Visit Santa Rosa 150 years ago and not much will be recognizable, as you would expect. But people are still people, and aside from their funny clothes and lamentable views on race and gender, the ways they lived and celebrated weren’t all that different. There were still cakes for birthdays, Fourth of July fireworks, a turkey with trimmings on Thanksgiving and in every parlor at Christmas there was a tree with presents underneath. Well, all that’s true except for the Christmas part.

This is a quick tour of Christmases in Santa Rosa and other Sonoma county places in the years around the Civil War. While today it’s a private occasion for families and close friends to draw close, then it was the time of the year for blowout community parties.

Between Christmas Eve and New Years there was a ball or Christmas celebration almost every night somewhere in the vicinity, each promising to be the grandest event of the year. A 50¢ admission was common (in 1876 that was the equivalent of about sixteen bucks today) with children half price. There usually was dancing and an entertainment program, party food (hope you like oysters) and eggnog, spiked or not.

(RIGHT: 1857 ads appearing in Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat)

We can all probably imagine ourselves attending a “Grand Ball” back then; although the doings in Sonoma county surely weren’t as glitzy as what we’ve seen in old movies, there was still a punchbowl, live music, a dance floor and no shortage of young people flirting as if their destinies depended upon it. We would have had trouble recognizing the Christmas festivities, however – as wonderful as they seemed to be, they were unlike anything in our modern experience.

Except for small towns like Geyserville which had no real public gathering space, lodge halls and meeting halls were rented by the town’s different church groups. But it appears there was no religious component in those Christmas festivities; in reviewing 25 years of Santa Rosa and Petaluma newspapers, the only reference I found to religion was one year where the entertainment included “the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer by a number of the infant class.” Otherwise, they were so secular they would have caused Bill O’Reilly to spit nails.

It’s difficult to imagine now, but simply having a Christmas tree was a big attraction. It was always prominently mentioned in the ads and the lighting of the tree’s candles was a key part of the event. In that era, having a tree in someone’s home was so unusual there were newspaper items when it happened. The lack of private trees might have something to do with the danger of lighted candles hanging on the branches of a dead evergreen; years later there was a spate of incidents where men in Santa Claus costumes caught fire – see “The Year of Burning Santas.”

Santa Claus was often in attendance, but we wouldn’t have recognized him either; in Forestville he was seen wearing a swallow-tail coat “looking just as ancient as if he had just made his escape from the catacombs of Egypt after centuries of confinement” (what?) and gave a funny speech after throwing peanuts at the audience.

But the most unusual part from today’s perspective was probably the giving and receiving of Christmas presents in front of the whole community. The gifts which had arrived days before – the newspapers always explained where to drop them off in advance – were handed out as the name on each package was read aloud. Remember, this was not your office’s secret-santa party; all (or much) of the town was there, children and adults, and the distribution could take hours.

Heavy drinking was clearly part of the scene, although not openly at the public events organized by church ladies. At the non-church balls it was a different story; at a Healdsburg dance there were “four jugs of ready-made cocktails for the ladies, while the gentlemen were restricted to whisky straight.”

After Christmas the papers often expressed relief the drinking didn’t get out of hand. “Christmas eggnogs and toddies, we suppose, were drunk, but if there was any one the least boosy, we failed to see or hear of it; and if there were such, they kept off the streets,” it was reported one year. On another, “although the usual libations were indulged in, no rioting or rudeness were manifested.”

That was a special concern because there was always an uptick of violence (including murders and suicides) around Christmas time. In 1857 Healdsburg, a man was killed and others wounded when someone began shooting his revolver at a Christmas dance. The Santa Rosa paper was quick to emphasize “the parties most deeply concerned in the matter were entirely sober” and the real problem was “men who carry deadly weapons, frequently give as their reason for so doing, the necessity of being prepared for self-defense.”

LEFT: 1864 ad (note the spelling of “ladies'”) RIGHT: 1865 ad, both from the Sonoma Democrat


During the Civil War there were still balls and Christmas festivals, although sometimes admission was higher because the sponsoring church was using the events as fund-raisers for construction repairs. After the war Santa Rosa’s pro-Confederacy Democrat printed a letter from someone in Sonoma, begging locals to take whatever would be spent on gifts and Christmas dinners and donate it “for the purpose of raising money for the starving people in the South.” Without irony, the author implored us not to be hard-hearted and “blinded by prejudice.” Apparently compassion should be reserved for those “hundreds of young girls in the South-—who are as good and as beautiful as themselves.”

In the 1870s the Christmas celebrations became even more entertainment oriented. The Presbyterian Sunday Schools presented a “Mother Goose” concert one year and another time put on a play, “Waking Up Santa Claus.” Santa was too tired to deliver his gifts, the story went, until the Fairy Queen appeared to help him out. A Presbyterian youth group called the “San Greal Society” was formed to help kids socialize and put on these areligious holiday shows.

The single most unusual Christmas event was the 1876 children’s masked ball in Petaluma. The ad made it seem more like a strange Hallowe’en-Christmas hybrid, with dancing (which probably wouldn’t appeal to little kids) and a visit from Santa (which the teens up to the max age of 16 might have found cringeworthy).

Surprisingly, it seems that the masquerade went off quite well. The 75 children joined in holding up a large American flag as a band played “Hail Columbia,” there was a grand march and quadrille followed by a free-for-all with the lot of them running around the stage in costumes having a grand time. Among the girls there were two fairies, three fairy queens, several “Spanish peasant girls” and Kitty Stanley as “pink of perfection,” whatever that meant. Five of the boys were dressed as firemen, Frank Slugley was a Czar and Jake Bernhard went as a “Ku Klux,” and we all knew what that meant.

The common theme through this quarter century was how much those Christmas celebrations were focused on making children happy. Stores ran large, expensive ads promoting a variety of toys and candies and sweets sure to appeal to kids. The community party with the Christmas tree and gift exchange was memorable, even if it was the one held in a Geyserville storeroom with Santa played by a guy everybody in town saw every day.

ALL of that began changing a few years later. Christmas trees in the home became increasingly common in the 1880s (Sonoma county became San Francisco’s Christmas tree farm) and by the turn of the century we entered an Era of Scrooge, with an emphasis on buying gifts which were practical and useful or “had value” (read: were cheap). Stores advertised juvenile overcoats and flannel nightgowns, not wonderful toys and dolls. Judging from the newspaper ads it wasn’t until 1910 before we seemed to again start buying gifts simply because they were intended to bring enjoyment to children.

I won’t pretend to understand what happened, but it seems as if the generation that enjoyed the happiest Christmases as children somehow forgot how to give that experience to their own children. Maybe it’s significant that it happened when those Christmas trees were no longer such a magical sight, and the gifts were now opened in private, instead of among the community where everyone shared in their joy.

“The Christmas Party” by American artist Robert David Wilkie, 1850

HEALDSBURG, Dec. 27, 1857. The evening of the 24th passed quietly away, and the sun went down on hundreds in Sonoma County, who had matured or were maturing plans to ensure a happy Christmas, and I, in common with the rest, was meditating as to the best mode of acquiring the greatest possible amount of pleasure in a given time, the only obstacle preventing a speedy conclusion being the number of places of amusement. My friend, DAVE, proposed that we should remain in Healdsburg, but when I suggested the fact that we were too well known there to make a splurge commensurate with the occasion, he at once yielded the point. We then discussed the feasibility of hiring a buggy from Messrs. Page & Francis, and visiting Guyserdale and Cloverville, [sic, sic] but the price being eight dollars, we found on examination that our finances were a little short, not having enough by seven dollars—-so that idea was immediately abandoned.

Having heard there was to be a Ball three miles out of town, and tickets only four bits, I proposed to Dave to walk out there and save expense, in which event our funds would be amply sufficient to secure our admittance. My friend was satisfied with this proposition, and as no time was to be lost, we hastened to make our toilet; but “there’s many a slip,” &c., for just as Dave was spreading some castor-oil on his very obstinate hair, an officer stepped in and demanded his poll tax. Here was a dilemma, and when the officer picked up Dave’s coat which was lying on the bed, and declared he would sell it within an hour, my friend’s condition can better be imagined than described. With tears in his eyes, and castor-oil running slowly down his checks, he begged that the case might be postponed—-the officer was inexorable—-my unfortunate friend then offered his promissory note for double the amount with three per cent interest, and myself as security; unavailing effort-—the stern, ministerial agent of the law insisted on the cash or the coat. I knew that something must be done and that quickly, or all our hopes of happiness in the society of beautiful girls, in the enjoyment of good music, and all the solids and fluids that are usually found at a first-rate ball would soon be as the “baseless fabric of a vision.” For one minute and three-quarters I thought intensely, and Dave’s coat was saved! I remembered having seen in the Sonoma County Journal some advice as to the best mode of procedure in such cases, and having said confidentially to the officer (to put him off his guard,) that I would go out and get the money, I ran with all my might to consult with Blackstone Coke, Esq., and in ten minutes more we had served an injunction. Dave was so overjoyed that he invited me to “smile,” and when he had narrated the story to the proprietor and a crowd of admiring auditors, three cheers were given for my friend, and one individual who seemed to have been in a fight, both eyes blacked and an under-bit off his left ear, gave vent to his feelings by throwing down his hat on the floor and poetically exclaiming: “Bugger the hodds, as long as you’re ‘appy.”

