Good news: Tom Gregory has written the definitive history of Sonoma county. Bad news: Tom Gregory has written the definitive history of Sonoma county.
The 1911 publication of a new county history was a cause for celebration. Over twenty years had passed since the last one and books such as these were the lifeblood of a region – part almanac, part who’s who, part history. For boosters hoping to convince outsiders to live or do business here, it was something of a Bible.
It was a great advantage that the author was also local; Tom Gregory lived in Santa Rosa (his house is still there on the corner of Cherry and E). He was a former reporter and feature writer for the San Francisco newspapers as well as a pretty good poet and first rate humorist. He sometimes contributed to the Santa Rosa papers items both serious and goofy. Here’s a 1910 letter:
Besides his considerable writing chops, he was a popular, maybe even beloved, fellow around town – see the full profile of Tom Gregory appearing here earlier – but he wasn’t a scholar or historian as much as he was a storyteller. And that is why his Sonoma county history is so godawful.
Before diving into that issue, it must be said the rest of the book – the 558 biographies of local notables – is reliable (or at least, accurately states what the person paying for the profiles wanted known). That is a goldmine of information for genealogists and is primarily why the Gregory book is cited far more often than any other local history, including the modern one by Gaye LeBaron, et. al., “Santa Rosa, A Nineteenth Century Town.” Tom Gregory might have edited and punched up some of those biographies, but it’s doubtful he wrote any of them; typically that was grunt work done by a freelancer hired by the publisher.
But he bears full blame for the problems that discredit probably every page of the history section. Some of the misteaks could be mopped up with an errata, particularly wrong dates and places or hazy facts. He claimed, for example, the first Mexican settlers hoping to establish a colony in Sonoma were the last passengers aboard “the historic Natalia, the little brig in which Napoleon escaped from Elba” and which sunk in Monterey Bay in 1834. That ship’s Napoleonic heritage was an often-repeated 19th century story, but as H. H. Bancroft wrote there was no proof of that (we now know with certainty it wasn’t the same boat). Errors like this could have been easily avoided if Tom had fact-checked his book against Bancroft’s famed history series – and the Santa Rosa Library, two blocks from his house, certainly had a copy of the complete set.
Unfortunately, there are other places where Gregory wanders too deep into the weeds to rescue. One of these passages was mentioned in the profile, where he made the ridiculous claim the term “gringo” was coined by Mexicans sick of hearing Americans endlessly singing “Green Grow the Rushes.” At times like those his book resembles nothing more than the TV series “Drunk History,” where someone is liquored-up and asked to tell the story of some great moment in history which they only half remember from school days.
Gregory’s old newspaper, the San Francisco Call, produced a 3,000-word Sunday feature on his Sonoma county history (transcribed below) and it presents a good sampling of the book’s accuracy problems, trivial and not-so:
We could continue mining that book review for errors – for example, Sequoyah wasn’t “chieftain of the Cherokees” and his name had no connection with the Sequoia genus name for the redwood tree – or we could invite Gentle Reader to jump into the book and dig up other problems. Tom Gregory’s History of Sonoma county is available here for download, reading online or searching. Perhaps an enterprising college or high school history teacher would like to assign each student a random page to determine how much is factual, howling wrong or fantasy.
But now, more than a century later, Tom’s version of history has wormed its way into countless books and articles. Because the latter part of the book with the biographies is an often-cited and accurate resource, authors have made the mistake of presuming the rest of the volume is trustworthy as well. Whenever researching 19th century items for this blog it’s not uncommon for me to stumble across a story that seems too mythic or too silly to be completely true; often I can trace it back to Gregory, who probably made it up or was dressing up an old barroom tale as fact. Perhaps the job of writing the county history should have gone to a writer with a bit less twinkle in his eye and much less fondness for spinning yarns.
