History - Mendocino County

Early history

Despite its idyllic locale and rich soil (or perhaps because of them,) Mendocino Valley has a turbulent history, dating well back to pre-Columbian times.

While Native American peoples of California were more peaceable than most, the rich and defensible valley became a center of conflict between the local Yuki, Pomo, Cahto, and Wintun tribes. It is said that the continued fertility of the region is due to the infusion of ancestral blood spilled between the tribes.

Cabrillo plaqueJuan Cabrillo discovered the valley in his 1540 expedition, and named it after Antonio de Mendoza, Viceroy of New Spain, who had commissioned the journey. So taken was Mendoza with Cabrillo’s tales of the gorgeous valley, he gifted it to a favored nephew, Julia Augusto de Mendoza.

Armored and bearing guns, Mendoza and his men had little difficulty slaughtering the natives who had possession of the valley. Fortunately for the Spaniards, the local natives viewed them as just another tribe vying for the area, and did battle or trade with them piecemeal. By the time they thought to unite against these better-armed pale strangers, it was too late: Mendoza’s canons had arrived by boat, and once secured, the valley was impregnable.

After displacing the natives from Mendocino Valley proper, the Spaniards managed to largely coexist with their neighbors, however, the gold rush settlers in 1949 were not interested in peaceful coexistence, and local native relations deteriorated quickly.

After California became a state in in 1850, the Americans pushed the natives into Mendocino Indian and Round Valley Reservations. And then, in 1859, the valley exploded over a barfight. A white man lost his eye, and the Mendocino War began. When it ended, dozens of whites and hundreds of Indians lay slain.

Segregation and mistrust continued well into the twentieth century. The last Pomo was lynched for talking to a white child in 1961, since when local authorities have cracked down harshly on any ethnic violence.


Recent history

Mendocino has been a sort of second wine country since Spaniards first got a hold of it. The rich riverside valley is ideal for many of the more sensitive grape strains, and so while Napa-Sonoma is larger and more versatile, the Mendocino vineyards that cling to the local hillsides and hide in the forests produce a higher quality product for rarefied palates.

Thus, Mendocino become something of a wine supplier to the upper crust of San Francisco, one of the finests crusts in the US for much of the past two centuries. And like any affluent California district surrounded by natural beauty, the Mendocino valley quickly became one of the first strongholds of 60s counterculture.

The hippies came in droves to Ukiah, Willits, and Mendocino town (though not as much to Fort Bragg), where they staged music festivals and love-ins, and communed with nature. Though the local farmland was intractably devoted to wineries, nearby Humboldt became a pot grower’s mecca, and the locals did not need to go far afield to get stoned.

This 420-friendliness landed Mendocino in the middle of the newborn war on drugs in the 1980s, as federal agents and growers from Humboldt clashed (sometimes violently) over the area. Ukiah was hardest-hit by far, and many aging hippies found it hard to believe that blood could be spilled and gangland warlords could arise over the most harmless drug around.

Mendocino’s time as a drug warzone ended as quickly as it had begun with the advent of the Clinton years, when the hostilities inexplicably ceased. While both federal agents and drug-runners still pass through Ukiah, they seem to keep a more level head about violence, and only a few arrest or sting attempts have ended in violence.

This escalated again in the late Bush and early Obama years with the rise of the Mexican Cartel Wars as Cartel operators tried to get their hooks into Ukiah. To stymie this invasion, the people passed Ballot Measure G, Mendocino became the first county in the US to pass a full-on legal Marijuana initiative, allowing the drug to be grown, sold, and used recreationally within county limits.

Pot field humboldt

Sadly, this was not a perfect solution. Federal and state prohibition overruled local statute, so that only municipal authorities were within their rights to ignore pot use. And the cartels simply moved their operations to Humboldt, where they have remained, even as they have circumvented Ukiah as a shipping route.

Furthermore, local wine interests have lobbied nonstop for the repeal of Measure G, finally overturning it in 2015. Since then, violence has very slowly and quietly increased in Ukiah, despite the best efforts of a very competent new Sheriff’s department.

Mendocino has hitched its economic wagon to that of San Francisco, and so has managed to avoid the worst pitfalls of the Second Depression for some time. Yet now, the demand for wine has plummeted, leaving Mendocino with fields upon fields of very expensive, sun-dried raisins.

Whether the county lives up to the prosperity of its façade or succumbs to the violence of its legacy depends entirely on those who call the city home.

History - Mendocino County

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