Mission San Francisco Solano (Sonoma)


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San Francisco Solano

San Francisco Solano exterior
Mission Bell
San Francisco Solano interior front
San Francisco Solano interior rear
San Francisco Solano interior side
San Francisco Solano altar
(Sonoma Mission)
Twenty-first Mission
Date Founded: July 4, 1823
Founder: Father Jose Altimira
Named for: St. Francis Solano, missionary to the Peruvian Indians
Spain & First St.
Sonoma, CA
(20 miles north of San Francisco on State Highway 12)

(707) 938-1519 - school tour reservations

The last and northernmost California mission, Mission San Francisco Solano was the only mission founded after Mexico's independence from Spain. It was also the only mission founded without the prior approval of the Church.


Prior to the building of this mission most of the bay area Indians had been gathered and sent to one of the southern missions. Franciscan Father Jose Altimira, sent from Spain in 1819 to assist at Mission Dolores, devised a plan to found a new mission to the north where the climate was warmer. He felt that the poor health of many of the Indians was caused by the foggy, damp weather at Mission Dolores, and favored shutting down that mission and the San Rafael hospital mission. His request was denied by Father Presidente Vicente Francisco de Sarria, the chief administrator of the California Missions. Many in the diocese felt the era of the mission was coming to a close.

Altamira also made his proposal to Governor Don Luis Arguello, who was responsible for keeping the Russians out of Northern California. The plan to move both the Dolores and the San Rafael missions to Solano seemed to be the solution to the Governor's concern about the Russian encroachment in his province. He felt that a mission presence would slow down the spread of the Russians who were fishing, trapping, logging and cultivating the coast from Alaska to Coronado Bay. They had even established an outpost at Fort Ross in 1812.

The Petaluma area was explored but inadequate water led Father Altimira to Sonoma Valley where an underground spring was located. The valley offered better weather, good sources of water, longer growing season, thousands of acres of grazing land and the availability of building materials.

Establishment of Mission San Francisco Solano

The site of Mission San Francisco Solano was selected and ceremoniously consecrated by Father Jose Altimira on July 4, 1823. It was named after Father San Francisco Solano, a 17th century missionary to Peru. This mission became the last and most northerly of the 21 California missions. The first building was a temporary wooden structure plastered inside and out with whitewashed mud. Several hundred Indian neophytes from Dolores followed the Franciscans to Sonoma, but the copious gifts from sister missions which usually arrived to start a new mission on its way failed to reach Sonoma. Help came from an unexpected source. The Russian fur traders proved to be friendly, sharing their supplies and donating Russian-designed bells.

Construction began in October 1823 led by Father Altimira. The vineyards were flourishing. The coast Miwok Indians came back as soon as construction began. The Indians constructed a temporary wooden chapel in the palisade style tying logs together with leather ropes to form walls and covering with a thatch roof. On April 4, 1824, the chapel was dedicated and the first baptisms performed. Adobe buildings began to take shape.

Eventually Governor Arguello convinced Father Presidente Sarria of the utility of a mission north of San Francisco to preserve their territory of Alta California. After acrimonious debate, the Church gave their approval for the new Mission San Francisco Solano, to be run by Father Altimira, but insisted that Missions Dolores and San Rafael be undisturbed.

Father Altimira proved to be a good administrator but had difficulty relating to those entrusted to his care. His constant flogging and imprisonment of the Native Americans, in his efforts to "civilize" them soon caused a revolt. A large group of angry Native Americans attacked the mission in 1826. After looting and burning buildings and supplies, they forced Father Altimira to flee to Mission San Rafael. Discouraged, Father Altimira sought transfer to another mission, but was unwelcome. Later he returned to Spain.