Sonoma County, Champion History Maker of California
by Frank L. Mulgrew
Again the boats of Sir Francis Drake are beached on the shores of Sonoma county, to allow the daring sailor to scrape the barnacles from their bottoms; the Franciscan padre is accompanied on his weary pilgrimage, which ended in Sonoma: the last mission is built in Sonoma; El Camino Real is lost in Sonoma’s foothills; the Russians sail from their northern possessions in Alaska to Sonoma; the republic of California, with its bear flag emblem, is born In Sonoma; Fremont’s troops halt In Sonoma after their transcontinental march; the best wines outside of Europe are pressed from Sonoma grapes; the fastest horses are bred in Sonoma; Luther Burbank is a resident — in fact, that an astonishing number of the important factors in California history either started or ended in Sonoma county is most interestingly told in a history of that section written by Tom Gregory, a native Sonoman, and published by the Historic Record company of Los Angeles.
Gregory in his introduction confesses surprise that in the collecting of material for his history he found the historic trails of Sonoma interwoven with those of the state and often with the broader road to empires and monarchies. The reader will share this surprise and thank the writer for the delightful guidance over those picturesque and romantic highways and byways.
“Sonoma – Valley of the moon.” We first learn that this soft Spanish word is in reality not Spanish at all, but the Indian name, older than history, for the most eastern vale of this many valleyed county. Writes the historian: “The red Chocuyen looked over that graceful line of level land sweeping from the farthest horn of its crescent in the Napa hills around by the circling rampart of northern peak to its western point where a spur of the great Coast range dips under the tides of the San Pablo. To his nature trained mind was that perfect lunar shape – its arc to the north, and to the south its chord – a wide frontage on the big inland water. And he called it Sonoma.” Padre Jose Altimira, who came to this “most gifted land under the sun,” called the Indian tribe he found in the valley by the name, which was pleasant to his musical Spanish ear. Later the pueblo which grew about his mission received the name, and finally it was given to the “noble territory bordering the wide waterways of the state and fronting 20 league on the Pacific” – Sonoma county.
Gregory’s research has been thorough, his study comprehensive. He quotes tribute for Sonoma from noted authorities, from Padre Altimira to Fra Elbertus and records the acquisition of history makers from the landing of Sir Francis Drake, “that jolly pirate,” to Luther Burbank. “the wizard.” He tells of the geologic origin of the country, of the mountains and geysers and peaks and plains, but in no coldly scientific description. It is rather with the poet’s appreciation of nature’s wonders that he approaches his subject, and romance and rare humor, and the historian’s gift of perspective and true proportion are evidenced throughout in this true story of a wonderful county.
“Sonoma,” writes the historian, “found for herself a place within natural barriers of hill and bay, stream and sea, during those distant days when mighty terrestrial forces were heaving hemispheres into form. And this amphitheater of virile vale and mesa awaited through the unwritten savage years for the coming of the day when these acres would yield their wealth to the home building Saxon.”
However, In this God made valley, which we are assured has “never felt a drought,” there were stirring times between the Indian occupancy and the coming of the Saxon; and if the latter was the first fully to develop its agricultural and other resources, there were many others who appreciated the land and to reach it cut these trails, which often led from European thrones and the stirring events of old world history.
Long before Luther Burbank settled in Sonoma and sent the fame of his magic throughout the scientific world wo find the threads of interest connected. Great names appear – Napoleon, through the famous “gun of Austerlitz” which was part of the Russian fort at Ross and later saw active service in the fighting history of the state; also through the brig “Natalie,” in which the Corslcan made his escape from Elba. The Natalie was wrecked on her way to Sonoma from Monterey, where she had landed the first batch of colonists from Spain. Then we find complications between the thrones of Russia and Spain over the settlement at Fort Ross, in which a famous czar and king might have clashed forces but for the beneficent entanglements of red tape. Again, in 1579, Queen Elizabeth was presented with the land that was to be Sonoma, by Sir Francis Drake, flrst circumnavigator of the globe.