We went to the ball, and what we saw and did there will, perhaps, be the subject matter of my next letter. Dave, however, is down on fifty cent balls, and although he is too gallant to express his opinion freely, I think I know the reason of his dissatisfaction. The proprietor of the ball had, very justly in my opinion, provided four jugs of ready-made cocktails for the ladies, while the gentlemen were restricted to whisky straight, and Dave is opposed bitterly to any such distinction being made in a republican, democratic country.
Yours truly, MANZANITA.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1857

DEADLY WEAPONS.—The occurrence that has recently taken place at Healdsburg, in which one man was killed almost instantly, and two or three of our most esteemed citizens, were severely hurt, in a public ball room, in the presence and in fact in the midst of a throng of ladies, old and young, tender and refined, and in fact, such as make up social assemblies—is a matter for serious contemplation. It has been reported that the affray mentioned was caused or at least aggravated by intoxication. This, we are assured, is not the case, but little if any intoxicating liquor having been used by any of the assembly during the evening; and particularly, the parties most deeply concerned in the matter, were entirely sober. On the contrary, this calamity, for a calamity such an occurrence must be regarded, was the result of a practice but little if any less pernicious than that of intoxication—it is the practice of carrying deadly weapons in company. We regard the carrying of weapons about one’s person in the ordinary walks of life, while in a civilized community, as unnecessary and censurable at best; but when a man presents himself in a ball room, to mix and mingle in the society of refined ladies, armed to the teeth with deadly weapons, we think he commits a wrong of the worst kind. No matter how deadly a hatred two men may have for each other, or how much cause one may have for revenge, certainly such a place is least suitable for the consummation of such revenge, or the settling of personal feuds.

Such lamentable occurrences, in fact, have repeatedly come to our knowledge, in California society, which gives it probably the worst feature it possesses.—-Men who carry deadly weapons, frequently give as their reason for so doing, the necessity of being prepared for self-defense in ease of deadly attacks by highwaymen, or those from whom they expect assassination. Within the last two years these reasons have become too ridiculous for a reasonable man to make use of, as there is scarcely an exception to the fact, that every instance in which men have been robbed on the highway, a Colt’s revolver, ready loaded, has been a portion of the plunder, which the brave possessor dared not use when a necessity for its use presented itself. We hope the day may come soon, when the practice of carrying deadly weapons, now so common, will be abandoned, particularly the practice of taking them into assemblies composed partly of ladies.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 31 1857

The Ball. —The Ball at the Santa Rosa House, on Christmas eve, was a remarkably agreeable entertainment. There was a good attendance, and everything passed off agreeably. The supper is said to have been one of the best ever gotten up in the place, which did friend Colgan, with all his former popularity as a caterer, great credit. Colgan is celebrated for his good suppers. If you don’t believe it, just give him a trial.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 30 1858

CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES.–The Santa Rosa Sabbath School will have a Celebration and an Old Fashioned Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve next. All citizens who wish to deposit gifts upon the tree for any person will report themselves to Henry Klute, C. W. Langdon… Appropriate music, vocal and instrumental. Free for all. Tree lighted at 7½ o’clock.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1861

FESTIVAL.–The third Festival, given by the Ladies, will come off at Hewitt’s Hall on Wednesday evening. The programme for that evening is more attractive than any which has been presented. The announcement of a Christmas Tree, is of itself sufficient to attract all the young people. It is the intention we believe to sell a number of toy for Christmas presents.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1863


The Southern Poor–Letter from a Lady.

Messrs. Editors: I have been watching with a feeling of deep interest the movement, now being made, for the purpose of raising money for the starving people in the South. I have been anxiously looking for such a step to be taken ever since the close of the war. It appears to me that the good work has not been taken hold of with that feeling of enthusiasm it deserves. While we are thinking and talking about what it is best for us to do, the distressing condition of that unfortunate people is growing worse. Winter is now upon them, and if they are ever to be relieved surely now is the time.

The time is close at hand when our young folks will ho expecting new hats, dresses, toys, candies, cakes, Christmas trees and good dinners, all of which will cost a snug sum of money. Now, if we would explain to our children the condition of those poor children who are crying for bread, and the good that this money would do them, I am confident they would consent to make the sacrifice, and would be made to feel more happy by so doing. And again, if our young ladies, who are thinking that a new dress, hat, shawl, and a number of other little notions are articles indispensably necessary with them, that they may thereby be enabled to keep up with the fashions, would reflect for a moment upon the condition of the hundreds of young girls in the South-—who are as good and as beautiful as themselves-—who have neither clothes nor wood to keep them from suffering with cold and hunger this winter, I think they would content themselves with their present comfortable wardrobes and send the entire sum of money which those articles would cost to comfort some of their suffering sisters, and feel none the poorer for the sacrifice, but, on the other hand, they will feel richer on account of the happiness granted for the charitable act, our young men. and old gentlemen too, show that they can make sacrifices, in their trifling indulgences, that they may give something to the poor. Let them smoke fewer cigars, chew less tobacco, drink not so much wine and lessen the number of their fast rides, and show by their liberal contributions that they hav hearts to feel for the poor. Let the turkeys and pigs that are now being fattened for our Christmas dinners be hastened to market, that the price of them may be forwarded to the starving Southerners. If every man and woman in Sonoma county would deprive himself or herself of only one meal of victuals, and contribute its value to this movement of charity, what a blessing it might prove.

I would ask who is there with heart so hardened, or who has been so blinded by prejudice, as to turn a deaf ear to the calls for help coming from our suffering sisters and their hungry little ones? Let us hasten to their rescue, remembering that words can do good unless followed up by action—-that one good action is worth a whole volume of sympathetic gas.
SONOMA, Dec 2, 1866.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 15 1866

CHURCH FESTIVAL.— The ladies of St. John’s Church, Petaluma, will hold a Christmas Festival at Hinshaw’s Hall, on Saturday and next Monday evening. An assortment of fancy books and toys suitable for Christmas presents will be offered for sale. On Monday, Christmas Eve, Santa Claus will make his appearance in character, and distribute gifts to all the children of the Sunday School.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 22 1866

CHRISTMAS IS COMING.–The ladies of the Congregational Society are making extensive preparations for the Festival which is to come off at Hinshaw’s Hall on Monday and Tuesday evenings next. If energetic effort is a fair criterion, this Fair will be a decided success. The dinner to be served at  Hinshaw’s Hall on Christmas Day, will be well worth a dollar. Go there, everybody.

CHRISTMAS PARTY.–The young men of the “Petaluma Social Club,” have issued their invitations for an assembly at McCune’s Hall on Christmas Eve. The parties of this Club are well conducted, and this one will undoubtedly surpass any of their previous gatherings, in point of pleasure and sociability.

– Petaluma Argus, December 19, 1867

CHRISTMAS.–The great holiday was duly observed in this city. On Christmas Eve, trees were had by the various Sunday Schools. On the day following, services were held at the Episcopal and Catholic churches, and a good attendance had at each. Dinner parties, the reunion of families, and assembling of friends around well spread tables…were some of the noticeable features of the day. And although egg-nog flowed freely, yet there was no special intemperance, and the day went out, leaving no disagreeable occurence behind, and nothing to remember but that which might be fondly cherished and preserved.

– Petaluma Argus, January 1, 1870

…The town remained very quiet, and although the usual libations were indulged in, no rioting or rudeness were manifested.

– Petaluma Argus, December 27, 1872



Christmas, notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, passed off in a most satisfactory and pleasurable manner. A Christmas tree was erected in the elegant new store room of Messrs. Chritchfield, Sweeney & Lamb, on which was displayed a profusion of articles from a bon bon, to a silk dress. That illustrious personage known as Santa Claus, was represented by your good-natured friend, Mr. E. C. Sacry, who distributed the various gifts of fathers, mothers, husbands, wives and sweethearts to the satisfaction of all present, and sent many a little boy and girl to their homes, notwithstanding the darkness of the night and pelting rain-storm, deeply grateful for his visit to Geyserville.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 28 1872


Christmas Tree.

There will be a Christmas tree in the M. E. Church South on Christmas eve. Although given under the management of the Sunday School of that church, it will not be exclusive. All parents and friends of the children are cordially invited to use the tree as a medium by which to make the little folks happy.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 13 1873


Christmas at Santa Rosa.

Christmas was observed in this city with more than usual spirit. The general impulse of everybody to be liberal was stimulated by the fine display of holiday goods made by our merchants. There were Christmas Trees at the Presbyterian, Christian, and both Methodist churches, all of which passed off happily. On Christmas night the Santa Rosa Grange had a Christmas Tree and supper at Hood’s Hall, which was crowded with Grangers and thair invited guests. The presents were first distributed, causing much fun and merriment. The Secretary of the Grange, Mr. Obreen, a worthy and accomplished officer, was presented with a very handsome gold pen. After the distribution came a bountiful supper, of everything one could think of to tempt the appetite.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1873


Christmas at Forestville.

