"I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth," wrote Luther Burbank in his first letter from Santa Rosa in 1875. But then he added a qualifier: "...as far as Nature is concerned."


Something about Santa Rosa apparently didn't sit well with old Luther, but we'll never know what. The town was welcoming to "immigrants" such as himself, yet it was still rough around the edges - a Chinese man had just been shot in the back and no one seemed very interested in finding out who did it. It was also a saloon town, where men argued endlessly about race horses and politics, topics which didn't hold any interest for Burbank. Or maybe he didn't know what to make of a "humor" item which appeared in the local newspaper around the time he arrived. It went like this: An ex-slave encountered a friend of his former "Massa" and said all the changes since the Civil War had left him sad. While he managed to save enough before the war to buy his freedom, now he wished he kept the money instead. The punchline: As a slave he was worth $1,000 - now he wasn't worth a damn. 


The weekly Sonoma Democrat regularly offered racist items like that - so many that it would be easy to mistake it for a newspaper published in the Deep South. That vignette, in fact, was reprinted from a paper in Mississippi.


This article is a coda to the series "THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA," which explored how the Democrat in the late 19th century ignored African-American townspeople, even when they were men and women of distinction. It disappeared them by rarely offering obituaries and not mentioning weddings, deaths, births, arrivals and departures. But that doesn't mean the paper ignored African-Americans; it published something about them almost every week - albeit only things which ground them down by reinforcing the ugliest racist stereotypes.


Blacks in the late 19th century faced myriad problems nationwide, although today we focus mainly on the dramatic acts of violence and overt acts of discrimination - lynchings, the Klan, Jim Crow laws and the like. But reading the old Democrat it's shocking to discover how normalized racism was in Santa Rosa. Those toxic little stinkbombs in the paper reminded African-Americans they were inferior and fair game to be pushed around, and they sent a clear message to whites that blacks deserved lowly status. And probably worst of all, it taught white children all this was just the way of the world. Coming soon: White Supremacy, The Next Generation.


Let Gentle Reader be forewarned that this is not the sort of historical amusement usually found here, and what follows will stray into uncomfortable territory - reading (or writing) about hateful speech is No. Fun. At. All. But we can't discuss Santa Rosa's history without being honest about how ugly some of it really was. We can debate how much this material shaped the town, but we can't deny it existed. And we can't pretend this problem stopped when the Sonoma Democrat folded in 1897; the Press Democrat continued dishing out offensive racial jokes and short fiction well into the 1930s, only not as vigorously.




The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com. 


- Jeff Elliott


It came to this: He was afraid to step outside at night because they might be waiting for him in the dark.

His attackers during 1886 were a troupe of Santa Rosa boys who thought it was great fun to pelt Henry's little house with stones and other objects, with Henry sometimes being struck himself. The boys made a project of it, curating rotten chicken eggs and spoiled fruit  along with heavy-but-throwable rocks, hauling this ammunition stockpile down to the poorest part of town on First Street. His door was their target, but sometimes the missiles went through windows.

The harassment had gone on for a while - weeks, maybe months - while his pleas for help were ignored by the authorities. "The Marshal told him that the boys would not do it if they did not think it annoyed him, and they do it to hear the old gentleman complain", reported the Democrat newspaper in January. Another item about the ongoing attacks appeared nine months later, with the comment it was too bad that it was happening because Henry and his wife were good Christians.

The boys likely picked on the Davisons because they were African-Americans. Santa Rosa in the 19th century never had much tolerance for its non-white residents, and 1886 was particularly bad - on a downtown street that summer, a youth repeatedly beat a Chinese man in the head with an iron bar; no arrests were made and the newspaper waved it off with the same "boys will be boys" attitude.

Henry was also an easy target because he was elderly (67) and had the humblest job in town, shining shoes at Gus Koch’s barber shop on the corner of Mendocino and Fourth Street. His nickname was even "Shiner" - and let's not overlook that was also racist slang for anyone with a black complexion.

Another reason they may have gone after him was because he had to be a liar or a fabulist. There were stories told about him which couldn't possibly be true - such a frail, old shoeshine man in a farmtown like Santa Rosa couldn't have known famous people, taken part in historic events or done any other remarkable things. It all had to be made up. Right?



