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Sunday, November 14, 2004

Delving into Winters story with Vacaville

Jerry Bowen

Early inhabitants 1,200 years ago were Winun Indian tribe

The town of Winters, located just across the Yolo County line, shares its history with Vacaville in many ways.  The earliest inhabitants of the area were Indians known as the Wintun, also known as Southern Patwin or Southern Wintun. They moved into the southern Sacramento Valley from the north some 1,200 years ago.

Other groups, possibly Maidu and Pomo, may have preceded them in the Winters and Vacaville area by several thousand years, although there is little proof to establish this as fact.  Over the last two centuries, three successive communities have occupied areas along Putah Creek, including the Patwin village of Liwai, then a town now long gone named Buckeye and today’s town of Winters.

About 185 years ago the first Europeans to come to the area found the native inhabitants to be friendly. The population of the Liwai village was estimated to be 400 in 1821. Today there are no known descendants of the Wintun/Patwin Indians who once lived in the area.

A Spanish expedition visited the Indian village of Liwai in 1821 and named today’s Putah Creek the “River San Pedro.” Eight years later, Alexander McLeod, a leader of the Hudson’s Bay Company, gave Putah Creek a French name, “D’Epatis,” for a member of his brigade.  When California’s original 27 counties were established on Feb., 18, 1850, “Puto Creek” was designated as the boundary between Yolo and Solano counties.

Putah Creek’s name comes from the Patwin village named Putato that was located in Berryessa Valley, at a site now hidden by the waters of Lake Berryessa.  It is interesting to note that the similarity to the Spanish word for harlot, “puta” was purely accidental and has no relation to the name of Putah Creek.

A large party, composed of Hudson’s Bay Company trappers under the direction of John Work camped along Putah Creek in March 1833 with a total of 163 trappers, Indians and 34 women with 60 children.

In May, several members of Work’s party began suffering from what was believed to have been malaria, which was transmitted to the Indians by clouds of mosquitoes that existed there. Except for those who fled to higher elevations, entire villages were wiped out by malaria and smallpox.

It has been estimated that the native population of Central California was reduced by 75 percent during the 1830s and by 1852, census reports indicated that only about 200 Southern Patwin were still alive.

In 1840, John Wolfskill, who had been living with his brother, William Wolfskill, at his ranch near Los Angeles, began his search for a place of his own. He found the Putah Creek area to be just what he wanted.

His first night on land that would become his future home was anything but boring.

According to historian Tom Gregory who interviewed him, Wolfskill recounted that in the middle of July of 1842, he spent his first night “in a big tree, with bears, panthers and other friendly carnivores prowling and howling around his bedroom roosting place.”

Over the next few years Wolfskill developed the Mexican land grant acquired by his brother, William.

It was named Rancho Rio de los Putos and generally ran along the Putah Creek on both sides from today’s Pleasants Valley to Davis with the majority of the grant on the Solano County side. Some 10,750 acres were located in what became Solano County and 7,004 acres in Yolo County.

Wolfskill was described as a kind and generous man. In the pioneer days, jerked beef was a diet staple. An example of Wolfskill’s generosity was his “jerky line” that was described in a June 4, 1897, Winters Express newspaper article:

“John Wolfskill had a rawhide rope, or lariat, some fifty feet long, stretched from one tree to another, on which he hung his jerked meat, and from which wayfarers were privileged to help themselves. Thus it was said that ‘Uncle John’s jerky string always hung outside.’ And so it did.”

Another example of his generosity is shown when he gave several of the survivors of the Donner Party a place to live on his land in 1846. Some were still there as late as the 1930s.

When William Knight was murdered in 1849, Wolfskill took in his widow, Carmelita, and her eight children. She became Wolfskill’s common-law wife until her death in 1852. Wolfskill continued to raise their only child, Edward. In 1858, he married Susan Cooper and raised three daughters.

More settlers began arriving, traveling over ancient Indian trails through Putah Canyon, and major trade routes between the Sacramento River and Cache Creek during the 1850s.

With the new arrivals, the urgent demand for farmland and a route to the newly discovered mercury mines in Napa County created a need for new roads and improvements along the old routes.

The Old Sonoma Road from Knights Landing to Wolfskill’s Ford on Putah Creek (where Winters was to eventually come into existence) was designated an official Yolo County road on Sept. 13, 1853.

Traffic used this main road from Knight’s Landing with increasing regularity to cross the Sacramento River from a town named Fremont (now under water) to Verona (now a fishing and trailer camp on the Garden Highway south of Nicholas). It was used during the rainy season when the swampy summer route from today’s Vacaville to Sacramento (now Interstate 80) was flooded. Some remnants of the Old Sonoma Road are still in existence today.

A new commercial center began to grow about four miles north and two miles east of present-day Winters in 1855. This was to grow into a small community called Buckeye.

A Christian Church was built at Buckeye on April 11, 1855, and a month later the Buckeye Post Office was established at the home of a local rancher named James M. Charles who became the first postmaster.

An article published in the Woodland Record on July 28, 1939, noted:

“It was in the fall of 1855 when possibilities for Buckeye were first seen. News of the discovery of quicksilver on the south fork of Cache Creek above what is now Rumsey flew like wildfire over the countryside. Bull teams began to carry vast stores of provisions to the mines past the home of J. P. Charles and the buckeye thickets from which the future town took its name ...”

A Missouri businessman, Thomas J. Maxwell, opened a general store near the Charles residence in 1857 and soon others began to build commercial establishments in the new community.

With the establishment of businesses at Buckeye, the population grew rapidly in the 1860s and early 1870s. School districts were formed, churches were organized and many new ranches were established.

Four schoolhouses were built north of Putah Creek and one was added in Solano County. The Buckeye School was built in 1858, northeast of County Roads 31 and 90A. Union School was located on the southwest corner of County Roads 89 and 28 in 1862. The Wolfskill District was organized south of the creek in 1868.

On March 13, 1873, Trustees Sarchel C. and Milton Wolfskill (John Wolfskill’s brothers) and William Baker purchased a two-acre site from Theodore Winters for $100. The first Wolfskill schoolhouse was built one and a half miles south of Putah Creek on the Winters-Vacaville road.

Religion occupied a large portion of the early pioneer’s life. Early religious services were held in private homes and schoolhouses until formal churches were established. The Buckeye Baptist Church was organized and held services initially at the Lone Tree schoolhouse in 1860s.  Later, they held services alternately in the Buckeye, Union and Plainfield school buildings until they built the Hopewell Baptist Church in 1873.

The Cumberland Presbyterian and Catholic congregations also held services in the Buckeye school buildings during the early days of the community.  Up to this point, the town of Winters wasn’t even a thought.

In my next column we will see what happened to the community of Buckeye, learn what established the town of Winters and how it got its name.