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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* San Francisco Chronicle, June 25, 1887





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yay, sesquicentennial! So what was Sonoma county really like in 1868? If a movie was made of Santa Rosa in those days, would it have the flavor of the sweet little town in “The Music Man” or the sort of rough place seen in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?”

I recently visited the Midwest and while waiting at the St. Louis airport I met a very nice Dutch family (Jan, if you’re reading this, please get in touch; I lost your business card). They found it novel to meet someone from the West Coast, then became excited when they learned I was a local historian – to them, this place called Santa Rosa was somewhere between Deadwood and Dodge City.

Jan used to follow the Wild West festival circuit around Europe (yep, that’s really a thing). He even had a custom-made Indian costume which he said was authentic down to the eagle feathers. (NOTE: the feathers were probably imitations, as it’s illegal to sell them in the U.S.)

He peppered me with questions: Does our history museum have any guns of famous outlaws? (No, but the Masons once had a famous gun collection.) Was Billy the Kid ever here? (No.) Jesse James? (No.) Wild Bill Hickok? (No.) Buffalo Bill? (Yes, but only with his circus.) Was there an army fort? (No.) Did Indians go on the warpath? (Oh, please.) Were there gunfighter shootouts? (No.) Were there lynchings? (Sure, the last being in 1920 – which gave him such pause that he asked me to write down the year to make sure he understood correctly.)

There never really was a “Wild West” here, I explained; Sonoma county was mostly settled by farmers from places like Missouri, and as a result the people in Santa Rosa and the rest of the county acted pretty much like, well, Missouri farmers. Yeah, it was unusual that Santa Rosa cheered for the Confederacy to win the Civil War and anti-Chinese racism was virulent, but there was never exceptional violence or lawlessness in Sonoma county during the latter 19th century. Then reflecting on our conversations during my long flight back to California, I regretted portraying that our history was ever so clear cut.

First, Sonoma county indeed had the sort of Old West outlaws that so intrigued my friend from Holland – he even might have heard of the poetically-inclined “Black Bart” who robbed three stage coaches here. B.B. gets all the press, but there was also the Cloverdale-based Houx Gang in 1871 and just a bit further north there was the cattle rustling and stage robbing Buck English Gang in the mid-1870s (and yes, Jan, his gun is in a museum). This pattern of stick-em-ups continued through the next decade with Dick Fellows and others whose names were never known.

As per Missouri: Sure, Santa Rosa’s love of Dixie came from Missouri families often having deep ties to the Old South (although only about forty percent of the residents here in 1860 were born in secessionist states). But it was simplistic to say those Missouri immigrants hung on to all their Midwestern values once they were here. Even a deeply-rooted belief in civility can be degraded when someone is dropped into a frontier situation, where there are loose rules for conduct and weak institutions. All of the tales told below show the result; there are acts of impetuous behavior which never would have been tolerated back in their hometowns – including person-on-person violence and community vigilantism.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed this across several essays about the unique problems of the American frontier. When people are “unchecked by restraints of an old social order,” it didn’t matter if the frontier was the Carolinas during the 1730s, Missouri in the 1810s or California in the 1850s. The pattern was the same: American pioneers were quick to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for the legal system to preserve order. “If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.” That often meant lynching or pulling out a pistol.

Turner also pointed out that “a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law” and an insult or show of disrespect could swiftly lead to violence. Add the presence of firearms and a confrontation which might never have gone beyond shouting or bloody noses can become deadly. And that brings us to the first tale from our Wild West days.

This is the “half” tale, which means I’m only summarizing it because you should read the whole story in John Schubert/Valerie Munthe’s Hidden History of Sonoma County. It’s a gripping yarn and well told by them; the book also has a chapter that reveals the history of Houx Gang (I once tried to figure out their doings, but there was so much confusing info I gave up). All together, “Hidden History” is easily the best book on Sonoma county history published in ages. My only quibbles are the lack of footnotes/endnotes, and the title grossly overpromises – a full “hidden history” would fill bookcases. As of this writing, it’s even on sale at the Santa Rosa Costco.

In 1867, Charles Henley killed James Rowland. The two farmers lived about a half-mile apart near Windsor, and there was bad blood between them because Henley’s pigs kept getting loose. Rowland corralled some of those hogs and Henley went over to fetch them, carrying a shotgun; there was a confrontation inside the pig pen and Rowland was shot dead at close range. The animals would mutilate his body until it was later discovered.

Later that night Henley visited a friend, confessed to the shooting and sought advice. The friend urged Henley to ride over to Windsor and surrender to the authorities, though he was hesitant because “they are all Odd Fellows,” as was Rowland. Henley also asked the friend not to tell his hired hand because he was likewise a I.O.O.F. member, but the man had overheard Henley’s confession anyway. Henley turned himself in the next morning and later that day, members of the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge showed up to claim the body. Lodge members wore their badge of mourning for thirty days.