The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott



Quiz: Name the successful woman in 1870s Santa Rosa who was a real estate investor. Answer: It's a trick question (sorry!) because we don't know her real name.

On her tombstone at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery she is Elizabeth Potter. Legally she was C. E. Hudson; that was the only name on her will and how she bought and sold land - except for once when she identified herself as Charlotte E. Hudson. The 1860 census named her as Elizabeth Hudson, and her death notice in the local newspaper stated she was known as Lizzie Hudson. Whatever her name, Elizabeth/Charlotte Potter/Hudson was a remarkable woman. The reason you've never heard of her before is certainly because she was African-American and Santa Rosa's 19th century Democrat paper had a single-minded determination to erase the presence of its black citizens, only mentioning them when there was a shot at grinding them down with ridicule.

(This is the second installment in the series, "THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA." It will be helpful to read the introduction for background.)

Most of what we know about her comes from her tombstone and mentions in her brother's obituary (there was no obituary for her - she received only that two-line "Lizzie" death notice, which appeared for a single day). From real estate transactions we can guess her net worth was about $7,000 before she died in 1876; at that time in Sonoma County, $10k was the threshold for being considered wealthy.

Her birth name was almost certainly Elizabeth Potter and she was born a slave in Maryland, 1826. Bondage ended when she escaped a slaveholder in Virginia and somehow made her way to Santa Rosa, California. Speculate if you want that "Hudson" was related to a deceased husband, but note she never once used "Mrs." with any form of her name, as was the custom at the time for widows.

We first meet her locally as Elizabeth Hudson in the 1860 census, where she is part of the household of civil rights activist John Richards, counted as a servant. (A servant was defined as a paid domestic worker.) She was listed as 37 years old and from Maryland. But a few days later, she was listed a second time as a servant for John H. Holman - but this time from Virginia. A double-count mistake like that is unusual, but not all that rare; the respondent for the household was almost certainly one of the Holmans and not Elizabeth herself.

After the Civil War she managed to reach her older brother who had remained in captivity until emancipation, having been sold four or five times in his fifty-odd years. At her urging, Edmund joined his sister here in 1872 and two years later, they became co-owners of 50+ acres north of town next to the county poor farm. Presumably all or most of the $1,200 price was contributed by Elizabeth (this deal was the only time she used "Charlotte").

There Edmund and his wife, Martha, made a small farm. Elizabeth may have lived with them as well; it was where she died in 1876.

Elizabeth knew she was dying and sold one of her investment properties for the first time, getting $1,700 for a downtown parcel. She also tried to lure more of her family to Santa Rosa; in a poignant bequest in her will, she offered 13 of an even more valuable lot to "any cousin of mine who may come out from the East and attend me in my last sickness and may be here before my burial." Nobody came. When she passed away just before Thanksgiving, her 59 year-old brother Edmund - who could read but not write - inherited everything.




The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott


With all the interest in correcting the historical record by pulling down monuments to racists and traitors, let's talk about honoring someone, too: He was Sonoma County's first civil rights activist and a lonely patriot in Santa Rosa's swamp of Confederate sympathizers. His name was John Richards and he had a radical notion: African-American children were entitled to receive a basic education.

Nothing apparently was more important to Richards than the "colored school" but under 1860 California law, “Negroes, Mongolians and Indians shall not be allowed into public schools" so parents like John and Philena Richards had to pay for a private school or send their children away to board with someone where a school was available. Petaluma was among six communities in Northern California that bucked the law and created a public school for black children in 1864, and nothing stopped Santa Rosa from doing likewise, if it had the will.1

Since Richards was a man of means, he hired teachers to educate the town's black children, including his two adopted kids, Ella and Frank - even though he was also paying $70 a year in county taxes to underwrite public schools for whites.2

(This is the first profile in the series, THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA." It will be helpful to read the introduction for background.)

