History of San Francisco Solano

As it seemed to fill so many of the leading politicians and military figures with a desire to become governor, the change from Spanish to Mexican rule was accomplished with more than a little civil disturbance. The only lasting result was a transfer of authority from central to local control. Within the missions, too, something of the same sort took place. There was divided opinion among the Franciscans as to which regime deserved their loyalty, but each Father was allowed to follow the dictates of his own conscience without pressure from either side. Within the individual missions, however, a more definite change took place. The guardian padres were more and more inclined to take action for themselves in dealing with problems which, earlier, they would have referred to the father presidente or even to Mexico. It was in such an atmosphere that Mission San Francisco de Solano was created.

View of Mission San Francisco de Solano

At this time, there happened to be in the mission at Dolores a young Franciscan padre, José Altimira, who was one of the more recent arrivals in California. The story of his stay in the province is brief and turbulent, beginning with his arrival at the Dolores Mission. For a young missionary, burning with the desire to make a great harvest of souls, the station near the San Francisco Presidio was a very poor place indeed. The narrow peninsula had long been cleared of pagan Indians and the needs of its diminishing number of neophytes were more routine than inspiring.

Fr. Altimira watched with longing the impressive number of conversions by Fr. Amoros at the San Rafael asistencia across the bay. Finally, it occurred to him that the poor condition of Dolores presented an excellent opportunity for a change in his unhappy situation. Since Dolores was a fading missionary enterprise, he apparently reasoned, why not combine it with San Rafael and place the rejuvenated mission in the fertile area of the Sonoma region further north of the asistencia?

Fr. Altimira took his plan to Governor Arguello, who saw in it a desirable means of interposing an additional Spanish settlement between the Russian colony at Fort Ross and occupied Alta California proper. With the governor’s approval, the padre marched into the north in search of an ideal location. After spending some days in the quest, he found a spot which seemed to answer all the requirements. On July 4, 1823, a cross was raised on the site, which was named San Francisco de Solano.

Fr. Altimira hurried back to Dolores, prepared for the transfer of the mission and, on August 12, returned to Solano with a soldier escort and a fair quantity of supplies. By now, both Fr. Amoros of San Rafael and the Franciscan Prefect Senan were actively opposing the steps being taken. Supported by the governor, the padre refused to bow before the authority of the prefect and insisted on going ahead with the project. the controversy ended in a three-way settlement: the retention of Dolores and the recognition of both the asistencia at San Rafael and Solano with full mission status.

The bell used at San Francisco Solano

Put to the test by the opposition of his superior, the obstinate padre set out to prove the merit of the new mission. A wooden church was erected and formally dedicated in April, 1824, but this time there was no parade of gifts from the other sister missions as only Dolores made a contribution of livestock. The new San Francisco found some unexpected benefactors, for the Russians at Fort Ross turned out to be very friendly neighbors. They presented the new mission with a large number of useful articles including bells of Russian design. Fr. Altimira was also successful in persuading a large number of neophytes to join the new settlement and nearly 700 Indians followed him from Mission Dolores. Once established, the padre found himself with everything he needed for success except a capacity for leadership.

Fr. Altimira was soon enmeshed in difficulties with his Indian neophytes, and many of them reacted to his misguided direction of the enterprise by running away or returning to their former settlements. Two years after the establishment of the mission, Fr. Altimira impulsively left it in a fit of anger and dejection. He eventually succeeded in having himself transferred to Mission San Buenaventura and a few years later was smuggled out of California aboard an American vessel.

The mission remained under the direction of the Spanish Franciscans for seven more years until 1833, when the Zacateca Order of Franciscans took over the operation with Fr. José Gutierrez in charge. Like other padres in the San Francisco bay area, Fr. Gutierrez soon felt the effects of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s attacks on his authority over the neophytes. The padre, who seems to have been neither astute nor kindly in his direction of the mission, attempted to strengthen control by increasing the use of the whipping stick. Such actions merely added to the influence of Vallejo, and helped to bring on the secularization of the mission the following year.

As commander of the San Francisco Presidio, Vallejo was now about all the government the bay area knew. As soon as the missions were formally turned over to civil authorities, he moved in on the settlement at Sonoma, and soon the desirable properties were distributed about his ranchos. He announced publicly that they were being held for the benefit of the Indians but when the official appraiser arrived at the scene, Vallejo turned him out of the region.

Panoramic view of the original Mission

With the founding of the present day town of Sonoma in 1834, the old mission chapel became a parish church and was used until 1880. At that time, a considerable portion of the property was sold. With the proceeds, a modern little church was built while the mission, then in private hands, continued to decay until it was purchased as a California State Landmark in 1910. It now forms a part of the public plaza which has been restored to its appearance of a hundred years ago. The altar of the mission church again looks as it might have long ago, but the uneven tile floor of the church has no pews, which is historically as it should be. The Indians stood or sat on the floor. In the cloister wing and quadrangle items of increasing interest are slowly being added.