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Monday, March 06, 2000

John Curry and the Vaca-Pena Land Grant Cases

Jerry Bowen

All Mexican land grants in California were poorly defined - a tree, a mountain bluff, lagoon, river, or ravine served as boundaries and frequently these specified more land than was intended to be granted. No accurate surveys were made and the only legal restrictions falling within these vague limits were that excess land would revert to the public domain. Many problems were caused by the vague descriptions after California became a territory and later a state.

The battles over the Vaca-Pena Land grants - Lahuaytos and later Los Putos - turned close friends into enemies, neighbors into foes and eventually resulted in murder and mayhem in the once-quiet valleys of Solano County in the 1850s.

John Currey, a lawyer at the time of the land disputes, was hired to protect the interests of many of the grant holders. He later served as a justice of the California Supreme Court from 1863 to 1868 - two of those years as chief justice. In 1907, at the age of 93, Currey wrote a 12-page recollection of the history of Solano County land battles which revealed many interesting details.

In 1842 Manuel Vaca and Juan Felipe Pena came from New Mexico to California and settled near Putah Creek, then called the Lihuaytos River or Lihuaytos Creek. They applied jointly for and were granted a 10-league (1 league equals about 4,500 acres) Mexican land grant called Lihuaytos. In actuality, due to the vague description of the boundaries, it actually covered in excess of 20 leagues, overlapping the Rio de los Putos Grant belonging to Wolfskill.

Currey described Vaca and Pena’s granted land as “a waste, barren of trees for the most part, while that of Wolfskill, which was the older grant, was beautifully adorned with oaks, affording shelter for men and cattle.”

Vaca and Pena allowed their cattle to graze on Wolfskill’s property and eventually forced John Wolfskill from it.

William Wolfskill, John’s brother, the original grantee and a Mexican citizen by marriage to a Mexican woman, began an action or suit before Gov. Micheltorena against Vaca and Pena to determine his right to the Ranch. The governor decided in favor of Wolfskill’s title and John returned to the ranch with his livestock after the lengthy two-year battle.

But that didn’t end it. Vaca demanded a new title to the rancho. He was very bitter toward John Wolfskill and began referring to him as the “foreigner.” According to Currey, “Vaca was furious and pretended not to know where his land was, and demanded the governor make him and his companion, Pena, a new grant specifying more accurately the land granted to them.”

About this time Micheltorena was replaced by Pio Pico as governor of California and he issued a new title to Vaca and Pena, again describing its boundaries in a general way.

Currey went on to say, “In the new grant made by Gov. Pio Pico, it was given the name of ‘Los Putos.’ The new grant’s boundaries were described generally as follows: Putah Creek or River on the north, the Sierra Madre (Blue Ridge Mountains) on the west, and the Country of the Suisun on the south, and the plains on the east.” Again, this description covered more than 10 leagues and overlapped part of Armijo’s Ranch, the Tolenas Grant.

After receiving the new grant, the area suffered severe drought and Putah Creek dried up. Vaca and Pena took their cattle south to Ulatis Creek where there was water. They allowed their cattle to stray onto Armijo’s property, apparently thinking he would not notice the encroachment. Fences did not exist in those days.

Currey’s memoirs continued with, “After the creation of the Land Commission by Congress in 1850, Vaca and Pena’s attorneys, Jones, Tompkins and Stroube, presented their petition to the commission for confirmation of their title. The case was badly presented, in consequence of which it was rejected by the commission on the alleged grounds of its indefinite boundaries and also on the grounds that the grant was made to Juan Manuel Vaca and his friend, Felipe Armijo.”

Then Currey was hired to represent Vaca and Pena and he learned that during the application for the new grant, “Vaca gave to the governor the name Felipe Armijo instead of his true name, Felipe Pena, which was written in the title document. The way this came about was that Mr. Vaca, who was perhaps some 15 years older than Pena, was an intimate acquaintance of Pena’s mother, who became a widow in New Mexico when Felipe was about 4 years old. Felipe’s mother married again to a man by the name of Armijo, and by his new name Felipe was called and grew up by such name.”

During the prosecution of the case, Pena told Currey he would have nothing to do with Vaca, for reasons not clear, further complicating the case before the Land Commission and forcing the appeal to be pursued under two separate names. Perhaps it was because Vaca had sold nine square miles of the Los Putos Grant to a government land agent named McDaniel with the stipulation that one square mile would become the village of Vacaville. Pena’s name did not appear on the deed.

In spite of all the problems, the land was finally surveyed, Currey obtained a decree of confirmation for the ranch patent in 1858.

In payment for his services, Vaca and Pena deeded the equivalent of one-half a Mexican league to Currey. Frisbie and Hastings each received a quarter of a league as partners of Currey for their minor assistance in the case.

During the disputes over the land grants in Solano County, squatters began settling onto land owned by the grant holders. In my next column, I’ll tell you about those days that often turned disastrous for both the squatters and the grant owners.

Recommended Reading: “Recollections of John Currey,” available at the Vacaville Heritage Council, located in the old courthouse next door to the KUIC radio station building on East Main Street.