“Drake,” writes the author, “came hurrying along this shore with two millions of Spanish gold and several millions of leaking holes in his weather beaten and battle worn little ship, the Golden Hind, and while the carpenter on the beach was pumping the Pacific ocean out of the craft he made out the title deeds and calmly presented the whole coast to Queen Elizabeth. Nothing small about Francis!”
But “he of England – traveler in every land and sailor on the seven seas…a man who has made more ocean history than any other individual in his day” – mended hie ship and after but a 26 days’ stay ran the gauntlet with his cargo of Spanish gold and, rounding the coast of Africa, arrived home and was knighted by the queen in return for the dollars and dominions he presented her. Although he had set up a pre-emption notice and cairn, no one ever came from England to “prove up” on the claim of New Albion, as Drake called it.
Captain George Vancouver, another wandering Englishman, came sailing down the coast, and but for the martial entanglements of his nation at home, there might have been another English claim. None of the Saxons was destined to reap the harvests of the fertile Sonoma, but the hardy Americans who came later from the inland.
The Russians founded a settlement and fort on the coast, which from “El Fuerte de los Rusos” became Fort Ross. Padre Altlmira founded the Mission Solano, “the last bead of the rosary of missions.” The Greek and the Roman cross were raised together in Sonoma, and, although the czar and the king of Spain were, figuratively speaking, at swords’ points, and the commandante at San Francisco had orders to “drive the Rusos into the sea,” the cross and not the sword prevailed, and when Padre Altlmira officiated at the first service at the new church at San Francisco de Solano, the edifice contained many articles of decoration donated by the Russians at Fort Ross.
Cupid also defied Mars in these early days of Spanish and Russian occupancy. A beautiful but sad story, one of the real romances splendidly told by Gregory, is of Concepcion and her Russian lover. Count Nicholi Petrovich Razanoff [sp – Nikolai Petrovich Rozanoff], the governor of Alaska, who, in 1806, sailed Into San Francisco bay, “his ship filled with articles for the trade and his crew filled with scurvy,” was the hero of this romance.
“His first reception was neither cordial nor commercial,” writes Gregory, “the peculiar trade restrictions of the Spaniards prohibiting intercourse with foreigners, although the people and padres needed the goods. Razanoff could not have bought for cash, as the Spanish port regulations did not taboo Russian gold, but unfortunately he waa without the coin of any realm. But Love, whose laugh at locksmiths has long been a proverb, unlocked the port of San Francisco. The count, while dancing attendance on Commandante Jose Arguello, trying to work that official into a more commercial attitude, met Donna Concepcion Arguello, and the old, old drama of the heart was played. The beautiful California girl took up the work that diplomacy had dropped. She consented to marry her noble Russian lover and the stern old Don was not proof against the coaxing of his daughter. Neither was Governor Arrillaga at Monterey, for it seemed that this fascinating Espanol-Americana had her own way in both the capital and the chief port of the territory.
“When Razanoff sailed with his new cargo for Alaska he parted from Concepcion forever, as on his way across Siberia to St. Petersburg, where he was to get the permission of the czar to wed the Spanish girl, he was thrown from his horse. Before fully recovering from his injuries he attempted to complete the journey, and from the relapse died on the road. It was years before Concepcion. awaiting at San Francisco, learned of his death. She then joined the order of the Sisters of Visitacion, and after a long life devoted to noble work died at Benicia. Bret Harte, the California poet, has placed In tender verse this historical tale of a woman’s waiting years when
Lone beside the deep embrasures, where the brazen cannon are
Did she wait her promised bridegroom and the answer of the czar;
Watched the harbor head with longing, half in faith and half in doubt,
Every day some hope was kindled, flickered, faded and went out.
“The Russian settlement at Fort Ross was a two acre inclosure, the ingenious construction of the walls of which showed the frontier skill of this sturdy, self-sustaining people. The stockade was of thick planks, the lower ends mortised and the heavy timbers placed under the ground, and the upper ends, 12 feet above, were again mortised, every mortise beingr keyed with a wooden peg. Inside, at one of the angles, was the Greek Catholic chapel, two of the walls being a part of the inclosure walls. They were strongly constructed and were portholed for cannon, as was the entire stockade. Two small domes surmounted this church, one circular and the other pentagonal. A chime of bells called the farmers from the field and the hunters from the sea at matin and vesper time.
