Sculptor Jim Callahan sits down with Sonoma’s founder on a public park bench.
Story Don Frances Photos David Bolling
There can be no truer Californian than Mariano Vallejo. But he’s virtually invisible in the town he founded.
Born here as a Spanish subject, he fought Indians as a Mexican officer, formed alliances with northern tribes, became the region’s most powerful rancher, parleyed with world leaders, aided and was imprisoned by American pioneers, helped craft the state’s constitution, served as a senator and elder statesman, and died a proud American.
In all those years, and in the many years since, Vallejo’s name never faded. And yet, somehow, a proper memorial was never built to him in Sonoma, the town he established in 1835 on orders from Alta California’s governor—the town he built up, raised his children in, and in which he eventually died.
It’s an oversight some Sonomans have been working to correct for decades, and by this summer their plan will be set in bronze. An artwork by Sonoma sculptor Jim Callahan, made possible by a group of history-loving citizens, will depict the local hero sitting on a park bench not far from City Hall, gazing out at the place where he lived. The statue joins another Plaza memorial to his onetime captors, the Bear Flaggers, which has decorated the northeastern part of the Plaza for 103 years. Most Sonomans agree the new memorial is long overdue.
Vallejo was “an adept politician, good at reading the political winds and landing on the right side of them,” Callahan says of his subject. That’s true, although not even California’s savviest leader was able to avoid being on the wrong end of Americans’ muskets. But Callahan approaches his work as a pragmatist, focusing more on Vallejo’s physical features and personality. What pose might he strike, sitting on that park bench, book in hand?
Thanks in part to his own writings, much is known is about Vallejo’s life and character. He was born on July 4, 1807 (there is some dispute on the exact date), in Monterey. Though a tiny seaside pueblo, Monterey was also a global trading center at that time, with most visitors gathering there to trade in California’s chief products—rawhides and tallow. Aleutians, Russians, Hawaiians, Englishmen, Boston whalers, French-Canadian trappers, Ohlones, Pomos, Franciscan friars—these and other characters walked Monterey’s streets when Vallejo was a boy.
Mexico won its independence in 1821, and Vallejo, like all other Spanish Californians, became a Mexican citizen. Yet life changed little. By then the young Vallejo was lettered, well-groomed and highly ambitious—a rarity in laid-back California. As a Mexican military officer he gained distinction early on for defeating the Indian rebel Estanislau on the banks of the river now bearing his name. Later, as a decorated military leader, he played various roles in Alta California’s bloodless coups and rebellions, before growing tired of the circular conflicts and retreating to his moneymaking ventures in the Sonoma and Petaluma valleys.
By middle age, Vallejo was still handsome and youthful, slightly paunchy at 6 feet and 210 pounds. He sometimes walked with a cane due a riding accident, favored mutton-chop sideburns and fostered a regal image, acting imperiously with his subjects (for that is what they were), though he was known for his generosity and fair-mindedness.
He was a loving husband to his whip-smart wife, Francisca, and a loving father to his many children. Throughout his adulthood, Vallejo had a thoroughly Spanish lust for life (and women), and a strong sense of “getting ahead” and looking to the future. This latter feature set him apart among the Californios, as did his love of learning.
Though he was, by the late 1830s, the richest and most powerful man in Northern California, Vallejo never assumed he had it made—for the province, as he correctly foresaw, would not stay in Mexico’s negligent hands forever, or even for much longer. The only question was which of the three great naval powers—France, Britain or America—would end up claiming the place for itself. Opinions among Californios were split, but Vallejo sided early on with the Americans.
Until such time as revolution came, the don would continue applying his considerable skills as a rancher, grower and businessman, collecting heads of cattle and acres of land by the tens of thousands. Various nicknames—Comandante, El Ranchero, Jefe Político—indicated his power, even if the titles weren’t always technically accurate. But the one that stuck was El General, derived from his non-military title of “Comandante General of the Free State of Alta California.” (His highest military rank was that of colonel in the Mexican army.)
Vallejo is probably best known for his role—as dismayed captive—in the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846. That incident, though really only a sideshow of the Mexican-American War, has to be among the strangest and most romantic stories in California history. Its cruelest irony is that the gang of fighting-mad American settlers—who rode into town in the early morning of June 14 shoved their way into Vallejo’s Casa Grande and, after some talk and brandy, arrested him and three others—had singled out the one person in all of California most inclined to help their cause.