Forestville, Dec. 25–Supposing that everybody wants to know just how everybody spent their Christinas I will give you a few items from this place. We had a Christmas tree at our school house last evening to begin Christmas with. Everybody was there, old and young. The house was beautifully decorated and lit. The house was filled so there was no room left. The venerable Santa Claus, with his swallow-tail coat and long white hair, looking just as ancient as if he had just made his escape from the catacombs of Egypt after centuries of confinement, made all the little folks happy by sowing peanuts broadcast through the audience, and then delivered quite an original oration to the great amusement of the crowd, who showed their appreciation by their overwhelming applause; then the fun commenced by the various presents being called off by our worthy teacher, Mr. Maxwell, and handed round by the young ladies to the lucky persons, or unlucky, as the joke might be, as somebody was bound to catch it…After the fun was over the young folks adjourned to Mr. Frank Emerson’s, to a social party, where they enjoyed themselves to their heart’s content the remainder of the evening, and to-day everybody is trying to induce his neighbor to take dinner with him and dine on roast turkey, while there still seems to be a large surplus for future eonsumption. I think it would be hard to find a jollier set of good fellows than there is here, and peace and harmony is the order of the day. Respectfully yours, Billy Sildem.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 27 1873


Christmas Tree.

The citizens of this place had a Christmas tree at the Presbyterian Church, on Christmas eve, which was heavily loaded from top to bottom with all the innumerable holiday trinkets invented by man. The house was filled to overflowing with old and young; all were well pleased. All this was done for the benefit of of the Sunday school children. It is proving a success will add largely to the school hereafter, and next year they will have a better time.

Christmas was a very quiet day; nothing worth noting transpired through the day except that a number of boys were playing their antics, which created some amusement, until late in the evening, when the people not forgetful of Wilson’s anniversary ball, began to pour in from all directions by the score. There were quite a number from Santa Rosa. The ball went off charmingly; the supper was, par excellence, and the whole thing was, as Harry intended it should be, a success.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 3 1874


Christmas at Ridgway Hall.

The Sunday School of the Methodist Church South, will hold a Christmas festival at Ridgway Hall on Christmas eve. There will be a Christmas Tree for the children, and also one for grown-up people. The presents from the children’s Tree will be distributed at 6 o’clock P. M. Those from the Tree for the grown-up people at a later hour. The ladies of the congregation will serve refreshments in the hall during the evening. A good time expected. Parties wishing to furnish presents for their friends will report to the committee at the hall during the day. Admittance free. Invitation general.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 19 1874


Christmas In Santa Rosa.

The weather could not have been more propitious than it was Christmas day. A very light frost was visible early in the morning, but the sun rose clear and bright, and the entire day was as pleasant as the most fastidious weathermonger could have asked. But little business was done in any of the stores, except those where Christmas presents were kept, and in the afternoon nearly every store and shop was closed. The usual Christinas eggnogs and toddles, we suppose, were drunk, but if there was any one the least boosy, we failed to see or hear of it; and if there were such, they kept off the streets. In the evening there were Christmas trees at the Baptist Church, the Pacific Methodist College Chapel, Christian College Chapel, and Third Street Methodist Church, and each was well supplied with presents, and at each were large crowds to witness the distribution of the presents. We think very few children in the city were forgotten or neglected, and a great many of the older people received a memento of love from their friends. Christmas in Santa Rosa this year may be set down as a very quiet, but a very delightful and enloyable one.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 30 1876


Large Attendance–The Little Folks have a Happy Frolic–The Old Folks Look on–Names of the Maskers–The Lights go out and the Dancers go Home.

…The gallery of the Theatre was crowded at an early hour by the parents and friends of the children, while the young maskers were admitted to the stage at the rear entrance of the building. Shortly after 8 o’clock, the band struck up “Hail Columbia,” and the curtain rose upon a tableau composed of masked children, grouped together, supporting an American flag. The effect of the tableau was good, and as the curtain fell the audience testified their appreciation of the same by hearty applause. Then followed the


which was participated in by about seventy-five children in costume. As the little ones filed upon the floor, they presented a very pretty and pleasing appearance. The column was lead by four fairies, followed by all sorts and kinds of dress…After the grand march and a quadrille, Mr. Ross told the children to have a good time, when all restraint was withdrawn, and the children romped with all the seeming freedom of a play ground. After the unmasking, Santa Claus put in an appearance and gave every child a present. Just as the older people were admitted to the floor, the gasworks in the rear of the Theatre gave out, and everybody hurried away for fear they would be left in the dark…

– Petaluma Argus, January 5, 1877


The Celebrations at the Different Churches.

The observance of the Feast of the Nativity was celebrated in fine style in four churches last Monday night.

The Baptist edifice was filled to overflowing. The exercises began at six o’clock, yet some time before that it was impossible to procure seats. The literary exercises lasted a little more than an hour, and then the distribution of the presents from two huge, well leaded trees began. Prof. Dozier and Mr. Baker distributed the gifts that loaded down the branches, making glad the hearts of the young and old. The distribution continued until nearly 10 o’clock, and although the building was crowded and many persons had been on their feet more than three hours, there was not the least sign of impatience nor the least indication of disorder.

The literary exercises at the M. E. Church were very brief. The tree presented a very fine appearance. We noticed that the candies, instead of being fastened to the tree, were attached to a frame behind it, and lighted up both the tree and presents with a flood of light. Rev. E. E. Dodge read the names of those whom the jolly saint remembered, and the presents were distributed by four fair young ladies. A good idea.

M. E. Church South had one tree well loaded. The musical and literary exercises were excellent selections and were well received. The distribution was conducted by Wesley Mock and M. M. Godman. The church was filled to overflowing. One of the most noticeable features of the evening was the chanting of the Lord’s Prayer by a number of the infant class.

The Presbyterians had no tree. The festivities consisted of a concert exercise, followed by the acting tableaux, “Waking Up Santa Claus.” The Superintendent informed the school that Santa Claus had forgotten them, and that he lived in a little bower that had been tastefully fitted up in one corner of the room, and selected three girls to go and see why the omission had occurred. The girls approached the house, and were met by two frightful looking imps, who informed them that Santa Claus was asleep, that he was tired, his reindeers turned out to pasture and all his stock of presents and refreshments were distributed; but the girls persevered until the form of the Saint himself appeared at the top of the chimney. The scene was very prettily finished by the appearance of the Fairy Queen, who, accompanied with the sweetest of music, relieved Santa Claus and the Sunday School from their dilemma.

Mass was celebrated twice by Father Conway on Christmas day. The church was well filled. The Church of the Incarnation was open during the day, and Christmas services observed.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 29 1877

…The Presbyterian Sunday School will not have a Christmas tree, but will have a “Mother Goose” Concert at Ridgway Hall on Christmas eve, under the management of the San Greal Society, an organization composed of the young people of the church and congregation, and organized for the promotion of sociability and good feeling. The concert will be full of new, unique and pleasing features, and will doubtless prove a rare treat to the children….

– Sonoma Democrat, December 21 1878

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In April 1865 the Confederate Army surrendered to the Union. The Confederate newspaper in Santa Rosa did not.

Over the four horrific years of the Civil War, the Sonoma Democrat remained steadfast in its support of the South and opposed to the Union and everything it stood for, including freedom for the slaves. This article covers what happened in Sonoma county at the end of the war and mirrors the earlier story of how the Democrat reacted to Lincoln’s 1860 election (“THAT TERRIBLE MAN RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT“).

A devil’s advocate might defend the Democrat by arguing the paper only reflected its readership – Sonoma was the only county in the state which didn’t vote for either Lincoln’s election or re-election. But the Democrat went way, way beyond simply standing as the loyal opposition.

For starters, the paper consistently lied to its readers about how the war was going. Victory for the South was always just around the corner because the Union troops were in disarray, cowardly or unwilling to fight. In 1863 the Sonoma Democrat reported, “The battle of Gettysburg was, on our part, a triumphant success an overwhelming victory…General Lee had won the ground and could have held it, but he chose, for military reasons, to fall back, after he had utterly broken the backbone of the Yankee army.” That was a reprint from the Confederate paper in Richmond, Virginia – enemy propaganda, in other words, the alt-facts about the South’s critical defeat.

The Sonoma Democrat was edited and published by Thomas L. Thompson. Although there was no Civil War combat in California, of course, week after week Thompson battled Samuel Cassiday, editor of the Argus in Petaluma, the only major town in the county supporting the Union.

Each of them denounced the other as a misguided fool and hypocrite. To the Argus, the Santa Rosa paper was deceitful by insisting the Rebels were only defending their constitutional right to govern themselves, while they actually wanted to hold on to their slaves. To the Democrat, the Petaluma paper was dishonest in stating the Yankees only wanted to preserve the Union, while they actually wanted to take away the South’s slaves.

This was no temperate political debate; it was a blood feud, each editor reacting to the other’s latest outrage – and often reacting to the other’s reaction to their reaction. These guys would have loved Twitter.

