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Gaye LeBaron: Based on truth or pure hokum? Exploring Sonoma County legends

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Does sticking to the truth and nothing but the truth take some of the fun out of history?

Does it matter that we can’t say for sure that there was a Civil War “battle” at the Washoe House on Stony Point Road?

Do we care that we don’t have proof that the community of Pine Grove became a town named Sebastopol because a fight at the general store was compared, rather imaginatively I would say, to the 11-month siege of Russia’s Black Sea port of that name during the Crimean War?

Is there really a house in Freestone that was sawed in two in Mexican California days over a land grant dispute?

There’s a whole list of such tales, some based on fact but greatly embellished and some pure hokum. But all of them are, to be sure, entertaining.

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Let’s look at the aforementioned one at a time, without sinking too deeply into the variations on the themes.

So what about the famous “Battle of Washoe House?”

A great story, based on factual premises — that Petaluma and Santa Rosa were on opposite sides during the Civil War, and that Petaluma had a Union militia.

It’s also true the newspapers in these two towns fueled the dispute. However, while there is evidence that Petaluma’s Emmett Rifles actually planned a march on Santa Rosa to punish that “nest of Copperheads,” nowhere is there primary source material to say that the south county militia actually stopped at Washoe House and drank enough beer to change their minds about attacking.

So, do we stop telling that story? Not on your life!

While it should never be offered as anything more than legend, it certainly provides a vivid image — which is true — of the Civil War contention between the two biggest towns in the county.

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The naming of Sebastopol is another tale that can’t be examined too closely without losing some luster. Simply put, the legend says there was a dispute which threatened to come to blows in a community called Pine Grove on the Laguna de Santa Rosa in the mid-1850s.

One of the combatants, name of Hibbs, took shelter in a general store and the other — sometimes the “other two,” depending on who’s telling it — wouldn’t let him out.

A bystander suggested Hibbs was “under siege.” Comparisons were made, either on the spot or later, with the war news from the Black Sea and someone perhaps might have suggested that it was “Hibbs’ Sebastopol.”

It should be pointed out that the name of the Russian city, rolling off the tongue as it does, had wide appeal. There were, depending on your source, from four to seven other towns in California named Sebastopol in those years, including one in Napa County that changed its name to Yountville.

It would be a decade or more before the post office originally named “Bodega” at Pine Grove was given a new name, making Sebastopol official.

A fine story, connecting early settlers with the wider world, but still, I would suggest, more folklore than history.

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We, however, are certain there’s no truth to the story which crops up occasionally that Sebastopol was named by the Russians who built Fort Ross.

That advanced guard of otter hunters from the north were long gone by the time there were settlers on the Laguna. And when they left in 1841 they took everyone with them, including some Kashia Pomo wives. That’s true. Descendants visit the historic park, occasionally offering phrases in the Kashia language they learned from great and greater grandmothers.

While the Russians were here, however, they did get in on another legendary adventure involving the wife of the fort’s last commandant, Alexander Rotchev. “Princess” Helena Gagarin (anyone with a hint of nobility gets a title from the old storytellers) was beautiful, they say, and she captured the fancy of a Native American, a Suisun chief allied to General Mariano Vallejo, who was Mexico’s military governor of the region, headquartered in Sonoma. (Chief Solano, I should add, was described by those early storytellers as being 6 feet tall and blue-eyed.)

Since there was some back-and-forth between Sonoma and Fort Ross, Solano had an opportunity to set his blue eyes upon Princess Helena and promptly fell in love and plotted to kidnap her.

An international incident of epic proportions was narrowly avoided when Vallejo learned of the plot and jailed the chief long enough to cool his ardor.

This close-call romance has been told, written and even sung as an operetta. And you’ll have to admit, it’s a dandy.

Helena Gagarin made quite a splash on our local legends in her short time on our coast. One of the three tales told about the naming of Mount St. Helena credits her with being part of a Russian contingent that climbed to the top of the mountain and — it is said — named it for her.

The other two naming stories? One is that Padre Altimira, on his search for a location to build a mission, exclaimed “Sainte Helene” when he first saw the mountain. It’s said it looked to him like the St. Helen effigy he had seen in a French abbey.

The third naming tale isn’t so epic. It credits Capt. Stephen Smith, the first American settler in Bodega, with naming the mountain after a ship he once owned.

That version is so lame it hardly qualifies as legend.

However, there is another story that comes with Padre Altimira, who reportedly carried a bag of mustard seed with him as he took his exploratory walk. They say (whoever “they” might be) the bag had a hole in it and that Altimira sowed the first of the yellow carpet that covers our vineyards in the spring. Not Johnny Appleseed.

Padre Mustardseed.

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Another tale based on truth and instructive in the tenor of the time is that of pioneers McIntosh and Dawson, two of the several American sailors who came with Vallejo’s sea captain brothers-in-law, Fitch and Cooper. They were among several, including Mark West, who were offered land grants preventing further Russian expansion into Mexican territory.

McIntosh and Dawson settled on land they called Rancho Estero Americano (think Valley Ford on today’s maps), set out their boundaries, built a house together and were ready to make official application.

As the story has come down through the years in key locations like the bar at Dinucci’s, Dawson couldn’t read, but McIntosh could. So he’s the one who went to Monterey to conclude the official business. The deed he brought home was in his name only.

When Dawson figured this out there was a fierce quarrel, which concluded with Dawson sawing their house in half and dragging his side across the boundary line to apply for his own grant next door.

The 19th century history books, particularly the one with the poetic title of “Pen Pictures from the Garden of the World,” tell it without the illiteracy part. McIntosh, you see, was a Mexican citizen, having married a Californio lady. Citizenship was a requirement for a grant.

Dawson, in the less interesting but more likely to be true version, becomes a citizen and obtains his own adjoining grant, called Rancho Canada de Pogolomi. There isn’t a word about the house or the saw in that version.

But there still are those who insist the displaced half-house, extensively remodeled, is a landmark in the middle of Freestone.

Having been shown, many years ago, the marks on its south wall that might have been made by an outraged settler’s saw, who am I to say it didn’t happen?

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There are many more such stories, hard to believe but entertaining nonetheless.

We will save them for another time, when the weight of the world grows heavy and we need a legend or two to cheer us up.