than for the diffusion of reliable statistical information. The news from the East will be sent with the greatest despatch by the Pony, and will be received here the fore part of next week. The telegraphing facilities of the Eastern States will be tested to their utmost, but it is generally expected that the general result will be known by that time. How annoying it is that the knowledge of a great event must be kept from us for days when a few hundred miles of telegraphic wire would put us in immediate possession of the all-desired information.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1860

The news by the Pony confirms the unwelcome intelligence of Lincoln’s election as the next President of the United States. At the same time it brings the news of movements in several of the Southern States, which indicate a fixed determination on their part to remain no longer in the Union. Their perfect and sovereign right to secede, if they desire to do so, must be conceded from the very nature and formation of our government. There are but two means by which any Union of States can be maintained or preserved; one is a community of interests, the other a preponderance of force. The former is the only means which was ever contemplated, in the formation of our Constitution, for the very objects of its formation, viz: “To establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty,” utterly preclude the idea of using force for its preservation, for this use of force would at once defeat every object for which the Union was formed. If these States, therefore, in their sovereign capacity, see proper to secede from the Union, there is no power under the Constitution to prevent them; and any attempt to coerce them would be as unconstitutional as it would be unholy, unjust and futile. This movement may be one pregnant with mighty consequences. There has never been a period in the history of our government when there was so much necessity for wise, deliberate and cautious procedure, and it is well that the people should weigh and consider the causes which have led to these untoward results, and prepare to meet the mighty events which loom up so portentiously in the future, for, as has been well said, it is for them to decide what course they will sustain the administration in pursuing toward those states which may secede.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 29 1860

The excitement in the South continues, accompanied with general depression in the markets and trade, amounting to a panic. There has been a general decline in stocks at New York, and a great increase in rates of exchange at Chicago. There is a tightness at St. Louis, and perfect derangement in monetary affairs South. The South Carolina and Georgia Legislatures have prepared for a suspension of their banks. No suspensions have yet taken place. The Mayor of Charleston has notified the agents of Northern steamers that he would not permit the landing of steerage passengers, unless the companies guaranteed their maintenance, if they became vagrants. Merchants have now goods on hand, but no new orders will be given to the North, except such as are indispensable.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 6 1860

Negro Lincoln Clubs. — We copy the following advertisement from the Pittsburg Dispatch, of October 16th, an influential Black Republican organ: “Colored Men of Pittsburg and Vicinity!–You are requested to meet and form yourselves into Wide Awake Clubs immediately, for the purpose of farthering the interest of the friend of the human race, Abraham Lincoln. Already New York has spoken in favor of universal suffrage. And if colored men would have their rights, they should move for the success of their friends. John Brown, the hero of Harper’s Ferry, is yet to be avenged.”

Is it strange that the South should bo excited und alarmed in the face of such proceedings, sanctioned and encouraged by the Black Republicans of the free States? Does not prudence dictate that they should be prepared to meet and repel a second John Brown raid? Do not the free negroes, their aiders and abettors, contemplate a second foray into the Southern States? Do the negroes not hope to avenge the death of John Brown, and have they not reason to anticipate assistance and protection from the Republicans?

– Sonoma Democrat, December 13 1860

WHO ARE THE DISUNIONISTS?– The New York Herald, of the 10th ult., says: We publish below an account of the Northern Slates which prohibit their officials and citizens from aiding in the execution of the Federal Fugitive Slave Law, and which by their action, have boldly nullified the Constitution of the United States…It will be seen from the above that the Northern States are nearly all in a position of practical disunion–that is, they have refused to sustain the constitution which their fathers adopted.

LEGISLATING FOR TREASON.–If the present disunion cloud should blow over, as all lovers of their country sincerely trust that it may, we hope Congress will make a point of re-enacting, at an early day, some law defining treason, and providing sufficient means for its prevention or punishment…

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1860

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