Their pages are full of fightin’ words which reflect the passions of the Civil War quite clearly, and could provide enough material for a series of articles (maybe even a book) – but historians rarely discuss the feud. The reason why: Thompson’s Sonoma Democrat also quite clearly reflected the Confederacy’s racist malignancy.

I defy anyone with a measure of basic empathy to read through the 1860s Sonoma Democrat and not come away sickened. The problem goes far beyond merely the use of “the n-word,” although that appeared hundreds of times in the Santa Rosa paper (along with every other racist epithet imaginable). It’s that the Democrat smothers the reader with its unceasing and pathological hatred and loathing for the entire black population of America. Sometimes the paper published a speech or sermon trying to justify slavery on historical, legal or biblical grounds, but mostly Thompson didn’t bother and preached to his Confederate-fan choir as if it were a settled matter – everyone with any smarts just knew blacks were inferior, the abolition of slavery would never work and the South was winning the war. Today we have a term to describe such delusional thinking: The Dunning–Kruger effect, meaning the smug over-confidence of the ignorant.

Then suddenly, Thompson’s favorite soapbox was taken away when the South surrendered.

Petaluma, joined by like-minded Union patriots in Marin, held a nine-hour celebration with a marching band, fireworks and a mock battle. There were three parades, all featuring banners with the artwork of a local man “whose patriotism is only equalled by his ingenuity in caricaturing treason and traitors.” What impressed most was a float 14 feet high and nine feet wide depicting “the Goddess of Liberty, holding in her hands the Stars and Stripes, and supported on both sides, by two ‘recording angels.'”

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa sulked and the Democrat – true to form – lied to its readers, claiming the displays seen at the Petaluma parade “were devoted almost entirely to the abolition of slavery and the elevation of the black race” (none had any reference to slavery or race). Editor Thompson, who did not yet know the details of the surrender at Appomattox, held out the hope that General Grant’s terms would roll back the clock to the good ol’ days before Lincoln: “…it has always been understood that he, like George B. McClellan, is for the ‘Union as it was.’”

Petaluma did not have long to celebrate, nor Santa Rosa long to grump. Three days after the parade came news of Lincoln’s assassination. From the Argus:

…All that we could learn was that Lincoln had been shot dead, in Ford’s Theatre, and that Seward had been stabbed several times, while in his bed, and was yet alive. At length the boat arrived, and to Mr. Charles Yeomans we were indebted for a [San Francisco] Bulletin Extra, giving the details. This was read from the Journal and Argus office to the throng outside. We soon had the sad particulars in type, passing extras, to those outside clamorous for the news, at the rate of 1,200 an hour…

The Petaluma newspaper continued: “…To render still more intense the excitement, a dispatch came announcing that the people of San Francisco had literally sacked five Secession newspaper offices, and that the Military and Police force was powerless to restrain them.”

In another article on the same page, the Argus reprinted an item from a San Francisco paper reporting that the assassination news led to mobs destroying the printing presses and type cabinets of all pro-Confederacy newspapers in the city. (It’s said the De Young brothers founded the Chronicle using the lead type they swept up in the street.) Soldiers at the Presidio were called out to assist the police, and the combined armed force patrolled the streets until the next day, quelling the only Civil War-related riot in California.

The San Francisco “Lincoln Riot,” April 15, 1865, destroyed the presses of pro-Confederate newspapers and journals. Photo: Lincoln Museum, Ft. Wayne, Indiana via foundsf.org


You can bet Thomas L. Thompson was nervously peeking out the windows at the Democrat once word reached Sonoma county that angry patriots were busting up the offices of disloyal newspapers. And given his years of snarkily taunting Petaluma, should he also fear being tarred and Petaluma-chicken feathered?

Luckily for Thompson, nothing happened – but both Petaluma and Santa Rosa papers suggested it was a close call.

Writing of Petaluma’s reaction to news of the San Francisco “Lincoln Riot,” the Argus stated, “This deed of righteous vengeance gave birth to dark thoughts and significant murmurs which required the combined efforts, cool heads to keep in restraint. The remotest semblance of exultation, over the fall of Lincoln, either by word or act, would have called forth swift and summary vengeance…it was a critical time and we felt rejoiced when night drew its curtains about our city and the people had dispersed to their homes…”

A couple of days later, Thompson wrote that someone in Petaluma was spreading rumors: “We have heard that some worse than brute in human shape, circulated a report at Petaluma [that Santa Rosa was not in mourning] and we deem it due to our people, as well as those in other portions of the State, to denounce the originator of the slander a wilful and malicious liar.”

Of course, Thompson being Thompson, he could not write a single paragraph without including some provocative remark. He now claimed the Sonoma Democrat was always respectful to Lincoln despite everything: “…as the great head of the Nation, which we have been taught to love and respect from our infancy, we have ever been willing to accord to him that respect which is properly due to the Chief Magistrate of the country.” Maybe Thompson bumped his head and forgot the barrels of ink he had used over the previous four years denouncing Lincoln as a dishonest, incompetent, lying, cowardly, deformed, witless tyrant – and that’s not even the rough stuff, where the president was accused of being a race traitor.

The history of those days cannot be written without mentioning “The Battle of Washoe House.” For those unfamiliar, there’s a story that a mob of Petaluma men did start to ride towards Santa Rosa but got no further than the famous roadhouse, drowning their indignant anger in suds. (A variant says their wives had to fetch the drunks home the next morning.) There’s no proof the story is even partially true; it was not mentioned in any period newspaper or book that can be found and as commented above, the local papers suggest there was nothing more than grumbling in Petaluma. Should something turn up I’ll correct it here, but after a long search I’m ready to file it away as a tall tale.*

A few days later, both Santa Rosa and Petaluma had funeral obsequies for Lincoln. Petaluma went all out, as might be expected. A rifle salute was fired every thirty minutes from sunrise to sundown; a cortège, complete with hearse, traced a route through all the main streets with church bells tolling the entire time. In Santa Rosa the procession went from the Fourth street courthouse to the Methodist church a block over, then back to the Plaza. “Nearly all the business houses in town were draped in mourning,” the Democrat reported. Nearly.

There followed a brief and uneasy truce in their (un)civil war. at least in the sense Thompson temporarily dialed back his attacks on the government and black people – perhaps he feared those buckets of hot tar and sacks of chicken feathers were still sitting in the back of Petaluma wagons. The Democrat reported, without comment, about residents of other counties being arrested for rejoicing over Lincoln’s death, and meekly protested the Democrats now felt like strangers in their own country.

Cassiday, on the other hand, kept hammering away, writing that the national Democratic party, the Sonoma county Democrats and the Santa Rosa paper were all guilty of treason. He took to calling Thompson “Limberback” for reasons unknown, although apparently it was a pretty good insult.

That truce lasted only a month after the war. Thompson wrote an obnoxious (but tame, for him) op/ed stating abolition was just a Yankee social experiment that may fail. “We the whole people of the United States, who have paid the price in blood and treasure for this little experiment in New England ideas, will endeavor patiently to await the result.”

The Argus shot back angrily: “We rather think you won’t have long to wait. Have you heard from Jeff. [Davis] lately? By the way, Limberback, where was your blood and treasure expended? On which side of the line did you invest? Didn’t you lose most of your cash on the Confederacy?”

And then they were off again. Soon the Democrat was relitigating the war, insisting the South had the higher moral ground and a right to secede in order to maintain its slave economy. Thompson was back to flinging “the n-word” in nearly every issue and the newspaper’s racism was as bad as ever – no, actually worse.

I’m sure I’ll have to mention again their epic feud; any researcher looking at Sonoma county during the Civil War (and following years) can’t go very far without stumbling over their quarrels. And some of it is great fun in its own right; later in 1865 the Democrat offered a parody endorsement for “Dr. Gunny Bags’ Extract of Butternut Sap” which “cured political maladies, especially that peculiar type called fanaticism.” A fake testimonial declared, “I poured a little on the wheels of the Petaluma Journal and Argus, and it acted like magic. It immediately expelled the flatulency which had so long inflated the editorials of that paper.”

But like so much of what appeared in the Sonoma Democrat at that time, “Dr. Gunny Bags” is ruined by Thompson’s compulsive need to insert racial slurs. That shift in the article changes it from satire to white supremacist pornography, so I’ll never transcribe that item or write more about it than what appears right here. It’s enough to point out that a cesspool stinks without offering a scratch ‘n’ sniff card to prove it.


* “The Battle of Washoe House” first appeared in print in Adair Lara’s 1982 “History of Petaluma: A California River Town.” On pg. 50 she quoted Ed Mannion, an Argus-Courier columnist and local history buff per the fable of the “Petaluma Navy” which was poised to attack Santa Rosa once there was “an extremely high tide” (in other words, once the entire county flooded, yuk, yuk, yuk). In the next paragraph, Lara introduced the Washoe House story, stating, “…LOCAL HISTORIANS say that these guardians of the national honor got as far as the Washoe House…” (emphasis mine). Adair does not recall her source but agrees it could have been Mannion. Perhaps it was an old saloon tale or the sort of spoof which Mark Twain called a “quaint” which appeared in some non-local newspaper now lost. My personal theory is that it was either born or gained traction in 1958, the year of Petaluma’s centennial. That was also the 99th birthday for the Washoe House and members of E. Clampus Vitus mounted a plaque at the roadhouse in celebration. The Clampers were up to their usual hijinks that day, including trying to push an old fire engine into the lobby of the Hotel Petaluma. The events ended with a group dinner at the hotel (“A whole chicken for each man, and served on pitchforks” – Pet. A-C, April 14 1958) where the Clampers heard the “vigilante bell” story and other old tales.


