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Part 1 - Berreyesas inundated long before lake formed

Kristin Delaplane

Many Spanish pioneers saw land disappear

Information for this article came from the Vacaville Heritage Council, Vacaville Museum, Solano Genealogical Society, and “Berreyesa, The Rape of the Mexican Land Grant” by Eftimeous Salonites.

Nicolas Antonio Berreyesa was born in 1761 in Sinaloa Mexico. His parents had come from the Basque provinces in Spain. In 1776, at age 15 Nicolas was sent on the De Anza Colonization Expedition, perhaps to seek his fortune. His sister was also in the party. The De Anza Expedition was to explore and settle San Francisco and the immediate area. Also in the party was a young Maria Gertrudis Peralta and her father, Gabriel Peralta, the latter being one of Anza’s soldiers, and Nicolas and Nicolas’s sister were under his direct protection.

Nicolas and Gertrudis married in 1779. The couple had nine children, including Jose de los Reyes and Nasario Antonio. Gertrudis died in 1803 and Nicholas in 1804.

In the 1830s, Nasario Antonio moved onto the land that was once a lush valley and is now covered by water and known as Lake Berryessa. He brought with him 100 Indians who were to work his cattle ranch. The land was so rich that the Pomo Indians who had called this area home for thousands of years had been able to live a life of ease due to the wide-ranging game and natural vegetation.

As the white man settled there, the Indians retreated. For several years, Nasario Antonio ran herds of 5,000 cattle and 20,000 horses on this land and over the mountain into what is today Capay Valley. In later years, James Clyman, an American adventurer and trapper, stated his memories of Nasario’s valley and ranching operation.

Crops were grown under the care of the Indians, who protected them from roaming stock. The mountains were full of bear and deer. The bears made trails over the mountains that if followed made the trip to the Capay Valley possible for men and cattle.

Meanwhile, two of Nasario’s sons, Sexto (Sisto) Antonio and Jose de Jesus, were in the Mexican army and stationed in San Francisco, In 1838, at age 20, Sisto married Nicholasa Higuerra in Santa Clara. Jose married Nicholasa’s twin, Maria Anatasia Higuerra, the same year. It was likely around this date that the two couples moved up to their father’s ranchero.

In 1842, Nasario petitioned the governor for the land grant, El Rancho de las Putas, in the names of his two sons. In 1843, it was official. The grant was 8 leagues, or 35,515 acres.


Two Mexican brothers, Sisto and José de Jesús Berelleza (a name of Basque origin), petitioned the Mexican Governor in October 1843, asking for eight square leagues (14,366 hectares (35,500 acres)) of land along Putah Creek and in the surrounding foothills from Capay Valley south to Vacaville. On November 3, 1843, Governor Manuel Micheltorena approved the petition, on the condition that the Berellezas would build a house on the property within one year, that they would plant domestic trees along the periphery of the property, and that they would never subdivide or sell the property. The brothers agreed and moved in with their families .... The original Basque name Berelleza was subsequently transliterated into English as “Berryessa,” whence the “Berryessa Valley” and “Lake Berryessa” of today. (from the U.C. Davis site on Quail Ridge Reserve


Through this lush valley flowing eastward was Putah Creek. Jose and Sisto built adobe homes. At least one, Sisto’s, was a 90-foot-long hacienda, which may have been constructed first, where the two lived together until Jose completed his home. Sisto and Jose continued their father’s cattle- and horse-ranching operation. They also produced grain for which the area was to become well-known. It was reported that one of their main enjoyments was to breed and race their horses.

It is interesting to note how extensive the Berreyesa clan was. From the original brother and sister pioneers there were many offspring, many of whom were given land grants including Santa Clara, Milpitas, Capay Valley, Novato and San Pablo.

It was in 1846 that Sisto’s cousins, Jose de los Reyes’ sons, received the grant for Rancho Canada de Capay. The cousins were three brothers, Francisco, Santiago and Nemesio. It is known that Francisco died in Vacaville in 1894. Like many of the day, he ultimately lost his land after selling it to cover living costs and debts and through dispute over ownership in court.

In 1846, tragedy befell the larger Berreyesa family. Jose de los Reyes, now 61, received word at his home in Santa Clara that four of his sons, one being the mayor of Sonoma, had been captured in the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma. Deeply concerned for their safety, the aged ranchero proceeded to Sonoma to rescue them. On the way, he stopped in San Francisco and was joined by his twin nephews, Francisco and Ramon de Haro.

