Sebastopol: From Russia With Love
It's Greek To Me
Sebastopol was the Greek name given in 1783 to a new city in the Crimean peninsula on the Black Sea. The city was founded by Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who imagined that these cities would be part of a growing empire that would expand to Europe.
“Sebastos” in Greek means “venerable” or “august,” and “pol” is a shortened form for polis, which means city. In Ukrainian and Russian, it is spelled “Севастoполь,” as it appears in the photograph of the war monument in Moscow above. In anglicized Russian, it is written “Sevastopol,” but in English, it is Sebastopol.
How did Sebastopol come to be the name of a town in Northern California?
The town of Pine Grove had been started in the 1850s as a Gold Rush-era trading post in an area frequently used by the Pomo and Miwok. It was during that time that the Siege of Sebastopol took place, the final battle of the Crimean War (1854-1855), in which the Russians lost to the allied forces of Ottoman Empire, France and Great Britain after a brutal siege.
The legend has it that two men of Pine Grove got in an argument about the town’s future in front of a store owned by John Dougherty (no relation). They were egged on by a crowd to start a fight and one of them took a beating or ran inside the store to hide, and the lop-sided outcome was tagged with the name “Sebastopol.”
The city of Sebastopol website repeats the fistfight legend:
The name of Sebastopol first came into use in the late 1850s as a result of a prolonged and lively fistfight in the newly formed town, which was likened to the long British siege of the Russian seaport of Sevastopol during the then-raging Crimean War.
Cummings is not so sure about this legend, saying “there’s no clear answer to the question about the origin of the name, Sebastopol.” What we do know is “Pine Grove was renamed Sebastopol in about the seven month period between November 1855 and the end of May of 1856.”
The first mention of the word, Sebastopol, in the Petaluma newspapers was in early April of 1860 (Sonoma County Journal, April 6, 1860) in which Petaluma readers could get off the stage in Sebastopol and continue with their journeys by taking the “little steamer Georgina.” About three months later, Petaluma readers were invited to recreate and relax in the adequate offerings of Sebastopol (Sonoma County Journal, August 3, 1860). As in all good newspapers, Sebastopol is mentioned in the Petaluma newspapers in subsequent years for every drowning, untimely death, or for any news worthy event which occurred in the vicinity of Sebastopol.
Cummings finds a letter in the Petaluma and Argus newspaper in July 1865 from a person living in Sebastopol who describes the Fourth of July activities of the community. “The letter also states that Sebastopol owes its name to ‘Russia’s renowned Fortress,’” adds Cummings. They reached back to a Russian past that left Russian Fort Ross as well as the Russian River and they also connected the town to current events in the Crimea. Today, Fort Ross (or Fortress Ross, as it was known in Russian) is again making news, as in this recent Washington Post story, “Russia’s Jamestown in America — and the oligarch who has helped fund it” (April 12, 2022):
As any son of Moscow or daughter of Vladivostok making a pilgrimage to the park will tell you, Fort Ross is the Russian equivalent of Jamestown. I know this because when hiking Fort Ross when I lived up the road, I encountered more than a few Russian visitors who told me so in those terms. They were serious about connecting with their country’s history in America.
Perhaps the early settlers of Sebastopol sought the same connection. Cummings concludes, after much research, that the town of Sebastopol got its name because the citizens of the up-and-coming town wanted a name change, a kind of re-branding. They agreed on Sebastopol for its name for the future, replacing Pine Grove.
Cummings pointed out that Sebastopol was a popular name for a town in that era; there were several other towns in Northern California named Sebastopol, one of which is now called Yountville in Napa.
What might be interesting to us today is how local newspapers created a record of what happened in the area, who lived here and what they did over many years. Those papers changed over the years as did the people who ran them.
In another paper on early newspapers, Cummings writes:
Three weekly newspapers started in early Sebastopol – the Analy Standard, the Sebastopol Journal, and the Sebastopol Times. An early 1903 promotional article for the new Town of Sebastopol in the Times states that the town had two newspapers at the time. The Journal was purchased by the Times and merged into one paper at the beginning of 1929.
The Sebastopol Times continued to be published until 1985, when it was sold, along with the West County Times to a network of publications affiliated with Lesher Communications.2 After several years, journalist Rollie Atkinson as Sonoma West Publishers purchased both papers and they became Sonoma West Times and News. That paper stopped publishing in print three years ago. Atkinson gifted the assets to a non-profit, Sonoma County Local News Initiative, which launched SoCoNews in 2021. Atkinson retired last month.
Today, a Sebastopol newspaper is a thing of history, available only in digitized archives through the library. There is no longer any published paper of record for what happens in Sebastopol and West County. The market for local advertising went away and so did the business model for print. However, if we believe in the value of publishing local news, the stories of our home town, its people and politics, it can and must continue in a digital form. That is what we seek to do with this newsletter named the Sebastopol Times in honor of that old newspaper that once served this area. If you subscribe, the Sebastopol Times will arrive in your email inbox. We hope you will support it and tell your friends and neighbors.
Even in the Internet age, we are grounded in our local town where we live and breathe, where families are started and our kids grow up, where we work and play and where we retire. As citizens, being well-informed helps us engage fully in civic life. This “venerable” place at the crossroads of West Sonoma County deserves our attention, especially at the present time.
Film director John Ford famously said “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”