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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

City of Immigrants: An American Story

Napa County Historical Society Exhibit 


By the 1890s, when H.A. Darms began photographing Napa he captured the diversity of life in the Valley. (Napa City & County Portfolio & Directory 1909)

Over 22,000 people visit the Napa County Historical Society each year. Questions about historic Napa abound — Who settled Napa Valley historically and when? What did they do? Where did they come from? Why did they come to Napa?  


People have migrated into Napa Valley from time immemorial, making the Valley their home. Early migration patterns and numbers are cloaked in the mists of time and although we can see remnants of industries and lifestyles, we only vaguely understand migration through archaeology. The first mass migration into the Valley that is historically documented began in the early 1800s when both Mexico and Russia started exploring the area and erecting settlements. Beginning in the 1820s with Mexican independence from Spain, the governing families of Alta California dispensed land grants as a way of solidifying control over the area. The final, and only Mexican mission was founded in Sonoma, which became the governing seat for both Sonoma and Napa Valleys. Napa Valley, already settled and controlled by the Wappo and Patwin/Wintu peoples boasted several large settlements and numerous smaller villages. Some of the First Peoples’ place names are still around today, such as Napa, Mayacamas, Tulocay, Soscol, and Yajome.


Between 1836 and 1846, General Vallejo and Governors at Monterey issued fourteen land grants for land in the Napa Valley beginning with 11,887 and 7,000 acre-ranchos to George Yount and Nicolas Higuera, respectfully. Both men adopted the names of the local villages that their ranchos encompassed, creating Rancho Caymus and Rancho Entre Napa. The custom of preserving the First People place names was unusual but ten of the fourteen Napa ranchos reflect the names of the nearest First People communities. By 1846, with the last Mexican Land Grant in Napa, ranchos controlled over 270,684 acres across the Valley and smaller adjacent valleys. The families that developed the ranchos were a mix of Californios and naturalized Mexican citizens who had befriended George Yount during his trapping days in New Mexico. These families lent their names to history and today we have streets named for Cayetano Juarez and Salvador Vallejo, and valleys named for Julian Pope and Joseph Chiles.


In the mid 1840s, wagon trains began crossing the Rocky Mountains bringing settlers directly out of the Midwest to California. These men and their families brought skills with them that they bartered with the Rancho owners for land. William and Kitty Fowler traded the Bales William’s carpentry skills for 500 acres of land at the top of the Valley. A young Pennsylvanian named Nathan Coombs arrived in Napa and purchased land from Salvador Vallejo’s Rancho Napa. In 1847, Coombs petitioned the Mexican government to establish a town, which carried the name of the rancho and thus the First People community, Napa. The twist came when young Coombs, a descendant from English stock of the small hamlet in Yorkshire called Nappa, added an extra ‘P’ to his map of the proposed town. The extra ‘P’ was rejected and crossed off the map, but the mystery of the spelling took hold and can be seen in some modern branding such as “Nappa Leather.”


The Juarez family generously supported the development of culture and civics in Napa. (NCHS Collection)

The folks coming into Napa Valley from the Midwest resisted becoming Mexican citizens and brought with them the perspectives of Southern Society and slavery. Their resistance grew into the Bear Flag Revolt. Already decimated by diseases, the First People’s numbers in the Valley further dwindled due to enslavement, massacres, and genocide. Throughout the 1840s, ranching, viticulture, and farming grew with immigrants arriving weekly into the Valley, including the surviving members of the Graves family after their harrowing experience in the Donner Party. While ranching and farming attracted families from the Midwest, viticulture attracted immigrants from Germany and Switzerland. Today, we have Krug and Beringer as reminders of the early roots of the wine industry.


Once Mexico ceded California to the United States, the immigration floodgates burst open. Thousands of immigrants began arriving by wagon train and ship. By the early 1850s, the face of Napa was quite diverse. California’s Economic Census of 1852 recorded 1083 people living in Napa Valley. The Irish arrived and opened hotels and restaurants in Napa. Sam Brannan bought land at the top of the Valley renaming Agua Caliente, Calistoga, with the intention of making the Valley’s mineral waters and hot springs a resort destination. In the southern end of the Valley, the Juarez, Higueras, and Fly families produced enough wheat to make Napa the second-largest wheat-producing area in the state.


By the 1860s, Napa’s growing viticulture needed labor and active recruitment of Chinese immigrants began. The arrival of Chinese immigrants made the first fluorescence of Napa Valley winemaking possible. Although the Chinatowns of Napa and St. Helena no longer exist, the numerous rock walls and wine caves throughout the Valley stand testament to their contributions. By 1870, Napa’s population had grown from just over 1,000 to over 7,000 and the religious centers of the Valley reflect the burgeoning ethnic diversity. There were Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Jews, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Taoists.


In the waning years of the 19th century, Italians began immigrating into the Valley taking over the labor force in the vineyards. As immigrants flocked to the Valley growing the population by leaps and bounds, the diversity could be heard on the streets, tasted in the restaurants, and seen in the newspaper advertisements. Spanish, English, German, Chinese, Italian, and French could be heard in a single block. However, at the turn of the 20th century with the spread of phylloxera, World War I, the Influenza Pandemic, and the Temperance Movement, the wine industry collapsed, and fruit and nut orchards took over. By the end of the first hundred years of historic immigration, Napa’s population plateaued at around 20,000 and the succeeding Great Depression and World War insulated Napa Valley for the next 50 years. 


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