Solano County History

A Memorial and Biographical History of Northern California - Chicago, Lewis Publ. Co., 1891


Perhaps no county in the State has had so momentous a history as Solano, lying as she does in a sense at the portal to the great interior valleys and the mining regions. She has had the vision of great cities and of metropolitan importance. All these things were disappointments, however, and the county has fallen back to not less solid, if less brilliant, advances in the way of fruit culture and the growth of grain, while still her two cities of Vallejo and Benicia keep up the prestige that attaches always to things naval or military.


The first event to record historically in the annals of Solano County, is a battle fought by General Vallejo with the Soscol Indians in 1835 at a point called Thompson's Gardens above the modern city of Vallejo. The contest was severe, but the General was victorious. This victory seems to have made friends between the Indian Chief, old Sam-Yeto or Solano, and Gereral Vallejo, for henceforth they were hand and glove together. The first actual settlement in the limits of the county, however, was made by the Baca, or Vaca, and Peña families upon their princely grant of 44,380 acres, comprising all the Vaca Valley. They built their adobes, Baca in the main valley, and Peña in the lateral Laguna Valley. This was in 1841. Baca, a native of New Mexico, came with the Workman party in 1841, and spent the remainder of his life in Solano County, dying probably before 1860. He was a hospitable man and of good repute.

In the same year, 1841, or as some say, the year after, Don José F. Armijo obtained his grant of three square leagues in the Suisun Valley. In this year (1842), came in John R. Wolfskill, the first American settler, who belongs quite as much to Yolo as to Solano County, his grant lying in both. It was on the Putah Creek. Wolfskill, a Kentuckian, came from New Mexico to California in 1838, and in 1842 settled on a ranch on Putah Creek, granted to Francisco Guerrero and owned by William Wolfskill; and he was still living there in 1885, at the age of eighty-one years, wealthy and a prominent fruit-grower. Edward, his son by his first wife, has of late years been his business manager. William Wolfskill, brother of John R., went to Los Angeles, where he became a prominent citizen and died in 1866, at the age of sixty-eight years.

Fired, as it seems, by emulation of the whites, Solano applied also for a grant, and aided by his friend, Vallejo, eventually obtained it. This was the Suisun grant, given in 1842. Vallejo subsequently purchased it. Solano died in 1849, and in 1850 most of his tribe migrated to Napa, carrying with them their little hoards of grain. Napa was a sacred place for them. It is worth noting, parenthetically, that these Indians sowed the first grain raised in the county. Their rancheria was at Rockville, a little below the present village of Cordelia. Here Solano had his adobe. After his death and the departure of the tribe, an old Indian named Jesus Molino, who had been Christianized, remained in the adobe many years, farming in a small way. At the foot of the valley, a short distance from Rockville, was found a rude cross planted, supposed to mark the tomb of Solano.

In 1844 John Bidwell received the Ulpinos grant on the banks of the Sacramento. Besides the above mentioned grants, General Vallejo made a claim for the Soscol grant of 84,000 acres, where Vallejo now is, on the score of reimbursement for his expenses in the Indian wars. This was disallowed by the United States Government. A claim made for El Sobrante, or remaining lands, made by one Luco, and hence often called the "Luco" grant, caused an immense deal of litigation in the county until it was finally thrown out by the courts.


In 1846 the town of Benicia was founded under the brightest auspices, and thus deserves to rank first of the towns in California of American foundation. It was not called Benicia at first, but Francesca, after the first name of General Vallejo's wife, Francesca Benicia Vallejo. But we anticipate.

Immediately after the surrender of California to the United States, Dr. Robert Semple, a very long-headed citizen of the time, cast about him for the site of the coming city, that should command the interior trade. The bold bare hills on the northern shore of the Straits of Carquinez captivated his fancy. He set to work at once. General Vallejo, who owned or claimed all the land lying thereabout, granted the doctor five miles of frontage on the condition only that the new city should be named after his wife. The site was immediately surveyed by Jasper O'Farrell and Lieutenant Warner, and the name Francesca chosen. In the following year Yerba Buena changed its name to San Francisco, and, fearing confusion, the second name Benicia was taken instead. Thomas O. Larkin was Dr. Semple's associate in this undertaking. Population immediately flowed in, William I. Tustin, wife and son being the first inhabitants. In 1847 eight houses were erected, one of them being that of Lundy Alford and Nathan Barbour, who moved their house from Sonoma on receiving the present of a free lot. In this year Captain von Pfister, well known in early times, started a store, the first in the county. Bethuel Phillips was one of the active men of those days.

