The name “Napa” was probably derived from the name given to a southern Nappan village whose native people shared the area with elk, deer, grizzlies and cougars for many centuries, according to Napa historian Kami Santiago. At the time of the first recorded exploration into Napa Valley in 1823, the majority of the inhabitants consisted of Native American Indians. Padre José Altimira, founder of Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, led the expedition. Spanish priests converted some natives; the rest were attacked and dispersed by Mexican soldiers. American farmers began arriving in the 1830s.
Before California was granted statehood in 1850, the Napa Valley was in California’s District of Sonoma. In 1850 when counties were first organized, Napa became one of the original counties of California. At the time, its boundaries also included Lake County to the north. By this time, the indigenous people were either working as field laborers or living in small bands in the hills surrounding the valley. Tensions between the white settlers and Native Americans broke into war in 1850, with a white man’s death resulting in soldiers hunting down and killing all the natives they could find, driving the remainder north toward Clear Lake. In 1851, the first courthouse was erected. By 1870, the Native American population consisted of only a few laborers and servants working for the white settlers.
The City of Napa was founded by Nathan Coombs in 1847. It was not the plan of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. He had paid to survey for a township down river at Soscol Landing where riverboats could turn around. The Napa town site was surveyed by James M. Hudspeth on property Coombs had received from Nicolas Higuera, original holder of the Rancho Entre Napa Mexican land grant. The first business establishment in the town was a saloon built by Harrison Pierce, a former miller at the Bale Grist Mill. Napa’s first general store was opened a year later in 1848 by Joseph P. Thompson. The first record of a ship navigating the river was the Susana in 1842. John Sutter’s schooner the Sacramento landed in 1844 to pick up a load of lime and deliver passengers. By 1850 the Dolphin became the first passenger steamship to navigate the Napa River in order to open another path of commerce.
In the mid-1850s, Napa’s Main Street rivaled that of many larger cities, with as many as 100 saddle horses tied to the fences on an average afternoon. John Patchett opened the first commercial winery in the county in 1859. The vineyard and wine cellar were located in an area that is now within the city limits of Napa. The Lyceum movement established a facility and reading room and an agricultural society was started. The Napa Reporter founded by Alexander J. Cox in 1856 published its first weekly edition on July 4 of that year. The Napa Valley Register founded by J.I. Horrell and L. Hoxie Strong made its debut on August 10, 1863 with weekly publications until becoming a daily newspaper in 1872.
Nathan Coombs and many other important city founders and builders are buried nearby in Tulocay Cemetery. Many Bear Flag Riders are buried here with their adversary Salvador Vallejo. At the entrance is the tomb of Mary (Mammy) Pleasant who is considered the Mother of Civil Rights in California.
The California Gold Rush of the late 1850s expanded Napa City. After the first severe winter in the gold fields, miners sought refuge in the young city from snow, cold, floods and disease. A tent city was erected along Main Street. There was plenty of work in the valley for disillusioned miners. Many cattle ranches were maintained, and the lumber industry had greatly expanded. Sawmills in the valley were in operation cutting up timber that was hauled by team to Napa, and then shipped out on the river to Benicia and San Francisco.
In 1858 the great silver rush began in Napa Valley, and miners eagerly flocked to the eastern hills. In the 1860s, mining carried on, in a large scale, with quicksilver mines operating in many areas of Napa County. The most noted mine was the Silverado Mine, near the summit of Mount Saint Helena. The mine was immortalized by Robert Louis Stevenson in his classic The Silverado Squatters. At this time, the first wave of rural, foreign laborers from coastal villages of China’s Canton province arrived in California, and at Napa County mines. Global investment bankers and national trading companies, especially British, imported this first wave of workers to do the manual jobs needed to build the area’s infrastructure. In contrast, the 49ers were often literate, Anglo-Americans “from the East” concerned about the rights of labor. Gold rush wages were high with California enjoying an “island” demand for workers. This condition set in motion a clash that resulted in the White Workingman’s Party movement; Napa Valley vintner Charles Krug was treasurer of that party. The opportunistic “Socialist” Kearny led the Party to control the state government in the 1870s. These predominately Irish-German born newcomers eventually passed the “anti-stick” legislation that led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act by the US Congress.
The racial difference against the Chinese, the end of slavery in Brazil, and the civil war in the United States, saw the need to recruit a new group for doing the work to expand global trade and commerce. For investors in Northern European ports engaged in Atlantic Ocean commerce, this reality changed the source of labor to Southern Europeans, mostly Catholic. The next wave of cheap laborers also came from coastal provinces; but close to the Port of Genova in Italy. In the 1880s, these illiterate young men from the hillside villages of Valbrevenna signed contracts as “bracianti” with shipping companies for passage to work in Napa County silver mines at Knoxville, Oat Hill, the Sierra foothills and on ranches in Uruguay-Argentina. In the history of Napa, the names of Arata, Banchero, Borreo, Rossi, Navone, Bartolucci, Massa are surnames of many families who re-planted their roots as a separate community at “Spanish Town” around the St. John’s Catholic Church, and Napa “Little Italy” on East First Street, Juarez, and Third Street.