By trade Richards was a barber, which was one of the better occupations open to African-Americans in 19th century white America. Santa Rosa's weekly newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, typically flung racist epithets at blacks as a race, white abolitionists and  Lincoln Republicans, but Richards was never demeaned in editor Thomas Thompson's Democrat, likely because his business was a regular advertiser and he was a wealthy man. But just because the Democrat didn't target Richards does not mean Thompson treated him with respect. In an 1869 screed against the Democratic Party not sufficiently defending a "White Man's Government," a contributor sneered he "would rather marry John Richard’s wife, if a widow, than the widow of a democrat.” Thompson added helpfully, "[This is a negro family in Santa Rosa.]"

Instead of openly insulting Richards himself, Thompson ghosted him by ignoring his remarkable deeds. The only time Richards' school was mentioned in the newspaper was a grudging nod via reprinting a tribute from one of San Francisco's African-American weekly newspapers. It was written by Judge William Churchman, a local abolitionist - but Thompson added a preface that it showed the town wasn't as hateful as it really was: "It may seem a little remarkable to some intensely loyal people, but the fact is nevertheless true, that Santa Rosa which has long enjoyed the reputation with loyalty of being a perfect hot bed of traitors and negro-haters should afford one of the best schools for the education of negro children to be found in the State." The Democrat did not even acknowledge, however, that Richards was sponsoring the school.

And, of course, Thompson didn't reprint another part of the same article that revealed some white Santa Rosans were apparently attending the graduation ceremony looking to pick fault with the children's learning, yet came up short themselves:



The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

There were worst places to live in California than Santa Rosa in the 19th century - there's always gotta be someplace worse - but if you were an African-American, this town was a hard place to call home.

There are 23 African-Americans buried at Santa Rosa's old graveyard, the Rural Cemetery (listed below). We don't know much about most of them aside from vitals - birth/death, coroner's reason why they died, maybe their job. At least four had been slaves, possibly up to seven. Very few had an obituary in a newspaper; what little trace remains will appear in the revised cemetery book which comes out later this year with thumbnail profiles on almost every person there, which will instantly make it the most important work on local history ever published. About half of the African-Americans buried there are lost, meaning the locations of their graves are unknown. Any wooden or temporary markers are long gone.

But three of them have remarkable histories which are explored in the following three articles; John Richards, Edmund Potter and Henry Davidson deserve to be remembered and honored.

Their stories are intertwined with Santa Rosa as it existed in their day - which is to say, a shockingly racist small town. While it's always been generally well known that this village was a cheerleader for the Confederacy around the Civil War, little has been detailed about the way black members of the community were treated here in the decades after, often facing routine cruelty and sometimes violence. Yes, Santa Rosa discriminated against the Chinese and like many communities in the West formed an Anti-Chinese League in 1886, but that hostility simmered down. Not so the feelings toward African-Americans.

Other towns in California were sympathetic to the antebellum South, but try and find another place where anger at its defeat burned for decades like a fire which would never extinguish. Read the old Democrat newspaper and enter a world with upside-down racial grievances; everything would be okay if only African-Americans just went away (somewhere); there was sometimes inchoate rage that slaves had (somehow) instigated the Civil War. The Democrat liberally sprinkled its pages with the "n word" and other racial slurs before, during and after the war, often reprinting the most racist filth scraped from Southern newspapers. The hatefulness in that paper was unrelenting and often savage.


The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

Imagine if the Golden Gate Bridge was never built - engineering issues couldn't be solved, perhaps, or maybe there were insurmountable economic hurdles, or just not enough political will. What would Sonoma County be like today?

The only way to get here from San Francisco is by ferry, for starters, so Santa Rosa is a much smaller place. There was no population boom after World War Two; it's a rural county seat somewhat like Ukiah, and the courthouse is still in Courthouse Square because they patched up the mostly cosmetic damage from the 1957 earthquake instead of tearing it down. Stony Point Road is the Highway 101 bypass, its two lanes swelling to three at the stoplights where there is cross traffic and turn lanes. Tourists clog the Redwood Highway on weekends because the winery events, resorts, spas and casinos in the countryside make this a popular getaway destination for the rest of the Bay Area, while the weekly Press Democrat is always pushing for year-round motocross and horse racing at the fairgrounds in order to draw visitors downtown. "Sonoma County? Sure, it's a nice place to visit, but no, I..."