“The location, from a military point of view, was an admirable selection, as the 10, and afterward 20, guns of the fort commanded not only the land approaches to the town, but protected the shipping in the little harbor, which was itself a cozy cove, lying under a high northern shore, a defense against the fierce storms sweeping down the coast. The founding of this settlement in 1812 was celebrated with gun salutes, mass and feasting.
“In the cove below the fort the pioneer fleet of the Pacific coast was born. These ships were constructed of Sonoma lumber. Among these vessels were the Boldakof, a 200 ton brig, constructed at a cost of $60,000; the Volga, 160 tons, and the Kiakhta. 200 tons. Besides these several boats and launches were constructed for the Spanish at San Francisco. The first of the vessels were built of oak, but the Russians, becoming better acquainted with the pine and redwood around them as lumber material, used that timber in their yard. These were the first ships made of redwood.
“But in time the Russians found the fur fishing growing harder, the seal herds becoming thinner each season, and though industrious and frugal, they were mere novices in farming and wore destined to move out of the land. The prior claimants to this part of Sonoma were wasting their time and claim, and “meantime the permanent possessor of the land and sea was working his ox team across the plains. The Saxon was coming.”
Gregory deals interestingly with the life and customs of all the early settlers of Sonoma, the Digger Indian, the early Spanish at the missions, the inhabitants of the pueblos after the secularization of this missions, the Russians at Ross and the Americans – “the gringos.” He explains the curious origin of this term and that of “greaser” as applied by the Americans to the so called native Callfornians.
“The word gringo has a peculiar origin,” he writes. “The song, ‘Green Grow. the Rushes O,” was popular at the time, and the Mexicans, hearing the American frequently singing it, caught the words “green grow” and applied them to the Yankees, hence ‘gringo.’ The greaser title was first given by the Americans to the Indians. The old time wooden axle of the immigrant wagons needed greasing frequently – an attention and task not nice or agreeable – and the digger’s willingness to assume this and other humble labors around the camp of the good natured white man earned for him his name as well as occasional rations of beef.”
The author deals with his chapters by topics, and every chapter is teeming with interest. His passages are sometimes lively and humorous, and he has rare descriptive powers that take the reader to the picture. It is the interesting story of California and Sonoma from the viewpoint of an interesting person. Some stirring incidents that have been overlooked by historians have been noted in this book, and many of the descriptions of the life of the picturesque and pleasure loving Spanish should inspire fictionists to deal with this period of western history. Here is an incident from the chapter on “A Free and Easy People”:
“One of the most wonderful rides in history – though it has not been told In verse nor set to music – was made between September 24 and 28, 1858, from Los Angeles to Yerba Buena by an American named John Brown. He was known among the Californians as ‘Juan Flaco’ (Lean John) and was sent by Lieutenant Gillespie, U. S. A., who was hard pressed by the hostile California forces, to Commodore Stockton for reinforcements. Brown made Monterey, 460 miles, in 52 hours, without sleep. He expected to find there the fleet, but Stockton had sailed, and after sleeping three hours the sturdy rider completed the remaining 140 miles of his great Marathon in the same speed and delivered his call for help. It was not a broad highway like Sheridan’s, nor was the road as smooth as that of the ride of Paul Revere, but was a mere bridle path over high mountains, through deep ravines, round precipitous cliffs, across wide chaparral covered mesas, along the sea beach. He was always dodging the enemy, harassed and pursued. Riding shoulder to shoulder with death night and day, losing several horses — one shot from under him, forcing him to go 30 miles afoot, carrying his spurs and riata until he could commandeer another mount — Juan Flaco rode on and on, showing that a California man on a California mustang has outridden the storied riders of the world.”