Dr. Robert Semple, a native of Kentucky, was a remarkable man who came overland to California in 1845, a member of the Hastings party; he was a printer and dentist by occupation. He began farming for Johnson & Keyser, and, becoming prominent in the Bear revolt, he was a conspirator and filibuster, but he exerted his influence with great success in restraining the lawlessness of his men. In July he went to Monterey, served for a time in Fauntleroy's dragoons, and then with Walter Colton published at Monterey the first California newspaper, the Monterey Californian. Early in 1847 the paper was transferred to San Francisco, and Semple, obtaining from Vallejo a large tract of land on Carquinez Strait, devoted his energies, in company with Larkin, to the building of a great city at Benicia, at the same time taking an interest in various political matters. In 1848–'50 he made much money by his ferry. In 1849 he was a member and president of the State constitutional convention. He finally moved to Colusa County, where he died in 1854, at the age of forty-eight years, as the result of a fall from his horse. He was a good-natured, honorable man. Being six feet and eight inches high, gaunt and stoop-shouldered, he was the subject of many an amusing anecdote. It was said, for example, that his legs were so long that in riding horseback he had to strap the spurs away up on the calves so that they could touch the horse! His marriage to Miss Fannie Cooper, December 16, 1847, was the first wedding in Solano County. She was the daughter of Major Stephen Cooper, who kept the California House, an adobe, the first hotel in the county. He was at the time a judge of the first instance.

A daughter, born in 1847 to Nathan Barbour, in Benicia, was the first white child born in the county.

Benicia, as the first point to rise in opposition to San Francisco, might have gained the vantage but for the sudden transformation of 1849. The early prospects sufficed to start a crop of town projects farther up the bay and its tributaries, embracing in this county Montezuma and Halo-Chemuck, while westward was founded Vallejo, which, though failing to retain the State Capitol, became quite a town. It made a vain effort for the county-seat, which, after being secured by Benicia, was in 1858 transferred to the more central Fairfield, founded for the purpose by R. H. Waterman, who named it  after his birthplace in Connecticut, and gave ample lands for public buildings. J. B. Lemon erected the first house. The plat was filed in May, 1859. It stands in close proximity to Suisun, which may be regarded as the trading quarter and more important half, and the chief shipping point of the county. Suisun was incorporated in 1868 and has several mills and warehouses. The place is named after a tribe of Indians once roaming here.

Not to be outdone in town-building, however, John Bidwell in the same year, 1846, sent a number of men to his grant on the Sacramento, there also to establish a town. After a disastrous time, the men deserted the place, which had gained the Indian name of "Halo-Chemuck," "nothing to eat." Later on, in 1851, Colonel N. H. Davis founded, on the spot, the town of Rio Vista, building the first house. In 1846, also, L. W. Hastings, a Mormon, built an adobe house upon the bald point of the Montezuma Hills, where Collinsville now is, and established the first ferry across the Sacramento, hoping to found a town that might be the nucleus of a Mormon settlement.. The total lack of timber deterred his fellow religionists, however, and the spot was soon abandoned. L. P. Marshall was the first permanent settler, going there in 1852. In 1846 came also Albert Lyon, John Patton, J. P. Clay and Willis Long, the first American settlers in the Vaca Valley.

In 1847 Feltis Miller and J. D. Hoppe settled on the Sacramento River at the mouth of Cache Creek, while in the fall came David M. Berry and family, who moved the following year to the Suisun Valley, and became the first American settler there. In 1848 John Stilts settled in Green Valley, being followed shortly after by W. P. Durbin and Charles Ramsey. In 1849, Lundy Alford removed from Benicia to the Suisun Valley.


In 1850 General Vallejo determined to found a great city on the rolling hills that lie at the mouth of Napa Creek. It was originally to have been called "Eureka," and for a time was dubbed "Eden," but the wishes of his friends led to the choosing of "Vallejo," after himself. Captain Stewart put up the first house there.

General John B. Frisbie was Vallejo's right-hand man, and deserves to be called, after Vallejo himself, the founder of the town. Born in 1823 in New York State; Frisbie came to California in 1847. In his native State he had been a military captain, a lawyer and a politician. In 1848 he was a candidate for lieutenant-governor of California. Married a daughter of General Vallejo, and became a prominent business man of the town of Vallejo, interested in the building of railroads, president of a bank and a man of considerable wealth. In 1860 he sent the first cargo of wheat to Europe. In 1867 he was a member of the Legislature. Losing his fortune just previous to 1880, he moved with his family to Mexico, where he was living at last accounts.

