Petaluma proposed as Marin County Government Seat

by Robert L. Harrison

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“California Ranch Scene in Marin County, 10 miles North of San Rafael” by Edward Vischer, 1860. Courtesy The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Under Mexican rule, the area now known as Marin County was part of the district of Sonoma, a large area encompassing all the lands west of the Sacramento River and north of San Francisco Bay to Oregon. Just prior to its September 9, 1850 admission to the United States, California was partitioned into counties. On February 18, 1850 a committee of the first California constitutional convention recommended 27 original California counties, including Marin. The state legislature confirmed the committee’s recommendation on April 25, 1851. Since then some 31 additional counties have been created for a total of 58 counties. Of the 27 original counties, Marin is the only one that remains as it was originally described, neither gaining nor losing land.

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“Approved & Declared to Be the Official Map of the State of California: by an Act of the Legislature Passed March 25th, 1853 .” New York: Published for R.A. Eddy, Marysville, California by J.H. Colton 1854, Print. California State Library Collection.

However, the boundaries of Marin were not always considered sacrosanct. In the mid-1860s an annexation to Marin was proposed that would amend the line separating Marin and Sonoma Counties. On February 8, 1866 a bill was presented to the legislature entitled “An Act to divide the County of Sonoma, and to attach a portion thereof to the County of Marin.” The proposed new boundary between Marin and Sonoma Counties would be: As extending from the Pacific Ocean, along the Russian River to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, then to Santa Rosa Creek and east along the Creek to its source at the Napa County line.

The area proposed for annexation to Marin would approximately double the size of Marin County and reduce the area of Sonoma County by about one-third. Communities that would have been detached from Sonoma County include Petaluma, about one half of Santa Rosa, Cotati, Sebastopol, Bodega and the town of Sonoma.

The Sonoma County support for the annexation measure came mostly from the Petaluma area. From 1854 when, Santa Rosa, a mere crossroads community with fewer than ten buildings, was designated the county seat, Petaluma sought to become the custodian of the seat. As early as March 28, 1861 the Sonoma Democrat reported a petition had been submitted to the legislature: “Your Petitioners, citizens of Sonoma county….suffer great inconvenience, and are put to unnecessary expense….by the present location of the County Seat at Santa Rosa; and therefore pray your honorable body to pass a law to submit the question of location to the voters of said county, between the points of Petaluma and Santa Rosa…” Petaluma and Santa Rosa enjoyed a similar number of residents through the 1860s and 1870s and both were considerably larger than San Rafael, Marin’s county seat.

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View of Petaluma looking east down Washington Street, 1857… Drawn from nature and lithographed by Kuchel & Dresel, Petaluma, 1857. Kuchel & Dresel; Britton & Rey. Courtesy California State Library.

Marin County support for the annexation came from the Tomales and San Antonio Townships, along the north county line. Citizens of northwest Marin expressed frustration with the long trek from that area to San Rafael. If the annexation was successful, an expanded Marin County opened the possibility of locating the county seat at Petaluma, a much shorter trip from Tomales. Expanding Marin County would thereby satisfy both the Marin and Sonoma supporters of the measure.

Not surprisingly, the annexation, and particularly the removal of Marin’s county seat from San Rafael, was vigorously opposed in that community. As described by the San Rafael based Marin Journal on December 2, 1865, “The object of the move [annexation] is plainly perceptible — the newly acquired portion would rule county affairs from the start, and what now constitutes Marin County would stand a dim show in obtaining any favors from the county administration should the newly acquired portion oppose it. For the people of Marin to sanction the change as proposed would be suicidal, as one end of the county would govern affairs to their own liking;…”

Map illustration courtesy Robert L. Harrison

The Healdsburg Democratic Standard reported on January 3, 1866, “The Marin Journal says nearly everybody in that county has signed the remonstrance against the annexation scheme,…” The January 20, 1866 Journal editorial described it this way: “That but a small portion of Sonoma desires the change….And in Marin, through exertions of paid agents, and obtaining of names of non-residents and those who are not entitled to vote in the matter,…present a petition containing six hundred names, while over seven hundred bona fide citizens, taxpayers and residents representing more than three-fourths of the landed property in Marin remonstrate against any such scheme…Marin county has territory enough,…for a population equal to that of Sonoma County.” Since its inception, Marin County never boasted a population equal to Sonoma County, remaining over the years about half of the size of its neighbor to the north.

On January 27, 1866 the Journal summed it up, “…we know of ‘paid agents’ and emissaries who publicly boasted in this town that if money could effect(sp.) the object of annexation, the matter was as good as settled…In the meantime the scheme will be kerflumixed, and we’ll take that skillet.”

The end of the annexation bill was described in the Sonoma Democrat on February 24, 1866 “…. the Committee upon County Boundaries, in Assembly, on Thursday [February 22, 1866], reported unanimously AGAINST Old’s bill for a division of Sonoma County.” The Journal declared: “The Mooted Question Settled.”

However, the annexation idea was not totally vanquished. The following year, in April, the Journal headed an article “The Issue at the Next Election.” The commentary read, “There is no doubt but that the issue at the next election will be the old game which was attempted to be played through two years ago — the annexation of a portion of Sonoma county to Marin, and then remove the county seat to Petaluma….There are places and room enough in Marin county for a County Seat, and men enough to build and officer it, and more are filling in daily.”

That an annexation to Marin County was never accomplished is readily apparent today. The County’s boundaries are the same today as originally authorized by the legislature in 1851.

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