Petaluma Argus, April 20, 1865

From Plymouth Rock to where the Pacific’s waves lave [sic] shores of California, Oregon and Washington, the capture of the Rebel army under Lee, by the conquering hero, Lieut.-Gen. U. S. Grant, has called forth demonstrations of unbounded enthusiasm and rejoicing. The mountains echo back the shouts from the vallies, and to the outermost verge of civilization, bonfires have been kindled to herald the downfall of one of the most wicked and uncalled for rebellions that ever blotted the pages history. On Wednesday the loyal people of Sonoma and Marin counties assembled in this city, to exchange congratulations upon the encouraging prospect of a speedy restoration of our Union and termination of the further effusion of blood. Our city was filled to repletion with the inhabitants of the surrounding country. About noon the Lincoln Cavalry, Lieut. Causland, and Bloomfield Guards, Capt. C. R. Arthur, led by the Bloomfield Brass Band, entered our city with flying banners. About the same time the Washington Guards, Capt. W. A. Eliason, from Santa Rosa cheered us with their presence. At 1 1/2 o’clock, P. M. the above named Companies, with the Petaluma Guards. Emmet Rifles and City Guards, Major Jas. Armstrong, commanding, preliminary to a grand review on Union square, East Petaluma, escorted the patriotic boys of our Fire Department, comprised of Sonoma, No. 2, through several streets. The review at Union Square was witnessed by a vast concourse of ladies and gentlemen, and reflected great credit upon our citizen soldiers. A sham battle, in which the Lincoln Cavalry made repeated charges upon the Infantry drawn up in battle array, was the most exciting feature of the review. The clash and clatter of the cavalry, so they swept down upon the serried lines bristling bayonets, followed by the rattle of musketry as volley after volley of brank cartridges greeted the assailants, on a small scale, gave a fair representation of a battle scene. Nobody was hurt, however, and at 4 o’clock the Military was dismissed. At 7 1/2 o’clock in the evening a procession was formed on Main street, headed with the military, led by the Bloomfield Brass Band, and marched through the principle streets with a good display of fireworks, torches, transparencies and banners. The houses of the loyal people throughout the city were illuminated. As the procession moved along, cheer upon cheer answered the waving of handkerchiefs by the patriotic ladies along the route. God bless our mothers and sisters for the noble self-sacrificing spirit which has prompted them to buckle the armor upon sons and brothers, and bid them strike for their country, in its hour of peril! Their heart’s treasure has strewn a thousand fields; but they can today rejoice that their noble slain repose beneath their Country’s Banner. A large number of transparencies and banners, painted by Mr. Samuel Dearborn, of this city, whose patriotism is only equalled by his ingenuity in caricaturing treason and traitors, was a prominent feature of the procession. The following are a few of the inscriptions and devices:

Representation of the Goddess of Liberty, holding in her hands the Stars and Stripes, and supported on both sides, by two “recording angels.” This was a splendidly executed device, being fourteen feet high and nine wide, and was drawn on a wagon through the streets, to the admiration of everyone.

“The Angel of Peace.” (Picture of Gilmore’s ‘Swamp Angel.'”)

“The rebel Hill; the difference between his place and name is all in your ‘eye,’ (i)”

Picture of Johnny Crapeaud in Mexico. Johnny is represented as a frog, under the iron heel of Brother Johnathan [sic].

“Steel Bayonets, Yankee Shoe pegs.”

“Long may he wave.” (A picture of Jeff. Davis suspended by a rope around his neck.)

Sam’s large transparency, the one used in the last campaign, was changed to suit the occasion, and was carried on an omnibus.

“Blessed are the Peace Makers–Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Thomas and Porter.”

“The Rebellion shipwrecked on a ‘LEE’ shore.”

“Sound the tocsin, beat the drum, the year of Jubi-‘Lee’ has come!”

At about 9 o’clock the procession was disbanded on Main street, when a platform was erected in front of the American Hotel, and the meeting organized with I. G. Wickersham, Esq., as Chairman. Prof. E. S. Lippitt addressed the vast assemblage present for over an hour, after which the Glee Club sang a patriotic song, and the Band played several spirited pieces. So ended the jubilee over the capture of Lee’s army.

– Petaluma Argus, April 13, 1865
Treason and Hypocrisy.

We can endure with a good deal of patience the rebels in their revolt, for although it is one of the most henious crimes known to our laws, yet it is true, the great mass of them, from habit, education, and their entire surroundings, have been honestly led to believe they are justifiable in fighting against the Government, for what they term their independence. In fact we cannot refrain from respecting an open and manly enemy. One may contend for a principle, amid many trials and through sacrifices, the principle for which he is striving may be most pernicious and dangerous in its tendencies. And while we insist that the rebels should be punished, for the good of society and the well-being of future generations, yet we deeply commiserate them and painfully regret they had not received a better and more correct education.

But there is a class of men in the North, for whom we neither can have respect or feelings of pity. They occupy a position so perfectly inexcusable, and without excuse, that patriotic men cannot help but feel that the severest penalty known to our laws would, at best, very inadequately punish them for the crimes of which they are guilty.

We refer to that hypocritical and treasonable portion of the Democratic party, which cover itself with a flimsy mantle of loyalty, just sufficiently heavy to save them from being banished beyond our lines, or from imprisonments in the cells of our military prisons–some of them, even then, only avoiding the latter by the nimbleness of their heels. Men who belie their early education, stultify their judgements, an go contrary to the clearest promptings of their consciences; who remain under the Government; claim and receive its protection, which they are constantly scheming for its overthrow; who for the sake of saving their necks will urge men to enlist, while with the next breath they proclaim that the guilt and entire responsibility for the war, in the first place, and for its further continuance, rests upon the North.

Now, in the name of all that is sacred and solemn, if the rebels are right in this struggle, and are willing to lay down their arms just as soon as they have the promise and security that they will be protected in their just and constitutional rights, but can any one believing this, aid the Government in the further prosecution of the war? If we held such views we would not stop under such a government a single day, but would join our destiny with the party battling for the right; and so would every man who is worthy of the name. Those who hold that on Mr. Lincoln rests “the odium, the blood, the guilt of a further prosecution of the war,” while at the same time they are urging men to enlist, demonstrate to the public, as clear as the noon-day sun, that they are both hypocrites and traitors, and although personally they may be very insignificant and beneath the notice of the military authorities, yet some of them occupy positions which places a lever in their hands by which they may accomplish much mischief. And the community which patronizes and sustains such persons, will be very likely ultimately to find, that they have been warming a viper into life, which will turn on them and fasten its envenomed fangs into their quivering flesh.

– Petaluma Argus, April 13, 1865

From the San Francisco Dispatch
Great outburst of Popular Feeling.


This afternoon between the hour of two and three o’clock, P. M. the loyal people of San Francisca, paid their respects to the office of the Democratic Pres, which they at once proceeded to demolish without ceremony. The types and other printing material were cast out of the windows and down the stairs, the stands and cases were smashed into fragments, the papers were distributed on the viewless wings of wind, much more expeditiously than the carrier ould have done it, the window frames were bodily torn out of the fastenings, and thrown down upon the pavement, where all the debris was gathered in a pile–the office, in fact, completely destroyed and gutted.

An immense multitude gathered in the streets and watched the proceeding with interest. Not the least attempt at resistance or rescue was made, showing that this prepeeding met with universal approbation.

After the consumation of this act of signal justice, the crowd moved off to the office of Marriot’s News Letter, which was served in a similar manner. Great enthusiasm prevailed. A number of persons secured the latest impressions. One person cried out “here’s the last issue of Marriot’s News Letter. The work of destruction was accomplished when Chief Burke accompanied by two companies of armed police, with bayonets fixed, marched round several squares and up Clay street to the News Letter, where the Chief spoke in favor of moderation, as the crowd began to move away, only, but ever, to rush up to the office of the Monitor (weekly Copperhead,) where they in a manner demolished, or in Secesh parlance, “wiped out.”

The office of the Occidental shared the fate of the Press. During its destruction, the Vox de Mejico, the loyal Mexican paper, took in its flag, but after the occurrence threw it out again amid loud cheers.

The proprietors of all the papers destroyed made good their escape, and no violence was perpetrated at that time.

This act of justice, happening upon the heels of the sad intelligence announcing the double murder in Washington seems most appropriate.

– Petaluma Argus, April 20, 1865


Petaluma in Mourning.