It was in connection with his pet city that General Vallejo made his grand offer to the State, on condition of its being made the capital. He offered a free gift of 136 acres of land, with $370,000 in money for the erection of the buildings. The offer was accepted and the story of the session held there and the scuttling off to Sacramento related on page 206, is as a twice-told tale to Californians.

The making of Vallejo was the establishment at Mare Island, just opposite, of the United States naval station for the Pacific Coast. The purchase was made by the Government in 1851, and the great dry dock, one of the largest, in in the country, being 525 feet long, 78 feet wide and 32 deep, was sent out ready built from New York in 1852, in which year the island was officially declared the navy yard and naval depot for the coast, although not taken formal possession of until 1854, through Admiral David G. Farragut. There is a large foundry, machine shops and repair shops, and an immense quantity of stores of all kinds is carried. On an average about 1,000 men are employed, all of whom live in Vallejo. Many additions to the appliances have lately been made.

Vallejo is the largest city in Solano County, and a place of great commercial activity. The principal and business part of the city is at North Vallejo, opposite Mare Island, where are the hotels, principal schools, churches, etc. Here are located the grounds and race-track of the Napa and Solano Agricultural Society, which holds fairs at Napa and Vallejo alternately. A. little north of Vallejo, in a splendid, park of twenty acres, is situated the Good Templars' Home for Orphans, a noble charity which was erected by the order of Good Templars at a cost of about $100,000. Work began in 1867 and it was completed and dedicated in 1869. The movers in its erection were W. H. Mills and G. W. Simonton at the suggestion of Mrs. Elvira Baldwin. To these is due all praise. Vallejo has a foundry, a sash and door factory, a large brewery, marble works, and the great Union Pressed Brick and Terra Cotta Works, while at South Vallejo, whence ferry runs to Vallejo Junction on the opposite side of the Sacramento, are the great Starr Flouring Mills, where many ships are loaded for Europe with flour. Vallejo is the terminus of the Napa Valley and Santa Rosa branches of the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was formerly also the terminus of the California Pacific, large steamers conveying passengers thence to San Francisco. When that road passed into the hands of the Central Pacific, Benicia was made the terminus and the connection with Vallejo, via Napa Junction and Suisun is now used for local traffic.

Benicia is one of the most beautiful towns in California, and has also considerable intellectual, manufacturing and commercial activity. One of the most extensive tanneries on the coast is situated here. A large business in salmon canning is carried on. The Excelsior Wine Company has large cellars, while the agricultural machinery manufactory of Baker & Hamilton is probably the most extensive in the State and employs a great many men.

Benicia was made a United States Arsenal in 1848, or rather Army Point, the point of land extending furthest into the Sacramento River, and adjoining the town. It is stated that the Government is also about to establish there the ordnance works that have been determined upon for the Pacific Coast. Benicia has also a thriving shipyard, a brewery and cement works. Educationally Benicia has always been in the lead.

In 1852 was established the Protestant Young Ladies' Seminary, a worthy and prominent institution. In 1853 was founded St. Catharine's Academy by the sisters of St. Dominic, a flourishing ladies' school. In 1853, also was formed the Collegiate Institute, merged in 1867 into St. Augustine's College, which under Bishop Wingfield, Missionary Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church for Northern California, has long been a leading boys' school. In 1870 was founded St. Mary's of the Pacific, a school for girls, no longer in existence.

At Benicia the trains of the Central Pacific Railroad are run upon the monster ferry boat Solano, the largest steamship of its class in the world, and carried across the Sacramento River to Port Costa, where they are again transferred to land. A bridge to span the Sacramento at this point is in contemplation and will doubtless shortly be built. It will perhaps interest some to know that Benicia was the old home of the pugulist John C. Heenan, the "Benicia Boy," who whipped Sayers, the English champion. Benicia is also the home of L. B. Mizner, United States minister to Central America.