A settlement for Chinese laborers in Napa was established in the early 1860s. At its peak from the 1880s to the early 1900s the Chinese population grew to a population of over 300 people.
In 1869, F. A. Sawyer established Sawyer Tanning Company in Napa and was joined in the business by his father B. F. Sawyer a year later. It went on to become the largest tannery west of the Mississippi River. The world-famous Nappa leather or Napa leather was invented by Emanuel Manasse in Napa in 1875 while working at the Sawyer Tanning Company.
Napa was incorporated on March 23, 1872, and reincorporated in 1874 as the City of Napa. Louis Bruck of Bremen, Germany was elected the first mayor. He was a Napa Valley pioneer (having arrived in California before 1850) and had married Lolita Bale, eldest daughter of mill owner Edward Turner Bale. In 1848, Bale died and Bruck became the executor of Bale Grist Mill and the lands of Rancho Carne Humana.
The Napa State Asylum for the Insane, now called Napa State Hospital, located just south of Napa, received its first patients in 1876. The Napa Valley Opera House became popular after its debut on February 13, 1880, with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore but, it later languished and was closed for many years. It was reestablished in the 1980s.
The Napa Journal began publication on May 16, 1890, and was succeeded by the Napa Daily Morning Journal on November 19, 1922. The paper continued publishing until June 29, 1941.
Napa had become the primary business and economic center for the Napa Valley by the dawn of the 20th century. The San Francisco, Napa and Calistoga Railway was established in 1905 for passenger and freight service. The railroad carried passengers from ferry boats in Vallejo to stops in Napa and other locations in the valley.
As agricultural and wine interests developed north of the city limits, much of the light industry, banking, commercial and retail activity in the county evolved within the city of Napa and in earlier times along the Napa River through the historic downtown. Napa Glove Factory was established in 1903 and was the largest plant of its kind west of Chicago. The owners, Raymond brothers, went to Gloversville, New York. They wore sandwich boards to recruit the relocation of immigrant southern Italian workers. The surnames Greco and Lui are some of the many Napa families that followed this chain migration to work at factory jobs in the town, not to own land for farming. Edwin Pridham and Peter L. Jensen invented the moving-coil loudspeaker in 1915 in their Napa workshop while working on an improvement for the telephone receiver. Pridham and Jensen went on to found the Magnavox Company in 1917. In the late 19th century and early 20th century Napa was known for having the largest red-light district for a California city of its size. In 1905, Napa had brothels primarily concentrated on and around Clinton Street.
Flooding of the river in downtown Napa during winter storms has been common since the town was first established. Records dating from 1862 describe twenty-seven significant flooding events. Following studies made by the United States Department of the Interior in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the United States Congress authorized channel improvements on the course of the Napa River and construction of a dam on Conn Creek as part of the Flood Control Act of 1944, however funding for the projects was never approved. The City of Napa funded and built the dam in order to create the water conservation reservoir Lake Hennessey in 1948, however flooding continued to be a problem. A large flood in February 1986 revived public interest in finding a remedy. After a traditional plan to widen the river channel proposed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers was presented in 1995 and roundly rejected, a group of special interests called Friends of the River formed. From January 1996 until May 1997, this coalition representing business, agricultural and environmental concerns met and achieved a consensus on a “living river” plan. Voters in the County of Napa narrowly approved an increase of .5 percent of the sales tax in a March 1998 election to fund the Napa River Flood Project. Although revenues from the increased sales tax have outpaced expectations, the project has progressed slowly. Current projections show the remaining phases of the project being completed in 2015. On December 31, 2005, the Napa River again overflowed and flooded the entire downtown area and thousands of acres all over Napa County. More than 4,000 residents were evacuated and 1,000 homes were flooded or destroyed. The 2005 flood was the 23rd most serious flood of the Napa River on record since 1865. The restoration of the Napa River has been accompanied by returning fish and wildlife to the area, such as the native beaver.
An ambitious redevelopment plan encompassing several blocks of downtown Napa’s retail property was undertaken by the city in the early 1970s. The project failed to produce a satisfactory return on investment as most residents took their shopping to regional shopping malls in Fairfield, Concord and Santa Rosa while much of the downtown redevelopment area was underutilized. Meanwhile, other cities and towns to the north within the county flourished due to the rapidly expanding popularity of the county’s wine industry. While the region gained worldwide fame as a desirable tourist destination, Napa languished while tourists bypassed the city. Downtown Napa finally began to recover and emerge from a long economic slumber in the 2000s, triggered by a significant growth in Main Street restaurants and hotels. The redevelopment of First and Main streets and the Napa Mill complex helped to stimulate investments along the Napa riverfront.
Major natural disasters include: August 24, 2014, the Napa area was struck by a magnitude 6.1 earthquake centered 3.7 miles (6.0 km) northwest of nearby American Canyon. In October 2017 the Atlas Fire and Partrick Fires burned several parts of Napa County. See also October 2017 Northern California wildfires