Turning Stones - George McKale

Unearthing Sonoma’s past

The year 2013 will mark 60 years of archaeological excavation in the city of Sonoma.  In 1953, a brave young crew of archaeologists ventured into this cowtown to learn more about one of our local treasures, Mission San Francisco de Solano.  The crew was led by two well-known archaeologists named James Bennyhoff and Albert Elsasser, from the University of California, Berkeley. Their work at the mission marks the first time archaeologists have ventured into the most historically significant town in the state of California.

The focus of the investigation centered around the architectural evolution of the existing adobe chapel and priests’ quarters. Prior to 1953, maintenance and landscaping work had uncovered building foundations, pathways, tiles and ceramics.  A second season of field work was conducted by Adan Treganza in 1954, which further systematically removed soil for evidence of other mission buildings.

These two field seasons contributed much of what we know today about the architectural history of our mission.  While paintings, a handful of late 19th century photographs and oral histories have assisted historians to gain a better understanding of our local history, only through archaeological excavation can we truly unlock the secrets of our treasured past.

This week’s column is Part I of a three part series, leading right up to Christmas. Franciscan Padre Jose Altimira blessed the site of the future mission on July 4th, 1823. Construction began on August 7 in that same year.  The first chapel was not made from adobe, but of wood.  The walls of the structure, both inside and out, were plastered with white-washed mud.  The chapel was dedicated to San Francisco de Solano on April 4, 1824.

This mission was the last and northernmost mission of the 21 constructed within California, was the only mission founded after Mexico’s independence from Spain and was the only mission founded without prior approval of the Church. Records indicate that the wooden church was approximately 95 feet long and 25 feet wide. It was still standing in 1832 and was constructed at the location of the current chapel.

Altimira, while known as a good administrator, did not have a great relationship with the Native Americans used to construct the mission grounds. Evidently, his method of “civilizing” the locals included intense floggings and confinement.  In 1826, the locals had had enough and began burning buildings and looting supplies. Altimira ran over the hills to the mission in San Rafael and kept on running all the way back to his homeland in Spain.

Altimira was replaced by Father Buenaventura Fortuni from the mission in San Jose.  Fortuni proved to be a much better leader than his predecessor.  Fortuni turned the mission into a thriving entity, constructing many new buildings and courtyards, creating work for about 600 Native Americans.  This work included tending to 5,000 sheep and 2,000 head of cattle.  In fact, the mission made everything they needed to survive.

By 1832, Fortuni led the construction of buildings arranged around a large square courtyard. He constructed a 27-room convento for priests and guests, a large adobe church and wooden storehouse.  The adobe buildings all had tile roofs. Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th century, and most of these buildings were gone. Thus, one of the goals of the archaeological investigations in 1853, was to determine what the original layout of the mission complex might have been.  Stay tuned for Part II.

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