…All that we could learn was that Lincoln had been shot dead, in Ford’s Theatre, and that Seward had been stabbed several times, while in his bed, and was yet alive. At length the boat arrived, and to Mr. Charles Yeomans we were indebted for a Bulletin Extra, giving the details. This was read from the JOURNAL AND ARGUS office to the throng outside. We soon had the sad particulars in type, passing extras, to those outside clamarous [sic] for the news, at the rate of 1200, an hour. To render still more intense the excitement, a dispatch came announcing that the people of San Francisco had litterally[sic] sacked five Secession newspaper offices, and that the Military and Police force was powerless to restrain them. This deed of righteous vengeance gave birth to dark thoughts and significant murmers [sic] which required the combined efforts, cool heads to keep in restraint. The remotest semblance of exultation, over the fall of Lincoln, either by word or act, would have called forth swift and summary vengeance. Those of known secession proclivities seemed to fully realize the position of affairs, and deported themselves accordingly. It was a critical time and we felt rejoiced when night drew its curtains about our city and the people had dispersed to their homes…

– Petaluma Argus editorial, April 20, 1865
The Death of the President.

The announcement of the sudden and tragic death of President Lincoln reached Santa Rosa on Saturday last at about 11 o’clock. Two dispatches were received from San Francisco bearing the terrible intelligence, and the people stood aghast for a time, loth to believe that such could he true, but the announcement was soon affirmed by other dispatches. The effect upon the minds of the people of every sect, partv and denomination was the same. A truly mournful gloom was soon spread over the entire community.— Business houses were all closed, and the flags upon the public and private buildings were lowered to half mast. We have heard that some worse than brute in human shape, circulated a report at Petaluma to the contrary of what we have stated, and we deem it due to our people, as well as those in other portions of the State, to denounce the originator of the slander a wilful and malicious liar. We have never seen any gloom so generally shared in as that occasioned in our midst by the sad announcement of the brutal and fiendish assassination of the Chief Magistrate of the Nation. We have never been a supporter of Mr. Lincoln’s peculiar policy in administering the government, but as the great head of the Nation, which we have been taught to love and respect from our infancy, we have ever been willing to accord to him that respect which is properly due to the Chief Magistrate of the country. We have heard nothing but the deepest sorrow and regret expressed by all our people at the sad announcement of his death.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22 1865

THE NEWS–AND HOW IT WAS RECEIVED. —Those who have advocated the war, and accepted and ratified every act of the administration, without hesitating a moment to consider the consequences hereafter, looking forward alone to the subjugation of the South and the liberation of the negro, have had a gay old time this week over the news which has been transmitted across the wires. The intensely loyal had a good pow-wow at Petaluma on Wednesday, and at Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, demonstrations of joy were manifested in various ways. It is not because of the prospects of peace that they celebrate, but rather the triumph of might. We are informed that the transparencies in the procession at Petaluma were devoted almost entirely to the abolition of slavery and the elevation of the black race. It may be that these sticklers for Sambo, celebrate too soon, for Grant has made the terms, and it has always been understood that he, like George B. McClellan, is for the “Union as it was.”

– Sonoma Democrat, April 22 1865

A NUMBER OF ARRESTS.–From our numerous exchanges we see that in almost every portion of the State men have been arrested for rejoicing over the assassination of President Lincoln, and have been sent to prison. Here is a chance for the great Democratic Constitutional expounder, of this city, to declaim against “unconstitutional arrests.”

– Petaluma Argus, April 27, 1865


Mob Violence.

San Francisco stands alone in the category of cities which, upon the arrival of the recent dreadful news from Washington, was disgraced by a resort to mob violence, in order to appease the grief and indignation of her people. It is gratifying to hear that even there those who had recourse to such dangerous and unlawful proceedings formed bnt a small portion of the inhabitants, and the outrages committed were condemned and deeply regretted by the more respectable classes of the community. Generally those who give vent to their feelings on such occasions as the present by a resort to unlawful measures are men who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by throwing a community into a state of tumultuous excitement, and in such times it becomes every good citizen to raise his voice in behalf of law and older. Since 1851, San Francisco has been subject to periodical outbreaks of popular excitement, and on this occasion we find in the ranks of the mob men who at other times have sustained the law, and wo can only account for their conduct on this occasion in believing it was instigated by a desire to gratify a spirit of revenge harbored against certain loyal publication offices in that city as well as against Democratic papers. It is a well known fact that had it not been for the timely interference of the military on the 15th inst., the offices of the Alta and Bulletin and the Overland Telegraph Company would have suffered. It is positively asserted by the Flag newspaper, the organ of the disorderly, as well as by citizens of San Francisco who witnessed the proceedings that these establishments were included in the programme laid down for the mob to execute. The military commandant of the coast was appealed to for protection, and did prevent the destruction of these as well as certain Churches in the city which were also threatened, by the establishment of a military guard about them. From the best information we can gather we are fully satisfied that credit is due to Major General McDowell for the prevention of further and more disastrous, destruction of property than did occur. We regret exceedingly that we cannot record that he saved the property of Democrats as well as of other citizens, for to assume that they are not entitled to the protection of law is to ignore the rights of fully one-half the population of the loyal States.

All reports of the destruction of newspapers elsewhere in the State besides San Francisco were without foundation. In every other section the people manifested their grief by more quiet and respectful proceedings. True, in some instances, threats were made by persons who imagined it would be proper for them to imitate the example set at San Francisco, but thanks be to the cooler heads of the more orderly masses, we are spared the necessity of recording any further violation of law. It is to be hoped that every law abiding citizen, be he Democrat or Republican, Abolitionist or Copperhead, will continue to exert himself in behalf of law and order, for surely no good can come of violent demonstrations, be they of what character they may.

We append hereto some very sensible remarks upon this subject taken from the S. F. Bulletin:

“Every intelligent Unionist must perceive that no good can possibly result from lawless bursts of anger at this time. The duty of the hour is a calm adherence to the legal sanctions of order, that society may as soon as possible recover from the disturbing effects of civil war and the passions that follow in the train. Mere brutal violence is an affront to the spirit of the great dead, whose marble serenity still hushes the nation’s capital. We should go through this memorial week–about to be made sacred forever in our history his by obsequies — with dignity and decency worthy of our grief and of his character. Everv good citizen should frown upon all incitements to scenes of disorder, chief among which, and altogether the most reprehensible, are incendiary publications of the character of the American Flag, which should be discouraged and discarded by every friend of sobriety and good government. The civil and military authorities should continue their efforts to preserve the peace, and use every proper means to prevent inflammatory appeals and expressions.”

– Sonoma Democrat, April 29 1865


The Opponents of the Administration.

Some people place a poor estimate upon the patriotism, virtue and intelligence of the American people when they endeavor to fix the responsibility of the recent tragic occurrences in our Nation’s history upon those who, in their wisdom, have seen proper to exercise the privileges of citizenship by recording their votes against the peculiar policy of those who administer the Government. The right of freely expressing one’s views and the free exercise of the right of suffrage are privileges which have been guaranteed to the people of this country, not only by the Constitution of the United States, but by that of every individual State in the Union… At the recent Presidential election over fifteen hundred thousand American citizens entered their protest against the peculiar policy of those who were administering the Government. If it were true that these people desired the downfall of the Government or the assassination of its Chief Executive, then, indeed, are we a degenerate nation. We do not believe that the masses of the dominant party attribute any such designs or motives to those who opposed them in the last Presidential contest–but, rather, they stand with the lamented President, who himself spurned to assume such to be the case, and in his last Message administered these fanatics a withering rebuke by taking upon himself the defense of the Democratic party against this senseless cry of disloyalty and treason.

But, we regret, there are some high in authority who see proper to take a different view from Mr. Lincoln, and declare or insinuate that those whom the late President would defend from the foul invectives hurled against them are guilty, as charged by the fanatical press of the country. We have heard nothing from the East of this tirade against Democrats; it appears to be confined alone to the Pacific coast. — And feeling, as we do, that they have cause to and do as deeply mourn the loss of the lamented dead as any who set themselves up to be models of loyalty. we deeply regret that such should be the case here. In the defense of the Democracy by Mr. Lincoln we have another reason Democrats everywhere should deplore his loss; for surely we had a better friend in him than we may ever hope to find in those who rule the country now.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 29 1865


Military Arrests.

David James and two sons, Wm. P Durbin and son, Charles Ramsey and son, and John Stilts were arrested by military order in Green Valley, Solano county, on Monday List, lor rejoicing over the death of President Lincoln. — A company of militia were despatched from Benecia to execute the order, and met with resistance from the parties, two soldiers being wounded. After an exchange of several shots, the above named parties surrendered themselves to the militia, and are now confined at San Francisco, where they will be tried by military court for resisting the execution of the order. Four men were arrested at Colusa on Thursday of last week, by a company of soldiers from Sacramento, also charged with rejoicing over the death of the President. The names of the parties so arrested are…

– Sonoma Democrat, April 29 1865
Will Awaken Reflection.

