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Sunday, July 29, 2001

Cave unveils speculation

Jerry Bowen

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Unearthing secrets of Nelson Hill

Judging by the amount of e-mail I received in the last few weeks, there apparently is quite a bit of interest in the Cordelia area history.

Well, just as luck would have it, I have more in mind.

There is not a whole lot to go on for this story, but the speculation is that the Spanish may have had a rancho or at least an asistencia (branch of a Spanish Mission) in the general area of Nelson Hill.

The earliest Spanish settlement in the Cordelia and Nelson Hill area appears to have been about 1824. Friar Altimira is said to have established ranchos as far east as Suisun, although according to Rudolph Rulofson in his history column, “California Echoes” in The Solano Republican, there was no positive proof of their exact locations.

Perhaps some indication of a settlement came to light quite by accident at Nelson’s Hill in 1946. During the process of installing a new loading bin, work came to a sudden halt and an investigation began after bulldozers carving away on the eastern side of the hill uncovered a shallow cave.

Rulofson, in an attempt to determine the purpose of what appeared to be a man-made hole, recorded the following notes:

“At the site of the Nelson quarry on the eastern side of Bridgeport Hill near Cordelia, while excavating for a loading bin for crushed rock, workmen broke through and discovered a pear-shaped olla or cistern, embedded in the side of the hill. The olla was approximately 8 feet across and at least 10 feet in depth.

“The olla was formed from a cement, brownish in color and consisting of sand and small pebbles, and a white cotton-like substance, which appears under a microscope to be minute particles of seashell.

“Quarrying operations have been conducted at this site since the early 1850s and there is no knowledge or record of any habitation or structure antedating the quarry operations ... “

There is much more in the notebook, but this should suffice to establish at least the possibility that Friar Altimira may have set up one of his ranchos near Cordelia. If this should ever prove to be true, then perhaps that olla and an adobe in nearby Rockville were the oldest structural objects of Spanish origin in Solano County.

Another Rockville discovery in 1957 adds clues to the mystery of the Nelson Hill olla. A large stone object, which served as a horse trough for many years, was determined by local historian and archaeologist, Rulofson, to be a baptismal font. In his research, he discovered that an unknown asistencia had existed in Rockville. Records revealed that an adobe had been demolished in 1935 to make way for a new house. His research indicated the adobe had been used by Christianized Indians as a branch of the Mission San Francisco Solano at Sonoma.

So how did these mysterious objects come to be here?

In 1823, the rebellious Friar Altimira, stationed at Mission San Francisco de Asis, decided to take it upon himself to find a more suitable location to establish a mission to take care of sick and dying Indians. The weather at the mission in San Francisco was too damp and cold and there was the added problem of disease brought in by the European settlers who were dying in droves.

Altimira set out to explore the northern inland regions for a more suitable location, which resulted in the establishment of the Mission San Francisco Solano at Sonoma.

News had reached Sonoma that foreign trappers had visited Suisun Valley.

“Father Altimira expressed a desire to locate a rancho at Suisun Valley, and, there is some evidence that he may have done so in order to establish a center for the baptism of the Suisun Indians whose population base was near the present town of Rockville.

“Local tradition speculates that this adobe (no longer standing) was occupied by a padre for many years. There are two interesting points about this adobe on the Suisun Rancho. One is, that it was formerly owned by the Chief of the Suisun Indians, Francisco Solano. Also, within a few yards of the adobe site there is located, in the ground, a huge rock bowl that resembles the baptismal fonts found in other missions.

“This information could cause reason to believe that the Mexican establishment of Sonoma wished to increase its territorial influence by reaching the support of the Indians in the area, via Christianity, and to control the movement of foreigners in that area.”

Meanwhile, back at Nelson’s Hill ... Rulofson made note in his diary on May 24, 1957, “Read over digest - John Dos Passol - The Spaniards were here before us. Mentions introduction of almond in California by padres. Bitter almonds found at Rockville ‘Esistancia’ site, also near ‘Olla’ at Nelson’s. Check if bitter almonds are throwbacks - were they seedlings several generations removed from original plants?”

As a final piece of evidence that there was a Spanish settlement, I finally found what I was looking for: The name of the rancho/asistencia. Clyde Lowe, a superb historian and researcher in Solano County, wrote an article debunking many of the myths about Chief Solano. In the article he wrote, “It should be noted that mission farm or ‘rancho’ called Santa Eulalia had been established at Suisun (Valley) before the end of 1824, with a house for the padre’s visit, a corral for the horses, and a neophyte (Christianized Indian) in charge.”

In addition, the 1837 diseno (a crude map) that was used to identify the boundaries for Chief Solano’s land grant clearly shows a cultivated field just east of Nelson Hill. Quite likely, the olla was used to store water for the crops grown there.

There seems to be enough information to come to the above conclusion, but not all questions have been completely substantiated as far as I know at this time. It would make an intriguing research project.

Yes indeed, the Cordelia/ Rockville area holds many secrets for the inquiring mind.