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Early Settlement

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Sotoyome Rancho

In 1840 Cyrus Alexander, a Rocky Mountain fur trapper, was sent to scout the territory north of San Francisco by San Diego sea captain Henry Delano Fitch for a possible rancho. Alexander selected a suitable tract of land for a cattle ranch, naming it Rancho Sotoyome for the local Indian tribe, and Fitch was granted two tracts: eight leagues (approximately 35,000 acres) in 1841, and three leagues (approximately 13,300 acres) in 1844. Cyrus Alexander served as his ranch manager from 1840-1844, for which he was to receive two leagues of land and part of the livestock (HCRI 1983:3-4).

During his tenure as foreman, Alexander built a large adobe dwelling, outbuildings, tannery, gristmill, and cigarette factory for Fitch at the southern slope of Fitch Mountain, hiring local Indians for most of his labor needs. In 1841 or 1842, Franklin Bedwell, another trapper, became part owner of the rancho, and was granted 500 acres by Alexander in 1845. A few years later, Alexander turned over management of the rancho to Mose Carson, brother of Kit Carson, and settled on his two-league tract in Alexander Valley. There he built a new adobe residence, raising cattle and pursuing other agricultural interests (HCRI 1983:4).

During this period, rancho activity was centered on raising cattle (purchased from Captain John Sutter) and grain crops, with most of the labor supplied by local Indians. Alexander soon introduced fruit crops and grape vines, procured from Fort Ross after the departure of the Russians, which became the nucleus for most of the early fruit orchards in Sonoma County.

In 1846 only three families were residing in the Healdsburg area: Alexander, Bedwell, and Carson. Two years later, another brother of Kit Carson, Lindsay, settled in the southern portion of the area. When the Bear Flag Revolt, initiated by Americans against the Mexican occupation of the territory, took place in Sonoma in 1846, Franklin Bedwell was one of the party to hoist the flag. With Indian depredations, rancho families were removed to Sutter’s Fort or the Sonoma garrison, and their livestock was either commandeered by the U.S. government or disbursed (HCRI 1983:4).

The rancho families returned in 1849, only to find that a wave of immigrants had squatted on their lands. During the period 1848 to 1855, the Mexican grantees tended to ignore the squatters on the Sotoyome Rancho. After Henry Fitch’s death in 1849, however, his widow Josefa Carrillo Fitch and her children came to the rancho and began to seek title. Her claim was not made official until 1857, a period during which numerous other squatters settled in the territory, while some purchased land from the rancho owners. Several public land sales were held over the intervening years, including one by the County to pay off Josefa’s taxes (HCRI 1983:5).

The land disputes between the rancho owners and the American settlers who refused to vacate the land led to a long and violent series of battles, especially in the Westside Road area and Dry Creek Valley. These battles, known as the “Healdsburg Wars” or “Westside Wars,” unlike others in Sonoma County, were severe enough to require the intervention of the State Militia. In 1862, two militia units, the Emmet Guard and the Petaluma Guard, were called out. They attempted to serve writs of evacuation on several settlers and then tried to strike a compromise between the grant owners and the settlers, to no avail. The entire guard force, numbering about 50 men, encountered hundreds of men, women, and children, eventually removing the people and their effects and burning many of the homes and fences of the squatters (Clayborn 2004:9-10).

After several battles between squatters and landowners, with the support of pioneer attorney Colonel L.A. Norton, Mrs. Fitch was ultimately confirmed in title to most of her property. The squatters, who had already settled and begun farming, eventually bought and paid for the land and became prominent men and women in the Healdsburg community (Clayborn 2004:9-10; Hoover et al. 1990:482), and it was during the 1850s that most of the land in the area was subdivided or settled, either legally or illegally (HCRI 1983:5).

Tzabaco Rancho

On October 14, 1843, the 15,439-acre Tzabaco Rancho was granted to 14-year old José German Peña. The tract included approximately four square leagues of land extending along  the Russian River from Geyserville to northern Dry Creek Valley, and down the valley to near Lytton Springs Road. Peña’s father had served under General Mariano Vallejo, knew of the Mexican Army outpost established in the valley in the 1830s, and determined to settle there. Sadly, however, José died in 1847, leaving the rancho to his 25-year old brother José de Jesus, three other brothers, and one sister.

As it was on the Sotoyome Rancho, squatters also settled on the Tzabaco Rancho, and by 1855 ten families had settled in Dry Creek Valley: Lambert, Cozzens, Laymance, Miller, Allen, Capell, Neely, Peck, Heaton, and Phillips. Of these, only D.D. Phillips and Samuel Heaton had purchased their land, buying it from the Peña heirs in 1855 (Florence 1993:16, 19).

After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war with Mexico, was signed in 1846, the U.S. Government promised to recognize the Mexican land grants; a long and arduous process. A year before the Sotoyome Rancho was confirmed to Josefa Fitch, however, most of the Tzabaco Rancho lands were purchased at auction by Levi Frisbie, on May 28, 1856, for 53 cents an acre. W.H. Litton purchased his ranch from Frisbie that same year, but most of the other squatters waited until the Frisbie brothers and others filed suit in the Sonoma County District Court against them. In 1858 the Peña family, under pressure from the American families, sold out to John Frisbie. John Frisbie then filed suit against 44 defendants living on the Tzabaco Rancho and brother Levi sued 45 settlers on his portion of the Sotoyome Rancho (Clayborn 1985: 8-15; Florence 1993:17, 19).

On November 1, 1860, eight families took title to their lands in the valley, including William  Allen, Margaret Bell, C. W. Capell, John Higgins, Charles Lee Lambert, William Miles, Joseph Patten, and John D. Snider, all noted as farmers in the 1860 census. Davenport Cozzens, the first to be identified as a wine producer in the valley, was the only holdout who didn’t settle with the claimants, but his land may have been outside of the rancho lands (Florence 1993:17, 19- 20).

The valley was now filled with Euro-American settlers, primarily from the eastern United States, a pattern that was to hold steady until the 1880s influx of Italians from Lucca. Harold Phillips, however, recalled that his grandfather D.D. Phillips, who purchased the old Peña adobe in  1846, told of attending the last Mexican fandango held in Dry Creek Valley (on the Wagele property), and of seeing bull and bear fights, with the caballeros dressed in velvet suits and large sombreros, riding horses with saddles adorned with silver trappings (Dry Creek Neighbors Club 1979:28).

It was also noted that since most of the families in those early years had recently crossed the plains, most of the older and middle-aged relatives had been left behind in the east, so the population in the valley consisted primarily of children and young adults. Life in Dry Creek Valley was typical of that in other rural areas, chores were many and shared by all, including picking prunes and grapes, sulphuring and pruning vines, as well as drying prunes. After work was done, however, the young boys spent happy times hunting and fishing. Other amusements included barn dances, barn raisings, quilting bees, and Fourth of July celebrations (Dry Creek Neighbors Club 1979:18, 27).