There is scarcely a Copperhead journal in the State but that comes to us clothed in mourning, and filled with lamentations over the untimely fall of Abraham Lincoln, by the hand of an assassin. How sincere they are in their protestations of sorrow is a matter of little or no importance to us; but we are curious to see what effect it will have upon those who had been educated up to an intense degree of fanatical hatred of Lincoln by these same organs. Ignorant men and women whose minds are plastic material in the hands of unscrupulous demagogues, when once thoroughly indoctrinated with sentiments, however brutal, are hard to uneducate; and in the present instance very many of them gave utterance to their joy at the cowardly assassination of President Lincoln, little dreaming that the journals which had always held him up to them as a “monster in human form;” a “tyrant whose iron rule was insufferable,” would exhibit such an agony of grief at his removal. Even the lowest order of intellect can discern that either in the beginning or end they have been dealt falsely by; that if their leaders were sincere at the outset, they have deserted them now; and if sincere now, they willfully deceived and betrayed them into a false position in the beginning. Those who, upon hearing of the assassination of Lincoln, exclaimed, the ‘Abolitionists’ have been rejoicing over the capture of Lee’s army but now it is our turn to rejoice, little dereamed that their leaders would fail to join with them in their origies [sic] over a slain “tyrant.” How chilling must have been the effect upon the patrons of the Santa Rosa Democrat, when upon unfolding its pages expecting to find a ponderous leader under the caption, “Caesar found his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and Lincoln his Booth,” their eyes were greeted with an ostentatious display of mourning, and professions of inconsolable sorrow. However bitter the disappointment to some, it will not be wholly barren of good results. Some minds are so constituted that just such impressive lessons are the only instrumentalities that will arouse them to the perception of new truths. Party leaders, so long as they keep up a semblance of consistency and sincerity, may keep such minds in the grooves of old beaten tracks, but when, as is the case just now, those leaders stand unmasked, shrinking from the position into which they have betrayed their dupes, their misguided followers will be slow to fall into line and follow them into new and unexplored fields. The whole stock in trade of the Democratic leaders, in this county, has been vituperation of Lincoln, By falsehood and misrepresentation they kept men in their party trammels by systematic and unscrupulous appeals to the lowest instincts of brutalized humanity. Like the keeper who shrinks back powerless to command the obedience of animals whose appetites have been whetted by the blood of some hapless victim, these same leaders stand trembling in the presence of the demoniac spirit they have instilled into the hearts of their followers, and which will not down at their bidding. This condition of affairs has awakened reflection in the minds of a small minority in that party, who can lay some claims to intelligence and respectability, and they unhesitatingly renounce their allegiance to it. Oceans of hypocritical tears will not suffice to remove the stain of Lincoln’s blood from the Democratic party; it will adhere to it with the tenacity of the poisoned shirt of Nessus.

– Petaluma Argus, May 4, 1865


Beginning to Reap the Penalty.

So long as there was a remote possibility that the armed rebellion with which our Government was struggling, might ultimately accomplish its end, Norther traitors could hold up their heads with some assurance; but now that the cause which has commanded their entire sympathies, is hopelessly crushed, they beging to have a foretaste of the infamy in store for them and their posterity, for generations to come. Every day is rendering more legible the line of demarkation between loyal men and traitors. Where loyalty and treason have been unequally yoked together in business firs the work of severance and readjusting is rapidly going on. Aiders and abettors of treason are being made to feel that they are regarded as moral lepers who live by the sufferance of the community they infest. As well might they attempt to elude their own shadows as the disgrace which will attend them at every step throughout their lives and brood over their graves after their death.

– Petaluma Argus, May 4, 1865
The Day of Reckoning.

What did you with the inheritance bequeathed to you by the founders of our Government? When treason uplifted its bloody hand against the National life, what position did you assume, that of loyalty or disloyalty to your country? These are grave questions, but they are interrogatories which will meet you at every turn in life, and whether you are willing or not, answer to them will be exacted. The antecedents, associations, and records of some of the would-be prominent men of this county have branded their brows with treason, in characters so legible, that even children will recognize them, and shrinking from their path will point after them and say, “there goes a TRAITOR.”

– Petaluma Argus, May 4, 1865

“LET THE GALLED JADE WINCE.”–No wonder Limberback, of Santa Rosa, is afraid that during the coming canvass “Democrats will be denounced as sympathizers with treason and assassination.” Jeff. Davis is certainly a good Democrat. Jacob Thompson, C. C. Clay, Beverly Tucker, and Geo. N. Saunders, dictated the platform which was adopted by the Democratic National Convention at Chicago. They are good Democrats, yet they are directly implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and are supposed to be in sympathy with the  late rebellion. The plot to assassinate the President was doubtless well known in the wigwams of the Golden Circle, or Knights of the Columbian Star, and no sensible person will attempt to deny that the leaders of the Democratic Party of Sonoma County, were members of that organization. Is it strange that the people hold the Democratic Party responsible for the rebellion and the assassination of Mr. Lincoln?

– Petaluma Argus, May 11, 1865

U. S. BONDS–The Santa Rosa treason mill has been selected as one of the papers to advertise the U. S. 7-30 Loan! That is proper and right. The paper has been loyal for two weeks through fear of being destroyed by an outraged people! This brazen-faced hypocritical, teason-breeding tool of Jeff. Davis, after working four years for the Southern Confederacy, now has the impudences to advise loyal men to invest in the Government Loan! Oh, what cheek! Limberback is subjugated! He will be a howling Abolitionist in another month. Advising the people to subscribe for the National Loan! Aint, that funny! He will be advocating negro equality pretty soon. Can’t be subjugated, oh no! Where is the last ditch? Ha, ha, haw-haw!

– Petaluma Argus, May 11, 1865
New England on Trial.

New England chuckles over what she deems the complete success of her blind theories; she has obtained in the hour of national insanity, what she vainly endeavored for half a century to win from the calm judgment of our people, viz: The privilege of testing the the truth or falsity of her Abolition dogma. We the whole people of the United States, who have paid the price in blood and treasure lor this little experiment in New England ideas, will endeavor patiently to await the result. If upon a practical demonstration, Emancipation shall prove a benefit to humanity, white and black, then glory be to New England. Then who would not be an abolitionist? If the negroes and their former masters can inhabit the same soil equal in all things, and nearly equal in numbers, each happy and all things harmonious in their new relation, then New England ideas have triumphed. New England stands or falls by the result. The test of Emancipation is the test of New England, and woe to the disciple of John Brown if after a fair trial we find that we have paid so dearly for their teachings, only to be deceived in the result.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 13 1865

We the whole people of the United States who have paid the price in blood and treasure for this little experiment in New England ideas, will endeavor patiently to await the result.” – Santa Rosa Democrat.

We rather think you won’t have long to wait. Have you heard from Jeff. lately? By the way, Limberback, where was your blood and treasure expended? On which side of the line did you invest? Didn’t you loose [sic] most of your cash on the Confederacy?

– Petaluma Argus, May 18, 1865


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Ever been to Santa Rosa? You know; it’s that charming village in the middle of a forest. Too bad about their second-rate courthouse, however.

Those are among the surprising observations made by a writer traveling by stagecoach from Petaluma to Healdsburg in June, 1865. Although not very long (the whole essay can be read in less than five minutes) the article is richer in detail than other descriptions I’ve read from that era.

It appeared in the Daily Alta California, the leading newspaper of the time, and the author was named only as “S. D. W.” The Alta regularly offered items from such “an Occasional Correspondent” without any further personal details; it is possible the author was a woman, although an earlier article using the same initials was written from a Nevada mining camp.

Travelogs and “rural letters” like this often pop up in the old papers but are almost always painful to read, like an eighth-grader’s required book report (“…the valley is some fifty miles long and about five miles wide at the southerly extremity, thence it narrows down gradually as you proceed northerly… – Daily Alta, July 14, 1876). While the prose gets a bit flowery at times, S. D. W. delivers the true story of what (s)he saw, warts and all.

The roads were terrible, causing “the bounding of the stage from rut to rut, keeping us passengers clinging to the sides for dear life.” And although the scenery was spectacular, the people living in the country had shabby farmhouses and only wanted to “cram their pockets at the expense of comfort and every social amenity and pleasure.” By contrast, the farmers in Napa were “less avaricious and more full of the generous love of the beautiful.” The author was told our places were dumps because the farmers were squatters and any improvements would be for naught if they lost their land claims in court. As it was then 1865, some of the properties had been in limbo for over a decade.

Santa Rosa, “nesting in the bosom of a forest of grand old oaks,” gets a mostly rave review as a place with “many a garden of blooming roses, full of troops of rosy-cheeked laughing children.” But the courthouse was something of a disgrace although he doesn’t explain why – only joking (?) that maybe Santa Rosa doesn’t want to fix it up because they could be in litigation like the squatters.

Given that the author only spent a day here, some of his remarks are astute and even prophetic. Years before Luther Burbank dubbed our county the “chosen spot of all this earth” this essay described the valley as “the garden spots of the Pacific” and “a perfect Eden,”  remarking once the people of the state “will be sobered down” from get-rich-quick silver and oil schemes, they will “study the nature of the soil, the adaptation of plants to it, and every waste acre of land will bloom with a rich and lucrative vegetation.”

Even more accurate, he specifically predicted a bright future here for grapes. Calling Windsor/Dry Creek region by its old nickname “Poor Man’s Flat” he noted, “soil in this section is not very fertile, but is said to be admirably adapted to the culture of the vine.” He was probably unaware Cyrus Alexander had already established a pioneer vineyard not far away in the valley to the east.

