The complicated history of Gen. Vallejo

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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.

The spread of smallpox almost eradicated the Coast Miwok and Pomo populations, the indigenous groups that first inhabited parts of Sonoma County.

Parkman likens the debate over Vallejo to the discussions in the American South where monuments dedicated to Confederate commander Robert E. Lee are being torn down. Parkman is opposed to removing Vallejo statues, like the bench statue in Sonoma Plaza or the busts around Petaluma, but it’s important to recognize he’s not guilt-free, he said.

“We have the myth of Robert E. Lee, and then you have the truth and there’s those nagging questions,” Parkman said. “Same with Vallejo — we have the myth of Vallejo. I still have a certain amount of respect, but he’s not a hero.”

For Reno Franklin, the former tribal chairman of the Kashia Pomo Indians, who said he’s a direct descendant of the “genocidal acts” of Vallejo, the feelings are much more straightforward.

The Pomo Indians worked side by side with the Russian settlers at Fort Ross, and Franklin said Vallejo allowed villages to be pillaged by the Mexican government where children were taken as slaves.

It wasn’t until a visit to Fort Ross when Vallejo was tasked by the Mexican government to gauge the Russian presence along the Sonoma Coast that Franklin said he changed his approach with the California Indians, trading goods and offering labor in exchange for protection.

Throughout his life, though, he still wavered. As a member of California’s first State Senate, Sheehy said Vallejo co-authored a bill that allegedly authorized the enslavement of unemployed natives and indigenous children under forced apprenticeship.

A member of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a presidentially-appointed body that shapes policies for the federal government, Franklin said it’s important to view Vallejo holistically, as the man he started as, the man he became and how he changed along the way.

“A cultureless people will always look for heroes where there are none,” Franklin said of celebrating Vallejo’s legacy. “Those people who came here and left their lands, they didn’t bring their culture with them. They brought their greed, their unprincipled actions, their murderous intent.”

Discussions continue over how to reorganize the space dedicated to Vallejo at the Petaluma Museum.

The area around his exhibit is introducing more history of the California Indians, and while Franklin believes total education reform is the key to changing the narrative of Petaluma’s controversial settlers, he conceded that this is a good start.

“It sounds like they’re doing some positive efforts to do that, and I applaud those efforts to tell a story that’s more inclusive of the tribe,” Franklin said.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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