How Nick Carriger came to Sonoma
THIS IS ONE of the original houses on the Carriger Estate.
When guests attend the Sonoma Community Center's annual Muse fundraising event at the historic Carriger estate Friday, Sept. 30, they will be stepping directly into a distinguished chapter of Sonoma history.
That story opens as a little train of ox-drawn wagons began its climb up the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, the pelting snow making the climb toward the summit even tougher for the Carriger clan. The pioneers had left the kickoff village of Round Prairie, Mo., on April 27, 1846, in a desperate race to reach the crest of the mountains before the weather closed in.
At the Mormon Salt Lake settlement, they had been joined by a larger party, the Donners, who chose to wait there to regain their strength, ignoring the Carrigers' advice to hurry onward before they were caught by the winter storm. This delay, to refresh, would prove to be a fatal mistake for the Donner Party.
The Carrigers began the upward climb on Sept. 21, 1846, on what son, Nicholas, would describe as a "distressingly bad road," if it could be called road at all. The trail was more like a slow, rocky climb upwards on which they only progressed a few miles a day. The wagons began to break down, wheels caught in the ditches and axles gave out. Eight wagons had to be abandoned in the last six miles.
The leader was the family patriarch, aging German immigrant, Christian Carriger, who was starting to fade, suffering from the rigors of the trek across the desert and the climb, and was now racked by pneumonia. The group included Carriger brothers, Nicholas, Caleb and Solomon, and a Major Cooper from Council Bluffs, Iowa, who eventually became a judge in Sonoma County.
It became obvious to the rest in the Carrigers' wagon train that their new leader for the remaining climb would be their eldest son, 30-year-old Nicholas. His mother had crossed the Atlantic from England. They had settled first in Tennessee and moved westward to Missouri and were hardy folk.
Young Nicholas followed his parents' wishes to take the lead. He had attended elementary school and worked at various jobs, including curing tobacco, growing hemp, distilling whisky and mining. He enlisted at age 19 in the U.S. Army's First Regiment of Mounted Volunteers for a year in the Indian War against the Seminoles in Florida.
Also in the Carriger caravan were Nicholas' younger brother and sister, his parents, and his wife, Ohio-native Mary Ann Wardlow, whom he had married in September 1842, their children, and her parents.
Mary Ann was reaching full term with their fourth child, lying in the prairie schooner and rocking and bouncing roughly along the trail. After six days, the wagon train made a final push, reaching what is now known as Donner Lake.
Just as they got over the summit and started a downward slide over the snow drifts in the increasingly freezing weather, the senior Carriger died, and within hours, Nicholas' mother-in-law also succumbed. The same day Mary Ann Carriger gave birth to a baby girl in the wagon.
Other Americans had been gathering in California with troopers and infiltrators, who had been working to gain a foothold in what was Mexican territory. While the Carriger wagon train struggled up the Sierra Nevada, a band of Americans gathered just east of the Spanish settlement in Sonoma to take over that pueblo. On June 14, 1846, 33 Americans from the Napa Valley (the Bear Flaggers) captured the village of Sonoma, imprisoned Gen. Mariano Vallejo and other local leaders and declared a California Republic. If nothing else, the incident exposed the weakness of the Mexican control of the area.
The Carriger caravan reached the headwaters of the Feather River and descended to the Central Valley before halting near Putah Creak, staying over at George Yount's ranch in the Napa Valley. Eventually, they traveled on toward the settlement of Sonoma along what was known as the Spanish Trail.
Vallejo, recently released from custody at Sutter's Fort, welcomed young Carriger and his family (the newly born baby had died at two months). As leader of the clan, Nicholas was encouraged to explore the possibilities and soon asserted his leadership. He and Vallejo were kindred spirits, got along famously and recognized the opportunities in the emerging west.
Nicholas ordered a load of finished lumber, with which he built the first wood framed house in Sonoma. Vallejo was generous to a fault in some ways and not very experienced in business since he had been granted all his property. Nicholas promptly surveyed the Valley and chose a large plot along the scenic western hills with good drainage, well suited for growing crops and vines. He found a willing seller in Vallejo, from whom he bought 1,000 acres at a generous price.
Carriger reportedly was the first "American" to plant wine grapes in Sonoma Valley, working with cuttings from Vallejo's brother-in-law, Jacob Leese. Carriger's vineyards were the first to be cultivated since the founding of the mission days, and the cattle that grazed on Carriger's ranch had been acquired from Vallejo.
Carriger also served under Lt. Joseph Revere, grandson of patriot Paul Revere, who raised the American flag over Sonoma's Plaza. Carriger carried mail on horseback between Sonoma and San Rafael for Revere.
After gold was discovered at Coloma along the American River in the spring of 1848, Carriger was the first person in Sonoma to leave for the mines.
He discovered the Auburn, Northern Kelsey and other mines, producing inordinate amounts of gold, as much as 50 pounds in a single day. After suffering an injury, Nicholas returned to Sonoma and took a crew of Indians to work with him, sometimes staying at one location for six weeks.
Carriger's mining profits were extensive, and he was able to pay off Vallejo with $4,000 in gold dust, which the General greatly needed. To demonstrate his pleasure, Vallejo presented Carriger with a fountain, similar to one at Vallejo's Lachryma Montis home on West Spain Street. Carriger's main house was completed in 1850 and was added onto in 1875.
According to an 1875 report, the expanded original mansion included a cornerstone under which Carriger deposited coins, newspapers and a family history, although the cornerstone and memorabilia have never been found.
The senior Mrs. Carriger fell in love with Sonoma Valley where she lived until her death in 1868. Carriger, himself, was a popular figure and was a leader in setting up Sonoma Valley's school system and fire fighting network. Known to many as "Nick," he lived to reach 69.
As parts of Carriger's large estate were eventually sold off, many well-known names have developed homes there including Vadasz, Vander Woude, and Whitely.
Carriger's home, winery, horse facilities and out-buildings are now for sale for $5,900,000.
Community Center supporters will honor Nicholas Carriger with a Gold Rush theme, featuring riders on horseback and glitzy saloon girls at the Gold Diggers Drinking Society. Guests are encouraged to dress in period attire "dripping in gold."
Tickets for the 1880s-era party are $188 and can be purchased at the Community Center, by phone at 938-4626, ext 1, or by going on line at www.sonomacommunitycenter.org. Cocktails and wine will be served beginning at 6 p.m.