Vacaville was founded in 1851, being laid out by William McDaniel for Manuel Baca. It has attained great fame for the early fruits and vegetables of the valley, it being invariably the first to supply the city markets. To the pioneer John R. Wolfskill, belongs the honor of first setting out trees and vines, he having done so in 1842. Pleasants' Valley, near by, which is equally famous, was first settled in 1850 by W. J. Pleasants, a native of Kentucky, and one of the first fruit-growers. A. W. Putnam and John Dolan were the first to make a business of growing early vegetables for market in the Vaca Valley. They began in 1854. Their success induced others to undertake it also. Besides vegetables the valley is noted for its line early cherries, peaches, apricots, table grapes, etc. Vacaville was originally the site of the College of the Methodist Episcopal Church South, though it was subsequently removed to Santa Rosa. The California Normal College situated there is an excellent institution. A branch line of the railroad was built to Vacaville from Elmira in 1869, assisting powerfully in building up the section.

David Dewey Dutton, a native of Massachusetts, crossed the plains to Oregon in 1839. He went on to Honolulu and to South America, returning in 1843 with Stephen Smith; worked awhile at Bodega; employed for a time as cook at New Helvetia by Sutter; was naturalized in 1844 and settled on Butte Creek. Soon after 1848 he moved into Solano County, and was, until recently at least, living at Vacaville. He married Martha J. Pearson in 1856.


The island in the tules upon which the town of Suisun is built, was first visited by Curtis Wilson and Dr. John Baker, who sailed up the slough. Captain Joseph Wing was the first man to settle there and build a house in 1858. He ran boats on the Suisun slough, and may be said to have given the place its first impetus as a trading point. Until the coining of the railroad it did a large shipping business.


its near neighbor, being less than a mile from Suisun, across the tules, the county town, took its rise in the following manner: The county of Solano was set off in 1850, with Benicia as the county-seat. Along about 1857 and 1858 there was a great deal of complaint about the county-seat being so far from the center of the county.

As a result, Captain R. H. Waterman, better known as " Bully" Waterman, a notorious sea captain, once Warden of the Port of San Francisco, who owned the land. where Fairfield now is, made a gift of a block of land and money for the county buildings if placed there. His offer was accepted and his new town of Fairfield became a fact. Then began an exciting contest. By the exercise of a voting power that somewhat exceeded the total number of votes in the county, the city of Vallejo captured the prize, and for one year held it. Then another vote was taken at the indignant outcry of the people and Fairfield again became the place. In order to hold it and prevent further action being taken the erection of county buildings was at once begun, at an expense of some $50,000. The county infirmary was erected in 1876. It stands about three miles northeast of Fairfield.


A few miles from Suisun is the great fruit orchard belonging to A. T. Hatch, of 800 acres, said to be the largest in California. If the newspapers can be believed, it has lately been sold to an English syndicate for over a million dollars.

Dixon is a lively railroad town, which came into being in 1868, on the advent of the railroad. It is the grain center of the county, shipping many thousand tons yearly.

Elmira, another railroad town, has a splendid fruit country behind it. From here the Vacaville branch railroad goes to Vacaville, seven miles distant. It is a lively place.    

Cordelia was first established in 1853, and is a depot on the railroad with considerable trade in basalt blocks. This trade formerly went to Rockville, a few miles away. The coming of the railroad destroyed Rockville and built up Cordelia. It may be noticed, incidentally, that in Rockville, John M. Perry established the first blacksmith shop in the county, making plows at $65 a piece.

Rio Vista is a brisk shipping point on the Sacramento, with a good fruit country behind it. Here is situated St. Gertrude's Academy, built in 1876 by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy. Denverton, a landing on the Sacramento with some river trade, was established in 1853 by Dr. S. K. Nurse, and by him called Nurse's Landing. Maine Prairie, at the head of the Cache Creek slough, was, before the days of the railroad, a place of great importance for the shipping of grain. There was a time when it ranked second only to Stockton in the amount of grain shipped from its wharves. It is now dead. Collinsville, also a landing, had formerly a flourishing salmon-packing establishment.

Solano County is noted for its cattle and stock, the tules being admirable summer feed, and for its dairies, for its grain and for its fruit. It has also a most unique marble quarry in the Suisun hills, where very beautiful onyx is produced, and is now being largely employed for mantels, table tops, etc.

The Tolenas mineral water, from springs, a few miles north of Suisun, has more than local note. The White Sulphur Springs above Vallejo were once a popular resort.

The newspapers of Solano County are ably and fearlessly conducted, and have a reputation for vigor and influence throughout the State. They are: in Vallejo, the Chronicle, first issued in 1867, and the Times, in 1875, both with daily and weekly editions; in Benicia, the New Era, issued in 1877, weekly; in Suisun, the Republican, the oldest paper in the county, founded 1855, a weekly; in Vacaville, the Reporter, founded 1886, and the Enterprise, founded 1888, both weeklies; in Dixon, the Tribune, a weekly, founded 1874; and in Rio Vista the River News, a weekly.


