Mission San Francisco de Solano, Sonoma, CA.
Time To Retire It
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved the idea of the Old West. My parents read the Little House on the Prairie books to me and my sister, and we never missed the TV show starring Michael Landon of Bonanza fame. We had a large collection of Best of the West action figure dolls and an assortment of horses and even a covered wagon. Our plastic pioneers trekked across a sand-colored carpet remnant in the basement and constructed towns centered around the two-foot-high general store and log cabin that my parents made us for Christmas. I secretly regretted that my immigrant ancestors never got any farther west than the western edge of New York State.
Amy and Heidi Hackford playing “West” in the mid ‘70s.
When I could read myself, I devoured Louis L’Amour novels and even wrote my own (terrible) Western stories. I had a crush on Shane and other gunslingers. As I grew up, I read Lonesome Dove and enjoyed John Wayne movies and Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, and I went to theaters to see Tombstone and 319 to Yuma.
Now I live on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in California—it’s as far West as I can go in the US. And I love that my husband’s family springs from pioneers who arrived here in the 1850s.
Recently, we went wine tasting in Sonoma County and stopped at the quaint town square. On one side of the square is a state historic site, the restored Mission San Francisco de Solano. It is the last in the line of Catholic mission established throughout California. Founded in 1823, it was the culmination of three hundred years of Spanish settlement.
Signage at Mission San Francisco de Solano.
My husband and I were startled by text of the signage, which told the “heroic” story of General Vallejo, tasked with establishing a town near the mission and defending it. Native Americans built the military barracks across the street from the mission church as well as a mansion where the general lived. They did so, according to the sign, under the general’s “leadership,” and they also “did everything from caring for his many children to grooming his horses.”
So, after the Spanish had wiped out most of their population with disease, aggressively tried to eradicate their culture and convert them to Christianity, and forcibly enslaved them, these Native Americans had the privilege to work at “one of the finest homes in California.” Apparently, the upcoming 200-year anniversary of the mission has prompted a re-examination of its history. It will no longer be termed a “commemoration” and plans are currently underway to update the historic interpretation at the site.
There is, of course, a dark side to our cultural depictions of the Old West. Like the mission story, it glorifies land grabbing, genocide, oppression, and gun violence. And the roots of that history are deep. Recently, my bucolic beach town of Half Moon Bay made the national news. Only a week after massive winter storms had devastated the area, a local farmworker shot and killed seven of his coworkers with a legally purchased handgun. Investigations have revealed that the workers lived in substandard conditions typical of the country’s underclass, paid well below the minimum wage and living in shipping containers without running water or electricity.
Is this how Old West culture manifests today? Maybe it’s time for a change.
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.