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Coastal History

A goal of the Local Coastal Plan is to protect the historic resources of the Sonoma Coast to maintain reminders of the area’s heritage and development. Below is a brief history of the Sonoma County coast. The Coast has a rich and varied history. Many of the activities of the 1700's and 1800's - fishing, farming, and timber harvesting - remain important today.

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Native American Settlement

Native American settlement began on the coast of California about 6,000-10,000 years ago. These populations were primarily hunting and gathering tribes. More recent populations around 1000 B.C.–500 A.D. were involved in complex trading systems between groups. Both groups occupied a narrow territory extending from the coast several miles inland. The Kashaya Pomo lived on the Russian River and Northern Coast. The Coast Miwok lived south of the River; their region included Southern Sonoma County and Marin County. Pomo territory extended from Stewarts Point to Duncans (about 30 miles) and ranged about 5-10 miles inland.

Early Explorers and Settlers

The earliest explorers to the Sonoma County coast were English and Spanish sailors, including Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, Drake in 1579, and Cermeno in 1595. In October 1775, Lieutenant Don Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra sailed his ship, the Sonora, to sheltered Anchorage. The log of this voyage named the Bay for the young Lieutenant Bodega.

In 1809 the Russians came south from Alaska seeking furs and a food source. The colonizing group of Russians and Aleutian fur hunters built warehouses on Bodega Head and a village at the upper reaches of Salmon Creek. They located the village near what is now the town of Bodega. They also built a fort twenty miles to the north and called it Fort Ross. The Russian American Fur Company prospered for thirty years by harvesting the sea for seal and otter furs. After the destruction of the sea otter, the Russians began to fail financially and sold to Captain John Sutter in 1841.

The intrusion of the Russians forced the Spanish and Mexican governments to occupy the North Bay. General Vallejo, in particular, blocked Russian expansion toward warmer valleys by granting land grants to those who would settle near the Russians. When the Russians left in 1841, the Mexican government quickly monopolized the coastal access by giving land grants from Estero de San Antonio to the Gualala River. In 1841, a Yankee ship captain named Stephen Smith was in Monterey. The Mexican government, concerned about the westward advance of Captain Sutter, were anxious to resettle the area vacated by the Russians, and suggested that Smith become a Mexican citizen and carve out such land as he chose. By 1844, Captain Smith was granted Bodega Bay and a huge rancho; the captain became a Mexican citizen and moved to Bodega.


The Gold Rush brought population and statehood to California. New settlers sought free land that did not require irrigation. Squatters broke up the great ranchos, as in the Bodega Squatters War of 1859. The route of the North Pacific Coast Railroad, completed in 1877, and the location of lumber activity and mills shaped the course of development in western Sonoma County.

The commercial marketing of lumber and lumber products began when Captain Smith brought the first steam sawmill in the 1840's. The mills followed a rapidly dwindling virgin redwood forest. Railroads, sailboats, and steam schooners were used to get the timber products from the mills to market. The great redwoods were almost logged by the 1880's. Forest products and second growth mills continued until 1930. In the 1930's the railroads for transporting lumber products were abandoned.

In 1853 the ranch owned by Captain Smith was renamed Bodega Corners, present day Bodega Bay. Smith developed the ranch as a harbor. The coastal roads met at the harbor, and the New England style town became the center of several coastal valleys. Bodega Bay had several periods of interest and decline. In the 1870's it was the largest town that included three stores, one hotel, and three lodges. St. Theresa's Church, built by Yankee shipbuilders, served many local Irish. The Potter School, once the "finest in the county," had dances, social gatherings, and a Dramatic Society formed in 1874. The town flourished with agriculture, lumber, and particularly potatoes. Eventual silting of the harbor curtailed further commercial expansion.

The narrow gauge railroad came to the area of Bodega Bay in 1876, but bypassed the town, which subsequently began to decline. The lumber mills were the first to leave. However, tourism saved the harbor from total decline. By 1900 Salmon Creek was the model for communities supported by tourists. The State Park system began to expand north to the Russian River as more people visited the Coast beaches. In 1877 the railroad reached the Russian River, and the town of Duncans Mills was selected as the location of the terminus. In the spring of 1877 Mr. Duncan moved his mill to its present location, and the North Pacific Coast Railroad constructed a bridge across the Russian River below the mill and erected a train station.

In 1873 Fort Ross was purchased by George W. Call, whose family maintained the property for generations. Call's ranch exported lumber, dairy products, hides, beef, and abalone on his schooner. A hotel opened in Fort Ross in 1878. By 1906 the fort was sold for a State Park. Timber Cove was named in the 1850's as a lumber shipping point, Salt Point had a sawmill as early as 1853, and Stewarts Point was founded in 1857 as a shipping port and remains a village with the original buildings and families. The last boat to load at Stewarts Point was the steamer Vanguard in 1929.

Agriculture in various forms became the major economic interest replacing lumber on the coast. To the north on the coastal plain before the Gualala River, livestock ranchers held large properties which were later purchased for The Sea Ranch. In the south was the potato boom that peaked in 1854. Wheat and livestock were also major agricultural products. Overgrazing and soil erosion forced the farmers to dairy products. Dairying by the Swiss in the 1870's and later by the Italians transformed the area. The railroads and later better roads brought butter, cheese, and fish to San Francisco. The boom caused by the railroad brought dairy herds throughout the coast.

Sportsmen and later tourists took advantage of the area opened by the railroads. A triangular route from San Francisco meant a trip could be made in one day to the Russian River from San Francisco. By 1900, wealthy residents of Santa Rosa bought summer homes in Bodega Bay. The tourist industry flourished after construction of roads like State Highway 1 built in the 1920's. In the 1930's the Russian River area was popular, offering name bands and summer camps. Fishing was a year round business, and local fishermen would visit for the day. Bodega Bay was dredged in 1943, opening the bay for pleasure boats and commercial fishing. The fishing industry grew rapidly, and Bodega Bay became a fishing village. The tourist industry boomed after World War II and is today a major activity the full length of the Sonoma County coast.

The Sonoma County coast has changed dramatically over the last half century. Improvements to State Highway 1, especially north of Jenner, have made travel along the coast less daunting. Several private residential developments including Timber Cove (1961), The Sea Ranch (1964) and Bodega Harbor (1971) have been approved by the County, increasing the resident population and options for vacationers. As these communities have grown, the Sonoma County coast has gradually evolved an economy based primarily on recreation and tourism, although logging and fishing are still important activities.

Contact Information

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Permit Sonoma
2550 Ventura Avenue
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
38.465074, -122.723705

Coastal Zone

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