History of Napa

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The Wappo Indians, original residents of this fertile valley, called it Napa: "Land of Plenty." While from todays perspective, thinking of the acres and acres of robust grapes, that seems a perfect name for it, the Wappos were really referring to the salmon, elk, and waterfowl on the Napa River. Small grapes grew wild even then, which the Wappos simply enjoyed as a readily available snack.

WIth the arrival of the Spanish, the Napa Valley became the Napa Rancho, a virtually unpopulated tract in the vast ranchland of Alta California. The Wappo way of life was quickly subsumed and rendered extinct by mission culture. Mexico, eager to sell off Spanish holdings in Alta California after the 1821 revolution, deeded part of the valley, Caymus Rancho, to American homesteader George Yount in 1836.

Yount was a pioneer in many ways. The first American to be sold an Alta California land grant, he was also the first American settler, the first resident of what would become (you guessed it) Yountville, and the first man to cultivate grapes in Napa Valley.

Yount was quickly followed by other homesteaders. The valleys soil was fertile, its wide hills perfect for ranching, and the river made it easy to ship cargo to San Francisco. When the Gold Rush opened the floodgates to California and ended Spanish rule, the city of Napa became an important port and a commercial center. Cattle, lumber, wheat, and quicksilver, mined, grown, and raised in Napa County, were floated down the river into San Francisco Bay to feed a growing state. Viable communities sprouted, as well, in Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga.

Sam Brannan established a resort community in Calistoga in 1860. The man who almost single-handedly sparked the Gold Rush, by brandishing a bottle of American River gold dust in San Franciscos Portsmouth Square, tried to share his vision of an enlightened, health-centered community upon breaking ground for the project. The excited Brannan tried to invoke a respected Adirondack resort by mentioning the "Saratoga of California." His resulting slip of the tongue became the towns name.

Other settlers followed Younts example by planting wine. Charles Krug established the first commercial winery in Napa Valley in 1861, and by 1889 there were 140 wineries in the area. The quick growth of the new wine industry was its undoing, however. In the 1890s, a surplus sank prices, and phylloxera arrived on American shores. This root louse, from which, ironically, Napa vines had saved the French wine industry some years before, now struck at Napa vineyards.

So it was hardly cheering, then, when in 1920 the National Prohibition Act became law. The vineyards lay fallow. Though a few wines could be made for sacrament, growers and vineyard workers had, by and large, to find other work. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, Napa was in the doldrums.

It took the Depression to get it out. The 21st Amendment, which passed in 1932, overturned Prohibition and was for the Wine Country a message heaven-sent. Though the economic revival it sparked has had fits and starts, and a tourism learning curve, signs are that the Napas wine boom is not going to be over with soon.

Balancing Napas economy, so dependent on wine and tourism, are steel production, leather goods, insurance, Napa State University, and Napa State Hospital. Napa State Hospital (for those who did not grow up with the threat of being sent there) is one of the states main mental hospitals. It has a wing for the criminally insane.