Otherwise, the writer was impressed with the Russian River’s “bed of beautifully colored pebble stones” and the “quiet and peaceful village” of Healdsburg. As for Petaluma, the less said; S. D. W. mainly complained about the slowness of the brand-new Petaluma & Haystack Railroad, which carried passengers the two-and-half miles from the steamship wharf to downtown. “Their speed resembles more the limpings of an old lame horse,” he griped, and if that’s good enough for the people of Petaluma, “they must have a dull and stagnant public mind.” He was less grumpy after a good meal at the American Hotel, thank goodness.

Photo taken on February 20, 1875 showing the Sonoma county courthouse, jail, Hall of records and corner of the Plaza.  Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library


(from an Occasional Correspondent of the ALTA.)

In Petaluma Valley.

HEALDSBURG, June 29, 1865.

Editors Alta:— In my last we parted just as the little steamer was coming in sight of Petaluma. From that point we here resume our journey. Reaching the wharf we changed to the little cars that were waiting our arrival, and soon were under way to the city. These cars, running between the Embarcadero and Petaluma, are not representative ones by any means. Their speed resembles more the limpings of an old lame horse than the lightning speed of the locomotive. They are an insult to the energy and enterprise of any live people; and if the spirit of the Petaluma people only keep pace to such slow coach affairs as these, they must have a dull and stagnant public mind. At last, however, we reached the depot, and were soon made welcome to the hospitalities of the place by the polite and gentlemanly proprietor of the American Hotel. If there is a man in California who will win the regard of the traveller by his kind and assiduous attention, and by heaping before him every comfort and luxury, that man is Mr. P. Emerson. After a dinner rich in viands, culled from the fatness of the land, and bearing no evidences of the Fast Day, we mounted tbe driver’s box on the Healdsburg stage, and at the crack of the whip away we went, leaving dust and city far behind. After driving three or four miles from Petaluma there opens to view one of the most magnificent valley scenes in the State. The long level plain of

The Petaluma Valley

Extends as far as the eye can reach, lying with its feet to the sea, and pillowing its head among the mountains; it lies in beauty like a reclining queen, the solemn mountains around the decorations of her couch, beautified by the hue and shade of their forests and over all these bends the arching beauty of a smiling sky. It is a lovely picture of natural scenery; a fit cradle for the inspiration of the poet or the painter. From the bases of the mountain ranges that bound it on every side, the valley extends like the waters of some great inland sea. These mountains, irregular and wild in their contour, are clothed with forests of all kinds peculiar to the soil and climate of California. At their bases sheltered in their mighty shadows, the oak and madrona flourish in their freshness and beauty, while the higher elevations are clothed with the shades of tanged wildwood, composed mostly of the chimesal and chaparral shrubs peculiar to the mountains of the Pacific slope. The loftier peaks are crowned with forests of gigantic pines, or, in places bald and bare, lift themselves to the clouds, open to the sun and stars. Although the sides of this great Valley are covered with dense forests the central portions are totally destitute of them — hardly a lone tree rises out of its bosom to rest the eye or please the desire.

Lack of Taste.

Wonderful as is the beauty and fertility of this Valley, and susceptible of the finest artificial polish, yet in travelling between Petaluma and Santa Rosa, a distance of sixteen miles, and this too along the principal highway of the country, there it hardly to be seen a farm house worthy such a country and such an age of improvements. Their style of architecture shows no study of the Grecian or Egyptian art, but seems to have descended to them by tradition from the aborigines of the contry. The great fault in the farmers of Sonoma County seems to be their total destitution of any love for the beautiful, even when moulded into symmetry and harmony with the useful and practical. Their prime desire is, or at least seems to be, to wring from the soil every drop of productive gain, to cram their pockets at the expense of comfort and every social amenity and pleasure. The general appearance of the Valley compares poorly with that of her sister, Napa. There the farmers have some love for the ornamental and ornate, are less avaricious and more full of the generous love of the beautiful, while they nourish a healthy desire for the necessary and practical. The reason, however, given by the farmers of Sonoma, when questioned on this point, is that their lands are in litigation, and with a defective title they are fearful lest in improving they build only for their antagonists. If this it a true reason, it bears upon it a plausibility which cannot be gainsaid: but it is a huge block in the path of improvement for the county. While these apologies may satisfy the practical man, they do not affect the ideas of the tourist, who travels through unacquainted with the reason why a county is not attractive and beautiful.

The Roads in this County,

At present, are not very pleasant ones, at least in some parts of the county. This arises from the nature of the soil, it being the black adobe. In the winter it becomes very soft, and by the passing vehicles is cut up into ruts and deep grooves; in the summer, by the hot sun, it becomes hardened almost into adamant, leaving all the irregularities and roughness to be smoothed down by travel, and the bounding of the stage from rut to rut, keeping us passengers clinging to the sides for dear life, gave us no very pleasant idea of the smoothing process. Time and enterprise will remedy these peculiarities, and Petaluma Valley will become one of the garden spots of the Pacific, a second Mohawk or Wyoming; but needing ever the rolling tide of a splendid and majestic river to beauty and fertilize. After driving sixteen long miles, we reached

Santa Rosa,

A pleasant village, nesting in the bosom of a forest of grand old oaks: its white cottages are fine, in contrast to this wilderness of green. As we drove through we caught sight of many a garden of blooming roses, full of troops of rosy-cheeked laughing children. As you well know, this is the county seat, but a stranger would hardly conceive the fact if his knowledge was born out of a vision of their Court House. For one of the largest and wealthiest counties in the State, it is a poor public building. Taking advantage of their stereotyped apology, it may be in litigation and “they don’t feel like improving.”

On the Road Again.

After leaving Santa Rosa the route lies through one of the loveliest tracts in the county. The position of the country, the fertility of the soil, and the extent of forest, all conspire to make it a perfect Eden. We drove through it late in the afternoon, and the whole scene was worthy the pencil of a master, it was so expressibly beautiful. From his western goal the declining sun poured a rich flood of light, lighting up the forest, and the waving fields of yellow grain, till the whole glowed in the sunshine as if it had been bathed in gold. About six miles from Santa Rosa on the bank of Mark West Creek, we had pointed out to us the old mansion of the late Mark West, an early settler in this part of the country. The farm and mansion has an antiquated look, it being one of the oldest buildings in the State. The widow and family of the deceased gentleman still occupy the homestead. On the opposite side of this creek, lying in the direction of Healdsburg, there is a large extent of country, bearing the very expressive name of

“Poor Man’s Flat”

I am not able to give the history of the title, but will say it is a most expressive one, and apropos to the general appearance of the country. The soil in this section is not very fertile, but is said to be admirably adapted to the culture of the vine. In time, if this is the fact, it will be occupied by extensive and productive vineyards. For the times are coming to this State when the irregular and erratic energy and genius of her people will be sobered down, and agriculture and manufactures occupy their minds instead of silver and petroleum. Then will they study the nature of the soil, the adaptation of plants to it, and every waste acre of land will bloom with a rich and lucrative vegetation. Beyond this region, the valley gradually grows more narrow, the soil more fertile and productive, and the scenery more beautiful and interesting. The mountains are brought into nearer view, and in the distance the bright line of timber, extending in circuitous windings, marks the course of the famed

Russian River.

This name was given to this stream in commemoration of the fact that a number of years ago a party of Russians encamped for some time upon its banks. It is a clear, sparkling stream, very shallow, and flowing over a bed of beautifully colored pebble stones. The level river bottoms which lie along its banks, varying in width from a few hundred yards to half a mile or more, comprise some of the richest land on the coast. Corn here in some places grows ten or twelve feet high, and smaller grains even too luxuriantly for the convenience of the farmer. On the western bank is situated the beautiful and lovely village of


And, with due consideratlon for the feelings of others, I shall say this is the most enchanting town and region on the Pacific slope. We drove into town just as the sun was sinking behind the western hills, and before us was a picture too beautiful for any description: to feel it is to see it. The setting sun, flinging his farewell to valley and stream, the deepening shadows of the mountains, the glowing forest, and the quiet and peaceful village, were parts of a splendid and bewildering picture, graceful in combination and beauty. The evening shadows closed the further vision of scenery, and we waited in patience till the morning again invited us by his light to the feast of eye and soul.

After a night’s sleep, made deep and refreshing by our tired limbs and the quiet of the country, we rose in the morning eager as ever for the visions of beauty. Thirsty as may be the mind for them, here will they find living fountains thereof, at whose lips they might stoop forever. The first prominent object of interest close at hand is a noble mountain peak, rising from the bosom of the valley just in front of the town, standing like a watchlul guardian over the beauty that lies at its base. This has been christened Fitch Mount, in honor of the late Mr. H. D. Fitch, the first American settler in these parts, well known as locator of the celebrated Fitch Grant. The old homestead of the family lies directly at the base of this peak: it contains a body of some six or eight hundred acres of rich bottom land — a princely looking farm. I shall write my next from the mountains.
S. D. W.

– Daily Alta California, July 8 1865


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