Gregory gives the full story of the Spanish and Mexican troubles over California and of the coming of the Americans, paying honor where honor is due always and giving glowing tribute to General Vallejo, whom he calls “the premier Californian” and to whom he devotes an entire chapter of the history.
“His splendid personality is stamped on every league of these vegas and mesas,” writes the author of Vallejo, and goes on to tell of his splendid work among the Indians, his fine hospitality and keen foresight and judgment. He tells how this great man, after the secularization of the missions, kept the neophytes from returning to a state of nomadic savagery, as they did in other parts of California; how he took care of their property, cattle and land and preserved the good that had been brought to the country by the missions.
The author tells of the secularization showing how this was always contemplated by the Spanish government – before the missionaries, with their retinues, were sent out into the wilderness. Here is an order issued in the year 1773 by Viceroy Bucarili [sp – Bucareli] to the commandante at San Diego and Monterey: “When it shall happen that a mission is to be formed into a pueblo or village the commandante shall proceed to the civil and economical government which, according to the laws, is observed by other villages of this kingdom, secular clergy shall attend to the spiritual wants of these newly formed curacies; the missionary monks relieved from the converted settlements, shall proceed to the conversion of other heathen.”
There are many amusing incidents in the history, and the reading of the book, voluminous and complete though it is, will never be found tedious. The author tells of compulsory church attendance with the punishment of “the stocks,” and of some humorous decisions of the local judges In dealing with the primitive people.
Gregory tells of the deeds and describes with delightful intimacy the personality of the history makers of California – Fremont. Sloat, Sutter, Vallejo and the early Americans and Spanish-American families, as well as the modern great Sonomans, among whom he numbers Burbank. His chapter on Burbank is a classic, and won the approval of the wizard himself, who said it was the best story of his career that has been written. The author’s researches have at times inspired him to poetry and there are many noble verses in the volume. The best of these is dedicated to Gifford Pinchot It begins, “Sequoyah, cultured Chieftain of the Cherokees.”
Tom Gregory, trained newspaper man, approached his subject with the zeal of the native Californian, naturally appreciative of romance, and has accomplished not only a history of his own native land, but a volume of California literature that will live because of intrinsic interest, its captivating style, its authenticity. The history wil find a permanent place in the archives and will carry permanent honor to many notable figures of the west, who with their exploits, might otherwise have gone into oblivion. The volume is illustrated with portraits of prominent Sonomans, steei engravings and full page photographs of scenes and picturesque bits of the country.
– San Francisco Call, August 4, 1912
GRE-GORY MADE MEMBER VIVID IMAGINATION CLUB
The comet [Halley’s Comet – ed.] is now appearing in the western sky, minus its candal appendage. We are assured of this by Professor Thomasini Gre-gory, comotoligist of the Tar Flat observatory, who has been keeping the public posted from time to time regarding the movements of the comet. The professor opines that the shedding of its tail by the comet is due to natural causes, the separation being due to friction when the earth passed through the tail.
The comet is now having fashioned a tail of latest mode, according to Mr. Gre-Gory, intended exclusively for evening wear. It will have three rows of tucks on the end nearest the earth, edged with a filmy lace of the milky way pattern, while up the center will run a single row of star applique. The tail will be looped up on either side by a rosette of young moons.
The old tail, the professor claims, after being separated from the comet, settled over about Occidental. This caused a golden glow over in the western sky several evenings ago, which astronomers of lesser note mistook for a display of the aurora borealis.
Mr. Gre-Gory will head an expedition for the recovery of this tale, which he hopes to place on exhibition in the public library in the rear future, for the benefit of the school children. He will also make a chemical analysis of the tail.
The Vivid Imagination Club has elected Professor Gre-Gory to an honorary life membership.
The progress of Professor Gre-Gory’s investigations is being watched with considerable interest.