When they reached San Pablo Bay, they boarded a launch that took them to Point San Pedro in San Rafael. From there they proceeded by foot for Sonoma. Before they reached Sonoma, Fremont’s men spotted them and reported back to Fremont. He sent Kit Carson, who was under his command, to stop them. When Carson inquired if he was to take them prisoner, Fremont replied, “I have no room for prisoners.” The clear understanding was to kill them.

Ramon was the first one shot. Francisco, in great grief, threw himself on his brother’s body. At that a command was given to “Kill the son of a bitch.” The old man was then shot as well. The bodies were stripped of their clothes, and in the following days Fremont’s men were seen wearing their apparel. The bodies were left to rot. In a few days, some Indians buried the remains.

News of this tragedy reached the family, and soon one of the Jose’s sons and a nephew went to recover the bodies. When they confronted Fremont and demanded their father’s serape, Fremont would not relinquish it until they handed him $25 cash.

There was great outrage over the killings because the Spaniards had always befriended Americans. It was surmised that Fremont had an ulterior motive for the killings - designs on the vast Berreyesa holdings. In response to words of outrage, Fremont merely stated the men had been mistaken as rebel soldiers. None believed this explanation.

In due course, several of Sisto’s 10 children married into Juan Felipe Pena’s family. Jovia Berreyesa married Francisco. The marriage of her sister Inez to Demetrio Pena in 1849 was well-recorded, as 100 guests attended the wedding, which took place at the mission in Sonoma. The guests then traveled 40 miles to Pena’s Los Putos Rancho, where they were entertained, including the spectacle of a bear-vs.-bull fight.

As time went on, Sisto and Jose’s fate was like that of so many of the early pioneers - they lost their land. At first it was lost in bits when they sold off acreage to pay off gambling and other debts. In time there was only one piece of land left, and that was owned by Sisto. It was sold in a sheriff’s auction in 1860 to settle a $1,653 judgment. Sisto lived out the rest of his life in a crude cabin on land he once called his own. He died in 1874 at age 56.

In 1866, developers bought up much of the old Las Putas land and cut it up into small farms. By 1867, this fertile valley was well-settled by farmers who relished the mild winters and hot summers that allowed them to produce bountiful crops and wheat in abundance. But for these produce-wealthy farmers to get their product to market was no easy accomplishment. There were only two roads: a narrow one that followed the Putah Creek Canyon and ended in Winters, and another that wrapped through the mountains to Napa and was a tortuous, two-day trip by mule team.

George Scribner was a stagecoach driver on the route from Napa to Knoxville. He owned a small farm on which he had built a small house. In an effort to protect his 18-year-old wife and their baby, he locked all the doors and windows and gave her a loaded shotgun. One time while he was away, the baby became ill and started crying. As night fell, the baby’s wails attracted mountain lions. The young wife listened in terror as two lions came right up to the cabin and paced outside all night.

In 1877, Miguel Berreyesa, a nephew of the pioneer brothers and reportedly an agreeable, hard-working man, was shot and killed while riding horseback near Winters. When an Indian named Martinez sold Miguel’s rifle, it was ascertained he committed the dreadful crime. He was eventually tracked down in Solano County living in a cabin on land where he had previously been hired to herd sheep.

The fertile, rock-rimmed valley that Sisto settled in the early 1840s was the birthplace of his son Julian Berreyesa in 1853.

In 1888, Julian married Emiliana Pena, daughter of Juan Felipe Pena. His two younger sisters also married sons of Pena. All made their home on the former Los Putos Rancho near Vacaville. Julian, his wife and their four children later relocated to a 160-acre fruit ranch in English Hills.

In 1894 or 1896, they moved to Davisville, where six more daughters were born. During that time, Julian worked for local ranchers. After his retirement, the couple moved to Sacramento, where Julian died in 1933.

Even as early as 1906, proposals were being put forth to put a dam across Putah Creek and create a reservoir in the valley. This movement was notably led by the wealthy Lewis Pierce of the Suisun Valley. Dam construction was finally begun in 1954. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill naming the reservoir behind Monticello be named in honor of the original landowners, Sisto Antonio and Jose de Jesus Berreyesa.

The story of Berryessa Valley continues with Part 2 by Carole Noske


Published January 28, 1996 in the Vacaville Reporter