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Sunday, June 18, 2000

Early black residents contributed to county

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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I would like to thank Gerald Gordon of Vacaville, who suggested that I look into the contribution African Americans made to the county.

The role African Americans played in the settlement of California goes back to the 1500s. According to John William Templeton, the author of “Our Roots Run Deep: The Black Experience in California, 1500-1900,” the name “California” derives from a popular Spanish tale written by Garcia Ordonez Montalvo in 1510. It talks about a mythical island ruled by Queen Calafia, “a strikingly gorgeous black woman who wore a robe decorated with images of the animals that roamed her kingdom.” Only a few years later, in 1524, explorer Hernando Cortes asked the king of Spain for permission to look for the island of “California,” which was ruled by Amazon warriors.

The Spanish conquerors brought a number of troops of mixed origin and African ancestry with them, many of whom later settled in Southern California. Unfortunately, the erratic census taking of the late 18th and early 19th century makes it difficult to track ethnic origins. As Templeton writes, “Some were Negroes in 1790 and Mestizo in 1800 and by 1810 they were Espanol. But it was the same person.”

The census stopped keeping track of race in 1820. Thus Andres and Pio Pico, both governors in the last days of the Mexican rule and later the largest landowners in Southern California, were considered Californians, though early census records show that their ancestors were black.

Probably the best-known African-American historical figure of the time is Jim Beckwourth, a black guide who in 1831 discovered the first pass through the Sierra Nevada, enabling thousands of immigrants to reach California.

African Americans made up roughly 1 percent of the population during the Gold Rush era. Some came as free men, but many were also brought as slaves.

While the state Constitution declared slavery illegal in 1849, slaves brought into California continued to struggle to obtain their freedom. The fugitive slave cases of the next few years clearly show that many African Americans still had not been granted their freedom.

The census of 1850 mentions 962 African Americans in California. It remains unclear how many of them were slaves, as there was no category on the census form.

L.B. Mizner undertook the census for Solano County. He counted a total population of 580 people, with 21 identified as Negro or mulatto. Fourteen of them were described as slaves from Missouri who had contracted to work in the state, to be freed after five years. This group lived in the Vacaville area near the Vaca family.

The abstract of the census of 1852 lists the African-American population in Solano County as follows: Negroes, male - 26, Negroes, female - 2, mulattoes, male - 35, mulattoes, female - none.”

One of these African-American pioneers was Adam Willis. He was born in Missouri in 1824 and was later either inherited or bought by the Vaughn family in Saline County, Mo.

In 1846, Maj. Singleton Vaughn decided to move west, accompanied by Willis. Vaughn first settled in Woodland and then moved to Benicia. In 1852, he decided to bring his whole family. Willis, age 23, was put in charge of the overland trek. Willis remained with the family until he was given his freedom sometime before 1855.

In later years, he worked as a cook in the Suisun area, including for Josiah Wing, the founder of Suisun City. He also worked as a cook for various other families, several hotels and the Solano County Hospital in Fairfield.

He died on Nov. 20, 1902. His obituary in the Solano Republican noted that he was one of the few African Americans in Solano County in the 19th century. “Everyone knew ‘Uncle Adam’ as he was familiarly known and the fact that so large a number attended (his funeral at the People’s Methodist Church) was evidence of the esteem in which he was held.”

And in the eulogy, it was said: “The decease of ‘Uncle Adam’ is deserving of more than a passing notice being a pioneer of pioneers and of exemplary character.”

Nancy Geary was another African American who came to Solano County early on. She was born in Mississippi about 1840 and, as a young girl, was given to the J.G. Duke family.

The family moved on to Texas and finally settled in Dixon in 1868. It is not known when Geary gained her freedom. By the time she settled in Dixon, she had been married and had lost her husband. They had two sons, Jeff, who died early on, and Frank, who held an important position at Mare Island about the turn of the century.

Geary worked as midwife and nurse. In later years, she owned her own store in Dixon and made ice cream, which she used to bring out to the fieldworkers. An information leaflet in 1898, listing places to eat, wrote: “Mrs. Nancy Geary is prepared to furnish a wholesome meal at the corner of First and B Street and will treat her patrons well.”

Her obituary after her death on July 18, 1910, said: “Mrs. Nancy Geary, although of the colored race, among the older families, probably had as many sincere friends as any person in town, who will miss her especially in times of sickness. Until advancing age had laid its hand upon her she had been a most capable nurse, and in many of the old families of the town there was never a sickness but she had been nurse, and a very tender, sympathetic and faithful nurse she always proved to be.”