This county is named after Solano, formerly a chief of the Suisun tribe of Indians, though the same word in the Spanish language means the east wind; it also was the second name of the celebrated missionary Francisco Solano.

Solano is bounded on the north by Yolo, on the east by Yolo and Sacramento, on the south by Contra Costa, Suisun Bay and the Straits of Carquinez being the division line, and on the west by Napa County.

This was one of the original counties of the act of February 18,1850. The Legislative committee recommended Benicia for the name.

The Mexican land grants in Solano County were: Mare Island, 5,527 acres, patented to G. W. P. Bissell and others; Las Putas, 35,516 acres, to M. A. Higuera de Berryessa and others in 1863; Los Putos, 44,384 acres, to J. M. Vaca and J. F. Peña in 1858; Suisun, 17,775 acres to A. A. Ritchie in 1857; and 482 acres to J. H. Fine in 1882; Tolenas, 13,316 acres to J. F. Armijo in 1868; and Los Ulpinos, 17,726 acres to John Bidwell in 1866.

The following named gentlemen have represented Solano County in the Legislative Assembly:—D. G. Barnes, 1883–'85; A. Bennett, 1880; R. C. Carter, 1885; Robert J. Curry, 1887; Nathan Cutler, 1859; John T. Dare, 1877–'78; N. H. Davis, 1858; John Doughty, 1855; J. M. Dudley, 1862–'63; John B. Frisbie, 1867–'68; James S. Graham, 1852; Joel A. Harvey, 1883, 1884; J. L. Heald, 1873–'74; D. B. Holman, 1861; Frank A. Leach, 1880­'81; E. E. Leake, 1881; James M. Lemon, 1865–'66; Joseph McKenna, 1875–'76; Frank O'Grady, 1887; T. H. Owen, 1853; A. M. Stevenson, 1856–'57; Milton Wason, 1863–'64; B. C. Whitman, 1854; M. J. Wright, 1871–'72.


The following paragraphs are from the report of the State mineralogist:

The eastern third of this county is quite level, more than 100,000 acres being composed of tule lands. The central portion has an undulating surface, while the western breaks into high, rounded hills, which constitute a portion of the eastern slope of the Coast Range. The soil is everywhere rich, this, taken as a whole, being one of the most fertile and productive counties in the State. Solano contains but few streams of any magnitude. Cache Slough traverses it near the center, flowing southeast, Mill Creek in the western part flows south, the Sacramento River forming the county boundary on the east. This is one of the most sparsely wooded counties in the State, the only timber native to the soil consisting of a much scattered growth of white oak, confined chiefly to its northwestern part. The few cottonwoods that formerly grew along the streams are now all cut away.

Solano, so far as known, contains no deposits of the precious metals, though several of the economic metals and minerals occur in the county, some of them quite abundantly.

In the hills about six miles east of Vallejo, a number of veins carrying the sulphuret of mercury were discovered many years ago, this being the site of the St. Johns and the John Brownlie mines. At the former, which was afterward opened somewhat and equipped with plant, a small production of quicksilver was made, though nothing has been done there for the past ten years. None of the other veins in that locality have been much developed.

Marbles of different kinds, some of them of rare beauty, are found in this county. In the hills near Suisun Valley is found a marble which, in the rough, bears a strong resemblance to resin. Being fine-grained and compact, it takes on a high polish, and is much esteemed for ornamental purposes. Located about four miles north of Fairfield, the county-seat, is a bed of aragonite, popularly called onyx, and fully described by the State Mineralogist in the report of the year 1884. Stones suitable for structural purposes are met with in many parts of Solano, a good deal of serpentine and sandstone being quarried in the neighborhood of Benicia. Clay adapted for brick-making is also plentiful. There is a deposit of chrome iron near the town of Fairfield, but, as yet, little or nothing has been done with it. In the hills adjacent to Benicia, also on the margin of San Pablo Bay, and not far from the town of Vallejo, there exists a fair quantity of hydraulic limestone; the last mentioned deposit being submerged at high tide. The Benicia deposit was for a time worked quite extensively, an establishment having been put up for burning and grinding the material. Although a tolerably good cement was made here; the enterprise, owing to various causes, was abandoned.

Transcribed by Kathy Sedler.