One of my favourite stops during our day in Sonoma was our visit to Mission San Francisco Solano. We stumbled upon this mission by chance. While planning the day, I had focussed all my attention on wineries and kids attractions and I had uncharacteristically missed the fact that this town has some interesting historical sites that happen to be easy to visit even by the distracted tourist.
Mission San Francisco Solano is one of them.
It is located on Sonoma main square and its official address is 363 3rd Street West, Sonoma, California. When strolling along Sonoma Plaza you cannot miss it: its long, low, whitewashed walls glimmer in the sun and its unmistakable Latin look makes it stand out among the multitude of restaurants and elegant homes surrounding it.
Discovering the mission and deciding to visit happened at once. We entered to enquiry about visiting and a few dollars later we were in, equipped with tickets not just to the mission but the whole of Sonoma State Historic Park.
What is Sonoma State Historic Park
Sonoma State Historic park is a series of 6 historical sites in several locations within Sonoma. They are Mission San Francisco Solano, Blue Wing Inn, Toscano Hotel, Sonoma Barracks, Casa Grande and Lacryma Montis, the last two, the houses of General Vallejo, who ‘shaped the transition of Alta California from a territory of Mexico to the U. S. state of California‘
The park is very interesting and a great way to get both adults and kids to reason about the complex theme of colonisation, land rights and intercultural relations.
Personally, what hit me learning about the mission is how little I know about the history of this area, despite my history degree! Without a doubt, I studied a very Euro-centric version of history and my love for ancient civilizations probably meant I didn’t compensate my studies with sufficient additional reading: I am hoping to make up for lost time now!
To make up for my ignorance, I took notes from the information panels and brochures inside the mission. Here are the info I gathered.
Why were the California missions built?
The history of the California missions is rooted into the wider history of evangelisation and colonisation of the Americas, which started with the European settlements in the ‘New World’ from the end of the 1500 and lasted over 2 centuries.
The first California mission dates back to the year 1769: it was founded by a Franciscan Friar, father Junipero Serra and it is present day San Diego.
Since the building of that first mission, 21 more were founded, all under the auspices of the King of Spain.
The idea behind the missions was to spread Spanish settlers presence along the territory that is now California and to convert local population to Christianity, making them loyal supporters of the Spanish crown. The missions were supported both by the King and the Catholic church and were always accompanied by a military outpost, in charge of protecting them both from external attacks and the unrest of the locals, often resisting the Spanish intrusion in their land.
How far apart were the California missions?
The 21 missions were built between 1769 and 1833: they are about 48KM (30 miles) one from the other, to make travel between one and the other easy (a one day trip on horseback) and they ended up dotting a trail that is over 900 Km long. Mission San Francisco Solano was the most northerly of them all and the last one to be built.
Why did the missions period end?
Despite the initial support and success the California missions didn’t last long. Once Mexico started its war for independence, finances had to be redirected from supporting the missions to the war effort and this caused a decline in the standard of living across the whole trail. Once Mexico indeed gained independence, the situation didn’t improve: between 1834 and 1836 the Mexican government started confiscating and then secularising missions, until they were finally sold for profit or given away to private citizens.
What is special about Mission San Francisco Solano
Mission San Francisco Solano was the most Northerly of all the missions in California. It was consacrated in 1823 by Padre Jose Altamira and the date is remarkable as it makes it the only mission built after Mexican independence.
The scope of the mission was to convert the local population to Christianity and many locals were baptised here and then used as labourers within the mission itself.
The mission grew in size and reached a population just short of 1000 individuals. The time of its constructions never allowed it to fully develop its agriculture but it seems to have had a vineyard.
In 1834, the Mexican government secularised the missions and Mission San Francisco Solano started to decline.
Slowly and often with hard consequences for those who had grown to rely on it for their livelihood the mission got sold and different owners took over until 1909 when William Randolph Hearst purchased the property and deeded it to the state.
What is the mission like inside?
The building is small, mirroring the small size of the local population, and follows the Franciscan rule that wants the living quarters simple (in line with their vow to poverty) but the church elaborate (being the house not of the monks but of God).
When you walk in, you first step into the living quarters of the monks, now a museum. This is the oldest building in Sonoma and opens up onto the more recent chapel.
The dining room is where you get most of the information about the mission. Here you have the padre’s main dining table, paintings on the wall dating back to the early years of the XX century and a the information panels with the history of the mission and the area.
Behind it, you walk into the chapel. This is well maintained and feels like a piece of Mexico has been transplanted here! The altar piece and surrounding area is brightly decorated and the whitewashed walls give it an unmistakable Latin look.
The main mission building still has a small garden in the back with olive trees and a small fountain in the centre. When we visited with children we thought the garden could be a highlight for them but to be honest, it is not a garden to play: the mission is a historical monument and small kids will not enjoy it.
They will, however, easily endure the visit since it won’t take long – should they be really restless, you can take turns and get them to play in the playground in the main square, just across the road from the mission.
Other buildings part of the Sonoma Historical State Park
Sonoma Historical State Park comprises of several additional buildings:
The Blue Wing Inn takes its name from a gambling saloon and hotel from the Gold Rush Era. Part of the building housed soldiers assigned to the Sonoma mission and one of its most notable guests was general Ulysses Grant.
The Sonoma barracks were built to house the troops of General Vallejo after they moved from the Presidio in San Francisco to Sonoma. Between 1834 and 1846, Sonoma was headquarter for operations in the area and during the short history of the republic of California, the barracks remained a military outpost. Eventually got abandoned and turned into a winery to then become a private residence. The Mexican-era soldiers barracks (just across from the mission) has been restored and now contain a small museum and a gift shop.
The Toscano Hotel dates back to 1850 and used to house a store and a library as well as operating as an inexpensive hotel. Today it is worth a visit for the period furniture and the reconstruction of the downstairs bar.