History of Napa
In prehistoric times, the valley was inhabited by the Patwin Native Americans, with possible habitation by Wappo tribes in the northwestern foothills. Most villages are thought to have been constructed near the floodplains of watercourses that drain the valley. Their food consisted of wild roots, acorns, small animals, earthworms, grasshoppers, and bread made from crushed California buckeye kernels. In winter they would construct huts made of tree branches. In summer they camped near rivers and streams. In winter months, they were half clad in wild animal skins and at other times they wore no clothing. The maximum prehistoric population is thought not to have exceeded 5000 persons.
In 1776, a fort was erected by the Spanish Governor, Felipe de Neve a short distance northwest of Napa, on an elevated plateau. Russians from Sonoma County's Fort Ross grazed cattle and sheep in the Napa Valley in the early 19th century and in 1841 a survey party from the fort placed a plaque on the summit of Mount Saint Helena.
Francis Castro and Father Jose Altimura were the first Europeans to explore the Napa Valley in 1823. When the first white settlers arrived in the early 1830s, there were six tribes in the valley speaking different dialects and they were often at war with each other. The Mayacomos tribe lived in the area where Calistoga was founded. The Callajomans were in the area near where the town of St. Helena now stands. Further south, the Kymus dwelt in the middle part of the valley. The Napa and Ulcus tribes occupied part of the area where the City of Napa now exists while the Soscol tribe occupied the portion that now makes up the southern end of the valley. Many of the native peoples died during a smallpox epidemic in 1838. Settlers also killed several over claims of cattle theft.
During the era between 1836 and 1846, when California was a province of independent Mexico, the following 13 ranchos were granted in Napa County:
Following his marriage to General Vallejo's niece Maria Guadalupe Soberanes, Edward Turner Bale became a citizen of Mexico and was granted Rancho Carne Humana in the northern end of the valley. Bale completed building the Bale Grist Mill a few miles north of St. Helena in 1846. Colonel Joseph B. Chiles a guide for one of the earliest immigrant trains to California, was granted Rancho Catacula in 1844.
The Town of Napa was founded on Rancho Entre Napa by Nathan Coombs in 1847. Following the event of the Mexican - American War, Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 and the Mexican Cession in 1848, settlers were granted deeds from the original ranchos during the 1850s through 1870s. To this day, a number of streets and landmarks around the valley reflect the names of these ranchos and original grantees.
Descendents of George Yount and Edward Bale played key roles in the early development of Napa County's wine industry. Yount's granddaughter Elizabeth Yount married Thomas Rutherford in 1864. The couple received as a wedding gift from George Yount, land in the area of the valley now known as Rutherford. Rutherford established himself as a serious grower and producer of fine wines in the following years. Bale's daughter Caroline married winemaker Charles Krug in 1860. Bale provided a dowry that included land north of St. Helena. Krug planted a vineyard and established the valley's first commercial winery on this land.
Napa County was formed and became one of the original California counties when the state became part of the United States in 1849. The county's population began to swell in mid century as pioneers, prospectors and entrepreneurs moved in and set up residence. During this period, settlers primarily raised cattle, farmed grain and fruit crops. Mineral mining also played a role in the economics of the county. While gold was being prospected in other areas of the state in the 1850s, Napa County became a center for silver and quick silver mining.
In 1866 John Lawley established a toll road from Calistoga over Mount Saint Helena to Lake County. Robert Louis Stevenson's book The Silverado Squatters provides a snapshot of life and insight into some of the characters that lived around the valley during the later part of the 19th century. Stevenson, accompanied by his new bride Fanny Vandegrift and her 12 year old son from a previous marriage, Lloyd Osbourne, spent the late spring and early summer of 1880 honeymooning in an abandoned bunk house at a played out mine near the summit of Mount Saint Helena. In the book, Stevenson's descriptive writing style documented his ventures in the area and profiled several of the early pioneers who played a role in shaping the region's commerce and society.
In the mid 1880's, entrepreneur Samuel Brannan purchased land in the northern end of the valley at the foot of Mount Saint Helena and founded Calistoga. He began developing it as a resort town taking advantage of or the area's numerous mineral hot springs. He also founded the Napa Valley Railroad Company in 1864 to bring tourists to Calistoga from San Francisco ferryboats that docked in Vallejo. Brannan's railroad venture failed and was sold at a foreclosure sale in 1869. The railroad eventually came under ownership of Southern Pacific Railroad late in the 19th century.
Stevenson's book also brought attention to the various spas and hot springs in the county. From Calistoga to Æetna Springs in Pope Valley to Soda Springs Resort a few miles east of Napa, tourists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made the county their destination much the same as modern day tourists. The resorts became very popular with San Franciscans anxious to escape the cold and foggy weather that often plagues the city to enjoy the warmer climate that Napa County offered.
By the end of the 20th century's first decade, farmers had planted over 500,000 fruit and nut trees in the county. This helped to soften the blows to the agricultural economy caused by the phylloxera infestation in the county's vineyards and upcoming prohibition that crippled the wine industry. The Basalt Rock Company which is located south of the City of Napa built 3 dozen salvage rescue tugs for the United States Navy during World War II. Following the war, several small and medium size businesses began operating in the County. A large majority of these businesses were related to the wine industry and tourism. Agriculture in the county remained very diverse until late in the 20th century when wine grapes again became the primary focus. While vineyards were planted on well over 90% of the agricultural land in the county by the end of the 20th century, modern day farmers have recently began exploring the possibility of raising other food crops in order to again diversify and take advantage of growing conditions.