Father Buenaventura Fortuni , an aging priest, from Mission San Jose was assigned to replace Father Altimira. He quickly brought order and high morale to the building of the mission. By 1832 Father Fortuni had led the construction and organization of Mission San Francisco Solano into a thriving self-supporting mission. The main buildings were arranged around a large, square courtyard. There was a 27 room convento for the priest and guests of the mission, a great adobe church at one end, and a wooden storehouse at the other. His new adobe buildings had tile roofs. There were also workshops where the Indians were taught to be craftsmen. Along the back of the courtyard were the living quarters and workrooms for the young Indian girls. In addition, outside the mission compound, there were orchards, walled vineyards, a gristmill, houses for the soldiers, a jail, a cemetery and an infirmary. Over 10,000 acres of land were being used to raise sheep, cattle and crops with 996 Indians in residence. Five or six hundred Indians were kept busy looking after the 5,000 sheep and 2,000 head of cattle. The mission produced everything they needed, making it self-supporting. Mission San Francisco Solano had become one of the most successful of all the missions.

In 1832, with the mission construction completed and the mission running smoothly Father Fortuni requested a transfer to a mission where he could share the duties of running the mission. In 1833 Father Gutierrez was assigned to Mission San Francisco Solano at Sonoma.


In 1834, the Mexican government, again independent from Spain, secularized the missions. The mission churches were to belong to the people. The assets of the mission were to return to the Indians. Mexico had won independence from Spain and the Spanish priests were to leave.

Barely finished, the mission came under the control of General Mariano Vallejo. Vallejo, age 27, was sent by Governor Figueroa as Military Commander and Director of Colonization of the Northern Frontier. He was to take charge of the mission, establish the parish church, free the Indian workers and distribute the mission lands and assets to the population. He was granted 44,000 acres in the Petaluma Valley to develop a private rancho. He was supposed to see that the mission properties were distributed to the Native Americans. Instead he claimed the mission property to be his own and added it to his already vast property holdings in the area. With the promise of protection, room and board, he put the Native Americans to work for him.

Vallejo built up a large pueblo (town) in Sonoma, and for a while maintained the mission church. Eventually, the settlers removed the roof tiles and timbers for use in their own buildings and the mission's adobe walls began to dissolve. A new adobe church was built for the parish at the same site of the original mission church.

When the Americans arrived in Sonoma to take control of California from Mexico, General Vallejo was imprisoned. For a brief time the Mission Solano continued to serve as a parish church for the new American settlement.


The mission began a long and slow decline. The original adobe church on the east side collapsed in the late 1830's. It was replaced by a smaller adobe chapel in 1841. This small chapel was built on the west side of the priest's quarters. Other parts of the mission were taken apart for their adobe bricks, roof tiles and timbers.

In 1881, the mission was sold to a local businessman, Solomon Schoken for $3,000 because the parishioners felt it was "too cold and damp". A new and larger church was being built a few blocks away. After 1881 the chapel and its adjoining residence building were used at various times as a barn, winery, blacksmith shop and hennery. Mr. Schoken later sold the mission for $3,000 to the California Landmarks League for eventual preservation. In 1906 it was given to the state for complete restoration. .

After a few good earthquakes, including the big one in 1906, the mission was reduced to a couple of crumbling old adobes. In 1909 restoration began. By 1913, the two crumbling old adobe buildings had been reconstructed to become a museum of Sonoma history. After the 1940's, the former chapel and priest's house were remodeled along more authentic lines devoted to mission history.

The Historic Landmarks League purchased the mission property in 1903, and with state funds, restored the Mission Solano. When complete, in 1926, the League turned the property over to the state. Further restoration was then done and the mission is now the Sonoma Mission State Historic Park.


Sonoma State Historic Park, consisting of 36.17 acres is located in the City of Sonoma, County of Sonoma, California. Ten units in the park are of Spanish and Mexican Heritage. The Blue Wing Inn, Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma Complex - Adobe Parish Church and Convent - Sonoma Barracks, Adobe Indian House, Vallejo Home "Lachrima Montis" - the Swiss Chalet, Napoleon's Cottage, the Cook House and Vallejo Garden Pavilion " El Delirio ". Some of the buildings became a state monument when the Historic Landmarks League purchased them in 1903, and they became state property in 1906. Basic restoration work was begun in 1909, and since then several archaeological investigations and restorations program had been carried on. In addition, the mission contains the Jorgensen Collection of mission paintings and, in some of the units, special events bring to life the Mission and Ranch Periods.

