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American Latino Heritage
Between 1822 and the early 1850s, Mexico made over 800 land grants in California to Mexican citizens, as the government attempted to explore, populate and control the coastal lands of what is now the western United States. Rancho Petaluma Adobe served as the main headquarters and residential building for one of the largest land grants of this period, the Rancho Petaluma, a vast expanse of rolling hills and fertile grazing land for thousands of cattle. First established in 1834 as a land grant to successful military leader and colonial strategist, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Rancho Petaluma would expand to 66,000 acres over the next decade and become the largest, richest, and most important Mexican estate in Alta California.
Sitting on a knoll overlooking the property and completed in 1846, the Petaluma Adobe served as the heart of the rancho’s daily routines and economic success. A National Historic Landmark, the two-story, Monterey Colonial style building stands today as the largest adobe structure in the country. The adobe sits within the Petaluma State Historic Park and is part of the California Park System’s ongoing effort to highlight and celebrate Spanish and Mexican heritage within the State. Interpretive signage, audio tours, authentic furnishings and educational programs all offer visitors a chance to experience Petaluma Adobe and learn about its inspirational connection to Mexican colonialism in the early 19th century.
Rancho Petaluma developed during the early 1820s, a time when the vast expanse of the Mexican-owned California Territory was sparsely populated and largely uncharted. Following Mexican independence from Spain, Mexican land grants encouraged citizens to move into California, and previously established Spanish mission holdings were divided up into smaller parcels for farming. In 1834, fearing infiltration from Russian colonists traveling south toward San Francisco, the Mexican Government ordered Lieutenant Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo to establish a pueblo at Sonoma, north of San Francisco Bay. Vallejo, who had already been instrumental in the founding of several California communities, received a promotion to Commandment General and Director of Colonization for the Northern Frontier. Mexican Governor Jose Figueroa granted Vallejo 44,000 acres, which was later expanded to 66,000, and instructed him to move his military command center in order to increase Mexican presence in the area north of the community.
Vallejo immediately began settling and improving the land that would become his Rancho Petaluma. Various corrals, outbuildings and houses dotted the landscape, and in 1836, construction began on the Petaluma Adobe, the main headquarters for the rancho. The two-story structure was a massive undertaking, however, and even after a decade, work was still being done on the building. Traditional adobe brick construction methods were used and all of the original lumber was locally cut redwood, almost entirely hand-hewn. At some point in the early 1840s, a sturdier, wooden roof for which thousands of shingles also had to be split by hand replaced the original thatched roof. American Indians performed most of the labor, mainly workers from the Coastal Miwok tribes who populated the area before European arrival.
Although it was standard practice to plaster and whitewash adobe bricks for protection from the elements, many of the walls at Petaluma never received this treatment. A deep, roofed veranda encircled the building on both levels and shielded the exterior from the weather. The majority of the adobe bricks have thus survived throughout the decades. Other original elements and hardware still exist within the building showcasing a fascinating mix of both pre- and post-industrial revolution technologies. Machine cut nails and cast iron hinges function side by side with wooden pegs and rawhide straps.
At its peak, Rancho Petaluma’s main income came from both hides and tallow (rendered cow fat). During the mid-1800s, cow hides were not only a valuable material for leather goods such as shoes, bags and saddles, but with the industrial revolution underway, hide belting was a necessary component of many machines. Tallow also had a variety of uses from candles and soaps to leather dressing and lubricants. The immense Petaluma Adobe housed the necessary facilities for the daily production of these products and general functioning of the ranch.
Across from the U-shaped, adobe building that stands today, another structure once existed, creating an interior courtyard surrounded on all four sides. During the heyday of Rancho Petaluma, this rectangular complex would have been alive with the sounds of hooves and hundreds of workers, the smells of hide processing and boiling fat, the whisper of looms weaving necessary blankets for the cold season, and heat pouring from the blacksmith’s anvil as he shaped and sharpened farm equipment. The Petaluma Adobe also housed storage space for grain and vegetable crops, as well as residential units on the second floor for both workers and guests of Vallejo.
Rancho Petaluma was the most prosperous rancho in northern California from 1834 until 1846, selling its wares to merchant ships arriving off the California coast, or trading its raw materials for manufactured goods from overseas. During the tumultuous year surrounding the eventual American takeover of California, Vallejo’s success came to a sudden end. The so-called “Bear Flag Revolt” of 1846 resulted in Vallejo’s arrest and imprisonment for several months. By the time the political dust settled, the ranch had been stripped of its valuables and most of the farm workers had fled. The U.S.government recognized Vallejo’s legal title to the rancho. He decided to lease the property and eventually sold it in 1857. Despite numerous owners and attempts, the ranch never reached the same level of prosperity again.
Throughout the remainder of the 19th and into the 20th century, Petaluma Adobe passed through many hands and eventually fell into decline. The State of California purchased the property in 1951 after renewed interest in the site’s cultural heritage spawned an intervention program to save the adobe. Since the 1950s, preservation work, interpretation, research, and archeological investigation have continued to enhance the public’s understanding of the building itself and its tie to California’s Spanish and Mexican past.
Today the building and its surrounding State Historic Park are open weekly. A popular attraction for tourists and school groups, the Petaluma Adobe has been carefully outfitted with authentic, period furnishings and equipment to help visitors visualize rancho life during the early 1800s. Activities such as candle making, basket-weaving, period meal preparation and guided tours are available. For more information, check the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park brochure or the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park website.