The complicated history of Gen. Vallejo
Like many Petaluma youngsters, John Sheehy was presented a glowing picture of Mariano Vallejo in school.
The local historian and author said he admired the man, who is remembered as one of the founding fathers of California, a prosperous Mexican general that colonized the North Bay Area and created a legacy that lives on throughout the region.
Over the years, however, mounting evidence about Vallejo’s treatment of Native Americans has forced many to reconsider their views of the legendary ranchero.
A permanent Petaluma Museum exhibit for Vallejo has become a source of tension for local historians that are divided on how to present his story as efforts to rearrange the display get started.
It’s an issue that elevates the question being raised around the country about how to balance modern morality with the behavior of historical figures hundreds of years ago. And beyond that, how to uplift the stories of the natives or the slaves that are rarely memorialized.
Sheehy believes the museum label for Vallejo needs to be updated, or should at least share the space with a summary of what the California Indians experienced during the era of Rancho Petaluma in the early 19th century.
“It’s time to make the invisible, visible,” Sheehy said. “We need to bring it out for our own purposes to understand. The myths existed to tell us how we came to be here, what it means to be here and how we’re going to be going forward.
“If we’ve always got these secrets in the closet that we don’t want to talk about, we’re going to be hampered going forward in having a sense of place here.”
The current exhibit label was written a decade ago by historian Skip Sommer, a Petaluma Argus-Courier columnist and former developer, who views Vallejo as “the most important man in Sonoma County history.”
Sommer, a historical author for three decades, is wary of any sweeping changes to the exhibit, and called for a balanced and evidence-based approach to ensure Vallejo’s legacy isn’t hastily undone.
“People want the truth, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “Certainly there’s lots of stones to turn over — of everybody. I just don’t want to destroy our local hero here.”
Archaeological digs by state officials, diaries from Mexican soldiers, and newly-translated Russian documents connected to the settlement at Fort Ross have revealed conflicts with Vallejo’s overarching story.
Breck Parkman, a retired archaeologist for California State Parks, who was based in Sonoma County and oversaw Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, described Vallejo as an “opportunist” savvy to the shifting political winds.
It was Vallejo’s actions during his rise to power in the 1830s that local historians are taking issue with.
Russian documents tell a story from 1838 when Vallejo rounded up 50 of his indigenous workers after losing 35 of his cattle. In response, suspecting they were stolen, he executed 35 of them, Parkman said.
The most notable issue was a decision not to vaccinate his workers at the Petaluma Adobe fort when smallpox first appeared in 1837. Vaccines had been available for decades, and evidence shows the Russians had immunized their workers at Fort Ross to preserve their operation.
Vallejo, on the other hand, opted only to inoculate his family and close allies like Chief Solano, a controversial native in his close circle. As a result, most of Vallejo’s 2,000 workers died and the Adobe never recovered, Sheehy said.