The Nunns of Nunns’ Canyon
Back in the 1970s, Glen Ellen resident Walt Ritzmann, who was born here in 1909, recalled a story he’d heard about Hugh Nunn, who homesteaded in the Mayacamas about four miles east of town: “In the wintertime if they couldn’t get out any other way, they had to walk. I’ve been told that up there on the Nunn ranch, old Mr. Nunn he’d come down to town and he’d carry a 100-pound sack of flour back up on his back, you know, when it was raining…it must have been an awful hard life.”
A surveyor who came through in the 1860s described the area around Hugh’s homestead as “very broken” with “but a few places Susceptible of settlement or cultivation, the most of it precipitous Chamizo Mountains. There is some open ground near the streams and affords fine range for Stock and in some Spots there is a few redwood trees.” Despite its ruggedness, the surveyor predicted that “the part Surveyed will make a few fine dairy farms. The hill sides will make fine vineyards and the Small bottoms on the creek will produce any kind of Grain or vegetables.”
It took Hugh several decades to reach Glen Ellen from his native Scotland, where he was born in 1806. Initially, he immigrated to Texas in the 1830s when it was an independent republic. There he acquired land near Galveston and married Sarah Rowe, who was from either Georgia or Texas (sources disagree) and still a teenager. They had a son, Charles, in 1849. Soon after, Hugh and his family headed west again, either by ship or wagon train. By 1852, the Nunns were living in the gold fields of Sierra County. Four-year-old Charlie Nunn was the only child among 300 people in the vicinity, and his mother Sarah was one of two women. Ninety-seven percent of the population were miners. Hugh, a ‘Trader,’ was one of a handful who were not.
In the mid-1850s, the Nunns left the Sierras and came to Sonoma Valley. Hugh was about 50 years old, while Sarah was still in her twenties. The Nunns were probably the first to settle the canyon that now bears their name. (The sign for Nunns’ Canyon is on Hwy. 12 south of Dunbar Road, but it is misspelled “Nuns”.)
Charlie, if he was still alive, was not yet more than a young boy. His sister, Sarah, five years younger, either made the trek as a baby, or was born soon after the Nunns settled here. Local lore holds that somewhere on the Nunn Ranch is the grave of a little boy – only Sarah is listed on the Dunbar School Register for 1859, so it seems Charlie had already passed away by that time.
We can imagine, or maybe we really can’t, the amount of work that went into starting a homestead in such a remote place. Some building materials, such as square nails, could have been purchased, but most probably had to be produced right there. The wood for the house and ranch buildings probably came from the redwoods along Calabazas Creek, and were turned into lumber on-site. Other things the Nunns needed, such as shingles and split-rails for fences, would have been produced with hatchets, wedges, and other tools.
At some point in the early 1870s, Hugh’s younger brother, Alexander, arrived to join him. Together they claimed 320 acres of government land on both sides of Calabazas Creek as well as a string of meadows to the north. The Nunn family at that time included at least five members – Hugh and Sarah, their daughters Sarah and Mary, and Alexander (there are hints in the record that two other children may have been born and died during this time, and that Alexander’s wife was with him).
In its heyday, the Nunn Ranch included a well-built, single-level dwelling, a barn, and other structures. A eucalyptus was planted to the west of the house to shade it from the afternoon sun, and the entrance drive was lined with olive trees. Assuming their ranch was typical for the era, the Nunns had cattle, milk cows, chickens, pigs and horses. Oxen served for heavy hauling and plowing. The Nunns also grew and harvested hay which may have been bartered or sold to their neighbors. At some point after the redwoods were cut, they planted an orchard east of their home, near Calabazas Creek. The ground in this area stays moist through the dry season, watered by underground flow from the spring on the hill above. According to later records, this orchard covered an acre and contained 40 apple trees, as well as some pears and peaches. The Nunns also grew figs on their ranch.
Hugh Nunn was 69 years old when he died at his home in Nunns’ Canyon in the summer of 1875. He was probably buried on the ranch he had worked and lived on for 20 years. Hugh was survived by his wife Sarah, who was 46 years old, his teenage daughter Mary, her 21–year-old sister Sarah, and his brother Alexander. Within five years the surviving Nunns had moved to a house on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa. When Alexander died in the 1880s, he was brought back to the ranch to be buried. His gravestone, long since disappeared, read simply ‘Alec Nunn, native of Scotland.’
By the time Hugh died, a small, scattered community of settlers had formed in the area. It took its name from that first family, and was referred to as ‘Nunns’ Canyon.’ Like Hugh, it survived only a few decades in the mountains and was gone by the time Walt Ritzmann was growing up. As he said, “It must have been an awful hard life” and those settlers decided to move on once again.