Building the Bridge was never a sure thing, but it wasn't because there was formidable opposition. Yes, there were efforts to slow or stop the project but it wasn't ongoing, popping up only when the project neared a funding or construction milestone. None or those challenges posed serious threats, but were more like pesky nuisances.

Yet when the project launched in 1923 it seemed delusional to believe it would ever pass beyond the blueprint stage. Not only were there some engineers who thought it was folly to attempt constructing the longest bridge of its kind at that particular place, but its promoters had to run an incredibly complex political gauntlet, convincing Washington and Sacramento to back it enthusiastically - all before doing the basic studies which would prove the concept was viable. And even after construction began in January 1933, a retired geologist made a splash by predicting the south end could never be made stable, requiring months of further testing to prove him wrong.

All in all, it took almost 20 years to get to ribbon-cutting day. This is not the place to tell that whole story; the Golden Gate Bridge District has history pages for further details on the critical years of 1928 and 1930 (although some of the information on bridge opponents is wrong). A version of the original 1916 article proposing the idea is transcribed below.

Local folks probably know that the key part of the origin story concerns doings in Sonoma County by two men: Frank Doyle, president of the Exchange Bank as well as the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, and Press Democrat editor/publisher Ernest Finley. Although Doyle modestly said he was "just one of the hundreds who helped to put the bridge over," he always will be remembered for kicking the project off by organizing the January 13, 1923 conference in Santa Rosa which brought together over 250 bankers, business leaders and politicians, which earned him his spot standing next to the governor and the mayor of San Francisco when the bridge was officially opened. Finley was the indefatigable champion for the cause, turning the Press Democrat into a soapbox for promoting funding and construction, cheering every nugget of good news and booing every bit of bad.

After Finley's death in 1942, however, the story shifted; it was said the newspaper suffered by losing subscribers because of its bridge advocacy and Finley was a warrior editor battling powerful railroad, logging and farm special interests opposed to the bridge. This version has taken root over the years in the PD and elsewhere; here's the version from the Media Museum of Northern California: "...In this particular crusade, which spanned at least two decades, Finley stood almost alone...he was opposed by nearly everyone. His business suffered as he lost advertising accounts and subscriptions. But he continued the campaign, insisting, 'Damn the circulation! The bridge must be built!'” That's now his legacy quote although it's probably apocryphal.1

The problem with that narrative is it's not really true.


The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott

It pains to write this, but the coronavirus probably will be an extinction level event for most print newspapers. This is not a shocking new development; the Nieman Journalism Lab started the death watch even before the National Emergency was declared. Go back to the 2008-2009 recession and find pundits were warning that print was unlikely to survive another economic downturn - newspapers were like a flotilla of Titanics all drifting towards the iceberg zones. And so here we are today; sans charitable bailouts from billionaires or megacorps, lots of ships are soon to sink together into the cold sea.

This is not the place to go into all the reasons why this is happening, but some are well hashed over: Printing presses can keep rolling only so long without advertisers to pay for the paper and ink. Too many newspapers were being run by the MBA-types who saw journalism as little different from selling soup - if the demand slacks off, keep the profits high via cutbacks. Many were even taken over by hedge funds and investors who saw them only as cash cows to be milked dry; a must-read is a 2018 article, "This Is How a Newspaper Dies" (the term "harvesting market position" will definitely be on the quiz).

The deeper problem for newspapers is that nobody's reading them. U.S. circulation is the lowest it's ever been since they began keeping records in 1940. Why is that? It's not like we've become a sub-literate society; Americans are typically spending over six hours a day online and not all of it is looking at cat videos. And particularly now in the spring of 2020 we're news-junkies, with 89% of U.S. adults following the latest about coronavirus closely - only not via newspapers. We've given up on newspapers, but as I've said for over 25 years: Readers did not give up on newspapers until newspapers abandoned their readers.



The rest of this article can be read at the SantaRosaHistory.com website. Because of recurring problems with the Blogger platform, I am no longer wasting my time formatting and posting complete articles here. I will continue to create stubs for the sake of continuity, but will be publishing full articles only at SantaRosaHistory.com.

- Jeff Elliott


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