How the Bear Flaggers got it so wrong, and how the issue resolved itself, is a story for another time. But as Vallejo surely told his captors, he’d been on their side for years. American visitors to California often demonstrated qualities Vallejo thought his country needed more of: industry, ingenuity and grit. Some of them, like Thomas Larkin, had settled here permanently and made themselves indispensible. And as more and more American settlers arrived from overland, Vallejo often was the Mexican official offering them papers, supplies and even land. (Californios were known the world over for two things: their unequaled riding skills and their generous hospitality.)
In short, Vallejo always had an eye out for able-bodied Americans who could carry a conversation, think on their feet, handle a variety of tasks and work with their hands. He probably would have loved Jim Callahan.
Not long ago the artist was in his workshop, sitting on a park bench next to the latest iteration of his Vallejo sculpture. The figure, which Callahan first created in miniature, was a pre-casting model, one of several steps to the completed piece, which will be cast in bronze and life-sized.
Callahan is the kind of guy who might begin a sentence with, “When I first started horseshoeing in Virginia…” He’s lived in Sonoma since 1979, taking up residence in a sprawling former foundry built in the 1930s. Though huge, the foundry is hidden among the structures behind Readers’ Books and easy to miss. Behind Callahan’s small gleaming showroom, its interior is stuffed with sculptures and figurines, heavy-duty equipment, boxes of clay, ancient anvils. Shafts of light glow in the old dust.
Callahan takes a “blue-collar” approach to art, enjoying the heavy lifting that comes with sculpting. Though he never studied art formally—Callahan went to work on a ranch in Arizona straight out of high school—he knew what he wanted to do. “I’ve always been able to draw,” he says. “I did my first oil painting when I was 4.”
After his ranching stint, he joined the circus as a truck driver, electrician and animal handler (“elephants, camels, ponies”) before taking a job at a foundry in Arizona. The little wax figurines he’d make—of cowboys, or birds taking flight—melted in the desert heat. So he started casting them in bronze.
These days, “I’m like the studio musician of sculptors,” he says. “I do everybody’s work.” Yet plenty of his own work can be seen around the Valley: Callahan has a double ram’s head at Domaine Carneros, a Saint Francis at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, an egret taking flight at Bouverie Preserve. Images from nature, and of sturdy Western cowboy-types, continue to inform his art.
Currently he’s focused on the Vallejo piece—a familiar form of public art called “sit with me” sculpture—which is coming along nicely. He expects the final bronze cast will be done by early summer. Once completed, the piece will be mounted on a bronze bench and installed on a platform (designed by local architect Michael Ross) facing north along the Spain Street sidewalk, across from the Barracks.
Robert Demler, chair of the General Vallejo Monument Committee—that group of Sonomans who made all this possible—said the enterprise would never have happened without the late Sheila Cole. Her idea was to form a private committee that would commission the work—raising somewhere between $70,000 and $80,000 in individual donations to get the job done—and grant it to the city once completed. Cole, after forming the committee and getting things in motion, died last year at age 91.
The committee—which includes Martha Vallejo McGettigan, the general’s great-great-granddaughter—has raised about half of its goal, according to Demler, who adds, “We’ve got to get there by June.” The ad hoc committee will dissolve after its work is done. (Those looking to contribute to the Vallejo monument can go to generalvallejomonument.com.) No firm date is set for the statue’s unveiling, although tantalizingly, Vallejo’s 210th birthday is coming up on July 4.
If Vallejo could sit on a bench in Sonoma Plaza today and look out at the place he founded, what would he think? Besides the tall shady trees (the original Plaza was bare), he’d probably turn his attention to the sights and sounds of the modern world: the buildings, the motorcars, the bustle of a large and diverse population, the pleasant features of the American Dream.
It’s a dream Vallejo believed in, even after Americans stripped him of much of his wealth. Squatting, cattle rustling and more legal means of theft left him with a fraction of his former holdings. Still, he integrated, he pushed forward and he made a conscious effort to avoid bitterness. As the old patron put it in a letter to his son-in-law, “We are in the United States, soon to be the foremost nation on earth. Love everybody. Be good. Obey just laws. Que mas?”