The History of St. Helena

A Native American tribe, the Onastis, lived in a wide area of the Napa Valley which included St. Helena.  After the Spanish decided the whole place belonged to them, they renamed this tribe the Wappo. It means handsome and brave, and St. Helena was about as far north as the Spaniards decided to go.  An English doctor, Edward Bale, was given the entire Upper Napa Valley by the Mexican government in 1841.  He was very fond of drinking, and it only took him three years of partying to swap off most of his gigantic land grant to American emigrants coming to California.  In 1846, the new Napa Valley citizens were part of the Bear Flag Rebellion and the attack on Mexican headquarters in Sonoma. 

Two members of the rebellion, flush with success after the gold rush, were David Hudson and John York.  They stumbled upon hot mineral springs, the same ones the Wappos used for healing.  The men bought the springs and sold it off to developers who established California’s first resort, White Sulphur Springs, in 1852.

Not far from the resort, 126 acres were purchased. A small clapboard home was built along with a general store.  The builders offered to donate lots to anyone who was willing to put in the work to help start a real town. Pretty soon, homes and businesses appeared in the St. Helena intersection that is now Pope, Main and Spring Streets.  Ironically, a Temperance organization was formed.  Their mission was to warn people about the sins and horrors of drink!

The first folks who settled the Napa Valley were farmers, and it didn’t take long for them to discover that the soil was spectacular for growing grapes.  By 1860 George Crane and Charles Krug were pioneering the wine industry in St. Helena, and the town was bucks up.

St. Helena and the wineries grew up together.  The well-heeled in San Francisco came up for the spas and the charming town, along with delicious food and drink.  Some of them built second homes in the area and brought their friends to the Napa Valley, hosting large events.

The next group of emigrants was several German, Swiss and French families.  They brought with them a vast knowledge of winemaking.  Others were terrific stone masons and quarried the lava deposits of Mt. St. Helena to build homes and businesses.  By 1915, St. Helena was a busy tourist attraction: Europe, the easy way! became a popular expression.

On January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment became law, and 13 years of prohibition followed.  Highway 29 became known as the state’s second-most raveled route as people came up to buy bootlegged wine and brandy.  But, on a large scale, wineries were having a rough time.  Just as the law was repealed and fine wines were selling again, the Depression hit. St. Helena became a quiet, rural town of farmers, families, and mineral baths until the early 1970s when America, and the world, discovered this area of natural spas, stunning scenery, peace and sublime wine.

St. Helena is still idyllic. The Wappo Indians would recognize their hills and valleys, and the elegant architecture is a delight.  St. Helena is the heart of Napa, the place where winemaking, vineyards, and spas welcomed the first happy visitors.

Writer: Meredith Blevins, featured travel writer for the Authentic Wine Country.  Join her at www.blevinswordworx.com for wine-country mysteries, classes, and the untamed west.

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