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.
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.
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.
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.