Henley was taken to the county jail to await trial. Exactly thirty days after the killing, Santa Rosa’s night watchman was surprised by four masked men. “Keep quiet,” he was told, “there are 150 of us, well-armed, and we have come to take a certain man out of jail.” The watchman was held captive and soon joined by the jailer. Another of the masked vigilantes encountered a policeman on patrol and held the officer at gunpoint.

The jailer was forced to open Henley’s cell and the prisoner was bound and gagged before being carried away. His body was found hanging about a mile west of town in what’s now the Roseland district.

There was an outcry over the lynching in both the local press and the big San Francisco newspapers, with a reward of $2,000 offered for information on the identity of the mob. Any suggestion that the masked men were Odd Fellows was met with fierce denial and the pursuit of the guilty was soon forgotten.

Then just a few days after the lynching there was another killing in Santa Rosa.

Around midnight on the night of June 20, 1867, Byrd Brumfield used his pocket knife to slash John Strong to death at Griffin’s Saloon. The number of wounds varied between 7-16, depending on who was telling the story. Although witnesses testified that Strong was running for the door at the time, the Coroner’s Jury ruled that Brumfield had killed him in self defense. Testimony also revealed Strong had a six-shooter that he may (or may not) have attempted to draw, but the verdict seemed to come down to the jury being told that nobody liked Strong  and Brumfield was a good guy.*

Between the slashing and the lynching, we can all probably agree 1867 was a pretty violent year in Santa Rosa (and remember, that was the year just before the one which we are about to sesquicentennial-ly celebrate). Still, the Sonoma Democrat boasted after Brumfield was acquitted, “to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.” That of course was technically true, as Henley had been just strung up outside of city limits and when Michael Ryan had buried the point of a pickaxe in his poor wife’s head two years earlier, his murder victim was not male.

Brumfield apparently decided that a pocket knife was no longer adequate for his needs. The following year he had an argument with Captain L. A. Norton and both men drew their guns. Brumfield fired four times before Norton’s sidearm left his holster and the Mexican War vet was wounded in the left hand. A jury again ruled Brumfield merely acted in self-defense.

In his youth Byrd had worked on the big Brumfield family farm, somewhere in the Russian River valley. By the 1870 census he appears at age 32 with the profession of “sporting man,” by which we can assume means he was a professional gambler. By 1875 he found himself blacklisted by all saloon owners around Healdsburg; we don’t know if that was because he was a card shark or just a violent alcoholic.

“Byrd’s on a big drunk today,” Harry Truitt warned those sitting in front of a Healdsburg Hotel on an afternoon that November. Brumfield was more than just liquored up – he was looking for a fight.

“There’s been a big poker game in town,” Byrd told a friend. “I’m going to play poker in this town,” adding he had been kept out of the bars long enough.

“They don’t treat me right in this town,” he told another, who asked, “Who don’t treat you right?”

“These Zane boys; they’ve got rich now and don’t notice a common man. I knew them when they didn’t have a cent: then they treated me all right. I’m going into Will Zane’s saloon today or die; and I’ll get away with it if I go in.”

Byrd held some sort of grudge against Willis Zane; six months earlier, Brumfield had borrowed Zane’s revolver only to turn it on the owner and attempt to kill him (or so the “special reporter” for the Sonoma Democrat wrote). Zane was warned that Byrd was drinking and telling people he intended to show up at the bar. “I’ll let them know that I’m not dead yet, but don’t care a damn how soon,” said the drunken Brumfield.

Shortly before sunset, Byrd staggered into Zane’s saloon. Willis told him twice to get out. Byrd didn’t say a word, but moved towards Willis (it was unclear whether his gun was drawn or his hand was still reaching under his coat). Zane drew his pistol from a pocket and shot three times. Byrd Brumfield was dead.

The Coroner’s Jury acquitted Zane, declaring it was justifiable homicide, but much of the testimony was a mirror image of the 1867 inquest – only this time, nobody liked Brumfield and Zane was the good guy.

The takeaway from the story is not that Byrd Brumfield was a bad guy (which is pretty indisputable); it’s how every time he had a beef with someone, he expected that other person to be armed. And he was right.

Scholars like to point out communities in the Wild West had strict no-gun laws, requiring those entering town to check firearms with a peace officer – remember the plot of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” While that’s true, our local newspapers also show there were multiple “shooting affrays” every year in Sonoma county, although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury.

It’s doubtful anyone ever walked the mean streets of Healdsburg or Santa Rosa with a gun holstered on his hip (other than lawmen), but all those affray items reveal too many people were certainly packing under that Victorian garb. Often they were the Usual Suspects (see Male: young, drunkenness of) but others would probably be surprising. Captain Lewis A. Norton, the man Brumfield shot in the hand, was not a cocky ne’er-do-well; he was a middle-aged Healdsburg lawyer and local Democratic party bigwig, a former Justice of the Peace who ran for county judge the year before he was shot, then state senate a year after.

And sometimes the shooters were even women.

