The Petaluma River basin has recently been designated, and I quote, “An environmentally critical wetland in need of preservation.” That sparked me to imagine how it must have appeared early on in the 1830s, the awe that must have been felt by those pioneers, when they first viewed our Petaluma Valley. Bear, elk and deer were prevalent, the sky was oft clouded-over by winged game, berries and grapes graced the hills, and great schools of sturgeon and steelhead trout swam in the twisting tidal slough.
In 1836, a 27-year old Mexican “Commandante-General” named Mariano Vallejo was awarded a land grant to a vast wilderness of 44,000 acres here. One year later, it was enlarged to 66,000 acres, and it was our tidal slough that decided the location for his Rancho Adobe home. In that year, the “Indian Wars” were raging on America’s frontier west of the Missouri River, but the Pomo and Miwok Tribes of the Petaluma Valley were non-violent hunters and gatherers, and the bounty of the Petaluma basin had made their lives relatively easy. Vallejo hired hundreds of them to work his Rancho.
Then, just 12 years later, the great Gold Rush of 1849 changed everything, as thousands of men from all over the world flocked to California, and some of those “49ers” brought their gold to Petaluma. By 1850, California had become our 31st State, and though Petaluma was still a small village of 560, the “word” was getting out.
By 1851, our population had nearly doubled to 970.
Tom Baylis, who had sailed around Cape Horn in 1850 for gold, wandered up the Petaluma Creek in a small craft. He and friends Thomas Lockwood and David Flogdell were armed with rifles and traps and they set up camp on the creek. These dynamic men pooled their resources and skills to survive by hunting and fishing. At that time, a deer carcass went for $20 bucks in San Francisco, a dozen quail for $9, and that was big money then.
Soon, alongside our creek, “Doctor” August Heyermann built one of the first cabins in our village, and his wedding ceremony here was also a first for Petaluma. He had been a popular “Trail Doc” for a large wagon train, and had found that dispensing opium for 25 to 40 cents a dose had staked him to mining equipment. (Uh huh).
Meanwhile, San Francisco, Stockton and Sacramento were in dire need of agricultural produce, and Petaluma was eager for trade. Some products traded back up-creek to Petaluma included cigars, rifles, matches, whiskey and gunpowder. (Not the best mix, I think). By ’54, Baylis and Flogdell had set up a stone-walled trading post at the river end of what would become ‘B’ Street.
It was sort of a wilderness 7/11, and it thrived.
(Those walls are now part of The Great Petaluma Mill.)
Garrett Keller had built a warehouse and “Eatery” on Water Street in ’53, and a year later, he drew-up a plan of 40 acres for our town‘s layout. That really put progress in gear, and the first bridge was built across the creek at what would then be named Bridge Street (later Hopper, now Lakeville). However, that wooden structure collapsed in 1861, under the weight of a herd of cattle, and was not rebuilt.
Sanitation and hygiene were hard to find here then, with no sewerage or clean water systems, and just a boil or burn could kill you. Pouring whiskey on wounds was an accepted cure, unless one opted for the Miwok ‘cow-dung-poultice.’ (Ugh!)