– Santa Rosa Republican, May 23, 1910
HISTORIAN GREGORY TO WRITE MORE HISTORY
Tom Gregory, humorist, essayist, scientist, politician, poet and all-around writer of remarkable things, having finished the history of this county, will board the Southern Pacific passenger train this morning bound for Suisun. There he will remain for a few weeks gathering material for a history of Solano and Yolo counties. Mr. Gregory is employed by the Historic Record Company of Los Angeles. The matter for the Sonoma work is in the hands of the publication house in Chicago and will be issued soon.
– Press Democrat, July 27, 1911
COUNTY HISTORY HANDSOME BOOK
Fine Publication Compiled by Tom Gregory and Issued by History Record Company of Los Angeles
The “History of Sonoma County,” a handsome volume of more than 1,100 pages, published by the History Record Company of Los Angeles, has made its appearance, the first shipment having arrived yesterday from Chicago, where the books was printed and bound.
Outside of the biographical sketches, which are accompanied by many handsome steel and halftone engravings, the above history was compiled by Tom Gregory, the well-known Santa Rosa writer and newspaper man. More than 250 pages are devoted to this historical portion of the work, which is of a high order throughout and carefully prepared from the most authentic data as well as from personal investigation and research. A feature of the work is the wit and humor flashing out here and there, which relieves it of the tediousness sometimes noted in historical writings. The tracing of Sonoma county’s history begins with the earliest recorded happenings, and is carried down to the present time. A fine steel engraving of Mr. Gregory occupies the first place in the book, and in his preface the author says:
“When I sought to collect material for a story of Sonoma, I soon found myself reaching out into the history proper of California. Every trail leading to this county runs back into the earlier times of the state. The Spanish-American settlement of Sonoma was planned in the City of Mexico…The legislative events occurring in Monterey were soon manifest in Sonoma…The various governments sitting at various capitals marked Sonoma a key position on the line of the northern frontier…When Fremont, advised by Benton at Washington, collected the American settlers for the first strike, they struck at Sonoma…At an earlier day that jolly pirate, Sir Francis Drake, came hurrying along the shore…and made out the title deed and calmly presented the whole coast to Queen Elizabeth…For thirty years the double-headed eagle of the Czar from the palisades of Fort Ross Screamed defiance out of his two throats at his brother bird of Mexico…Then in the rare Indian Valley of the Moon the Padre Pathfinder planted the cross and called to prayer…If this indifferent story of Sonoma were worthy it would be dedicated to the greatest historical character him who sleeps at Lachryma Montis.” The closing reference is of course to the late General Vallejo.
Persons unfamiliar with such work have no conception of the immense amount of labor and research required in the preparation of such a volume. A force of men under the able direction of A. H. Preston, manager of the Historical Record Company, has been actively engaged for something like two years in collecting and preparing the material required while the work of printing and binding alone has occupied several months. A fine history of the Bennett Valley Grange, prepared by the late G. N. Whittaker, is a feature of the work. In addition to the large number of men and women prominently identified with the growth and development of the county, some fine views illustrating the important industries and the general character of the country are shown. The work is a highly credible one in every way, and a valuable addition to the state’s historic records.
– Press Democrat, December 13, 1911
“SONOMA COUNTY, THE GREAT HISTORY MAKER”
In the San Francisco Call on Sunday appeared an exciting half-page review or write-up of Tom Gregory’s “History of Sonoma County,” recently issued by a Los Angeles publishing firm. The article was written by Frank Mulgrew, one of the Call’s reportorial staff, and being himself a Sonoman, the merits of this imperial county are not lost.
The subject of the write-up is significant, as it is, “Sonoma County, Champion History Maker of California.” Both the historian and his reviewer hold that this county contains more real history than any other county in the state. However, Mr. Gregory has written, in his well known comprehensive and readable style, much interesting history into the county and into the book. The well known classic Gregorian face accompanies the review. Hundreds of persons have secured a volume of the history and are decidedly pleased with it. Mr. Gregory was the identical man to write the history of Sonoma county, and the company made no mistake in securing his valuable services for that purpose.
– Santa Rosa Republican, August 5, 1912