J. G. Hill of Forestville, better known as “Sock” Hill, while on his way to church at Forestville last Sunday evening, was fired at twice by Miss Georgia Travis. The first shot passed close to his left ear and through the rim of his hat, the second shot missing him entirely. Miss Travis was arrested Monday morning, on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder…

That little item appeared in the Healdsburg Enterprise and other local papers in September 1879. (The item right below it, incidentally, was another shooting affray, describing a 21 year-old Lakeport bartender killing a patron who was told to leave but went for his gun instead.)

Details emerged a few days later: Sock – whose real name was Joshua – along with two young women, were walking to a Sunday night church service, as was Georgia. As they passed Faudre’s Chair Factory (there’s a reference sure to excite Forestville historians), Georgia drew her “bull-dog” pistol and began shooting at him. After firing both shots, she handed the gun over to a man who intervened. Sock and his women friends sat through the entire service (!) then went to Santa Rosa to file a complaint. He said Georgia had been threatening to kill him for over a year and he was afraid. The Grand Jury dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and it was never explained why she wanted the 42 year-old man dead. All she ever said was that she had been “slandered” by him.

Another month passed and there was a meeting of the Forestville Blue Ribbon Club, part of a very popular nationwide evangelical temperance movement. Although it was a night of heavy rain, 60-70 still turned out including women and children. Sock Hill attended as did Georgia Travis and her brothers, Wirt and John.

John was seated two rows behind Hill, and Wirt was the same distance in front. John reached over and punched Hill in the face. Sock Hill jumped up and confronted John Travis, drawing his gun. Wirt Travis then shot Hill point blank in the base of his skull. Amazingly, he would remain conscious until he died about fifteen hours later.

Panic ensued. John Travis apparently fired his own gun and Wirt shot again, wounding a bystander in the leg as he fled the room along with the dozens of other attendees. In court testimony there would be the usual claims and counterclaims – Hill fired his gun, John did not, John socked Hill because he turned around “made a face at me,” Wirt claimed he shot Hill because he believed his brother’s life was in danger, &c.

Wirt was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty for his brother John. “One of the most exciting trials ever had in Sonoma county,” sighed the Sonoma Democrat, having stretched the sensationalist coverage over two issues.

So there you are, Jan; I was mistaken to tell you at the airport that we were just a bunch of boring ol’ Missouri farmers. There absolutely was a true gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. Here I’ve only describe some of our frontier-type violence over a dozen years, but there could be dozens of essays like this to document all our uncivil behavior in the latter 19th century.

And don’t presume the pistol-packin’ days ended with the Gaslight Era. As documented here earlier, it was common to carry a “bicycle revolver” at least through the 1910s. There was also a dramatic four-way shootout in 1907 that managed to avoid hurting anyone seriously because no one knew how to aim.

A final note: Lest anyone rush to claim that crimes were deterred in those 50+ years of locals carrying concealed weapons, let it be known that I’ve never found an incident where a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. Instead, it’s a miserable chronicle of holdup men using them to scare victims, fools and drunkards wielding these deadly toys at times of heated emotions, plus a hearty portion of gun owners shooting themselves by accident. Just tragedies with a dose of farce.


* Later that year Byrd’s sister, Jane, married an Alfred Strong, who is listed in the 1860 census as a farmer living in the Brumfield family home. I cannot find any family connection between him and John Strong. Byrd was living with the Alfred Strongs in the 1870 census.


Quick Work.—Santa Rosa might be called a fast place in some respects. This week a man was killed, buried, and the perpetrator examined and discharged, all in less than twenty-four hours. We may remark, to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 22 1867


Disgraceful. —We regret to see in the San Francisco Police Gazette a disgusting wood cut, purporting to represent Byrd Brumfield in the act of killing John Strong in Santa Rosa on the night of the 20th of June. The Gazette was grossly deceived by its informant in regard to the relations of the parties, circumstances of the killing, and burial of Strong. The latter, we learn, was buried under directions of a relative, had a good coffin, and was decently interred.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 6 1867


Testimony in the Case of the People vs Brumfield


– Sonoma Democrat, October 26 1867


Death of Byrd Brumfield.


– Russian River Flag, November 18 1875
– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1875


From Forestvllle. Our regular correspondent writes us November 11th, as follows; “Forestvllle against the world. We have said this before and have occasion to reiterate it now. Saturday night last, 8th Inst., was one of our dark limes, and we were pained to witness such scenes as then occurred in our usually quiet village. As our tempetauce club was about to be called to order its peace and quiet was disturbed and the lives of women and children endangered by two brothers, Wirt and John Travis, who assaulted and shot to death J. G. Hill. The meeting was of course broken up for the evening, and the Society will hereafter convene at the Christian Church instead of the hall. Mr. Hill’s funeral took place at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the high esteem in which he was held by the community was manifested in the unusually large number of persons who attended the obsequies, over three hundred persons escorting his remains to the grave. He was a kind hearted man; one who was always ready to help the needy and to accommodate his neighbors. During an acquaintance of twelve years your correspondent always found him correct in his dealings, and his neighbors generally deplore his untimely death.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1879


People Vs. Wirt Travis


– Sonoma Democrat, March 20 and 27 1880


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