The founding missionary was Fr. Jose Altimira who came from Barcelona, Spain, to manage Mission San Francisco de Asis. Three years after his arrival in California, he decided a new mission north of San Francisco Bay was needed. With the political assistance of Governor Luis Arguello, he founded this last California mission on July 4, 1823. Three years later, however, his neophytes burned the wooden buildings of the new mission during an uprising. Fr. Altimira became discouraged and returned to Spain in January, 1828.
Fr. Buenaventura Fortuny, an aging Franciscan from Mission San Jose, was assigned to replace Altimira. Fr. Fortuny quickly reestablished order and morale and the work of building the mission continued. Containing the number of structures necessary to every self-supporting mission establishment, its main buildings were arranged around a large, square enclosure. By 1832 the mission had 27 rooms in the convento or priest's quarters, with a great adobe church at the east end, and a wooden storehouse (the original mission chapel) at the west end. Completing this enclosure were workshops where the indians were taught to be craftsmen and created the items needed to help the mission be self-sufficient. Along the back of the courtyard were the living quarters and workrooms for the young lndian girls. In addition to the quadrangle, there were orchards, gardens, vineyards, fields of grain, a gristmill, houses for the soldiers and indian families, a jail, a cemetery and an infirmary.
The most successful year of this mission's short life span (11 years) was 1832. In his annual report for that year, Fr. Fortuny recorded the following: 127 baptisms, 34 marriages and 70 deaths; a total of 996 neophytes; the livestock inventory accounted for 6,000 sheep and goats, 900 horses, 13 mules, 50 pigs and 3,500 head of cattle; 800 fanegas of wheat, 1025 fanegas of barley, 3 fanegas of beans, 52 fanegas of peas, 300 fanegas of corn, 32 fanegas of frioles, and 2 fanegas of garbanzos were harvested .
Fr. Fortuny, having labored at this mission for 6 1/2 years alone, felt the need to transfer to another mission where the work load would be shared. He was 58 years old when he was replaced by Fr. Gutierrez.
In 1834 the Mexican Congress decided to close down all of the missions in Mexico. Mission San Francisco Solano ceased to exist on November 3, 1834, when it was designated a First Class Parish. Mariano Vallejo was sent north by the Mexican government with orders to oversee the closing of the mission and the founding of the pueblo of Sonoma.
The mission buildings rapidly fell into disrepair. The town of Sonoma was growing and building materials were in great demand. Roof tiles, timbers and adobe bricks were salvaged from the mission. After the settlers had cannibalized the old buildings, nature began recycling the remnants.
In 1841, Mariano G. Vallejo ordered a smaller church of adobe to be built in the location of the first wooden mission chapel. It replaced the large mission church which was rapidly deteriorating. It stood on the west end of the convento, so was often taken, in later years, to be a church of the old mission. In 1881, the church property was sold to a Sonoma businessman and a new parish church was built across town. At one time, the chapel was used as a warehouse. The convento may have been used as a winery.
In 1903, the two remaining mission buildings were purchased by a preservation group, and became part of the California Park System in 1906. By 1913, both had been reconstructed, and the chapel contained a museum of Sonoma history. After the 1940's, the former church and convento were remodeled along more authentic lines suited to exhibits devoted exclusively to mission history.
Mission San Francisco Solano was the 21st mission in Alta California, and the only one built under the Mexican era. It was the northernmost and last of the missions to be established. San Francisco Solano, the patron saint of the mission, was a 17th Century missionary to the Peruvians. This mission site was chosen for its' weather, water, grazing land and building materials.
The local indian tribes were the Miwok, Wintun and Wappo. Neophytes, or mission indians, were also drawn from many tribes farther away. Four Franciscan missionaries served at the mission: Fr. Jose Altimira, Fr. Buenaventura Fortuny, Fr. Jose Gutierrez, and FF. Jose Lorenzo Quijas.
The original Spanish plan for missions was for a missionary to move into an area and gather up the indigenous peoples of the area to convert and train. At the end of 10 years, these people should be sufficiently prepared and the missionary could move on to a new area and leave a functioning pueblo or town with Spanish loyalties behind. Secularization orders, signed by Governor Figueroa in August of 1834, were intended to complete this process.