The first systematic historical archeological investigations at Sonoma were begun in September 1953, and focused on understanding the architectural evolution of the existing adobe chapel and the convento, or priests' quarters. Maintenance and landscaping work in previous years by Division of Beaches and Parks (now Department of Parks and Recreation) staff had exposed a number of building foundations and pavements, leading them to seek professional assistance. The work was directed by James A. Bennyhoff and Albert Elsasser, with a crew of students from University of California, Berkeley. Historical archeology was in its infancy in 1953; the work at Sonoma was one of the first half-dozen such investigations done in California. In the preface to the report, R.F. Heizer and T.D. McGowan summarized the much of the previous historical archeology done in North America in 2-2-1/2 pages!

A second season of fieldwork took place in 1954, under the direction of Adan E. Treganza, also from UC Berkeley. The objectives of the 1954 work were to continue the investigations begun the previous year, and to systematically search the grounds for archeological evidence of other mission buildings.

Sonoma Mission, as it appears today, largely represents the 1913 restoration. This restoration repaired damage from the 1906 earthquake and attempted to return the complex to its earlier appearance after decades of renovation and neglect during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The archeological and historical research by Bennyhoff, Elsasser and Treganza, however, showed that what was restored in 1913 is but a small part of the original complex. The convento, the single row of rooms which today houses exhibits, was originally twice as deep, with a second row of rooms behind the first, as was indicated by the adobe foundations and walls exposed in 1953 (Building A). The adobe chapel at the west end of the complex was not the mission's first church, but its third. The first church was a building of poles plastered with mud (jacal, or wattle and daub construction), in approximately the same location as the existing chapel. The second church was a huge adobe building at the opposite (east) end of the convento, constructed between 1827 and 1832. It was reported to be over 150 feet long, 30 + feet wide and 30 feet high. The 1953-4 archeology exposed foundations of rooms that connected the convento to the church, but not the church itself--it appears that the church was located on private property, under the historic frame house to the east of the park boundary. The large adobe church collapsed within a few years, and the chapel we see today was constructed in 1840.

In addition to shedding light on the evolution of the buildings that have survived, the archeological work exposed foundations of buildings, courtyard walls and other features that had completely disappeared by the 1950s. These include Building B, a small structure attached to the east side of the chapel, perhaps for use as a sacristy. The foundations of this building are over 2 feet thick, wide enough to have supported adobe walls. The authors point out, however, that none of the historic drawings show a building here until after 1874. Building C, discovered in 1954, was another large building far to the rear (north) of the chapel and convento. It was 27 feet wide and at least 93 feet long, and appears to have formed the northwest corner of the quadrangle that was the religious and administrative heart of the mission. The archeological work also exposed tiled corridors around the buildings, and evidence of posts that supported the roofs over these corridors. A well was found in 1953 near the center of the quadrangle, although the investigators concluded that it was a post-mission feature.

The 1953-4 work exposed large areas and contributed much to the understanding of the architectural history of Sonoma Mission. Less emphasis was placed on recovery of small artifacts than would probably be the case today, although a collection of ceramics and other material recovered in 1953 was stored at Berkeley and later transferred to the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Dorothy Bell, a student from Sacramento State University worked with this collection in 1978, and identified and assemblage of British earthenware that may date as early as the 1820s that was recovered from the Building B area.

No major archeological or architectural investigations have taken place at Sonoma Mission since the 1953-4 work, although many intriguing questions remain that might be addressed by further historical and archeological research.





Mission San Francisco Solano
located in Sonoma, California
by Glenda Klaucke
John Swett Elementary
Martinez, California