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Sunday, March 19, 2000

Land squatters: Solano County’s violent years

Jerry Bowen

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Beginning in 1847, the next few years in California were filled with great change and at times were hostile and violent, sometimes to the extreme. War with Mexico, the discovery of gold, the mass influx of emigrants, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a constantly moving state capital and disputes over Mexican land grants often resulted in tragic events.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the protection of valid land grants, but political intrigue and an invasion of land squatters would change all that.

In 1907, Judge Curry wrote in his recollections, “The squatters of the State constituted a formidable portion of the citizens of the State, whose power as electors won over to their side of the controversy with the owners of Mexican land grants, many ambitious politicians of low civic morality. They elected their candidates to the Legislature, and thus secured passage of laws supposed to be for their benefit and advantage, but which in the end proved to be of no advantage or benefit to them.”

The validity of Judge Currey’s comments regarding politicians was evident in John Bigler’s term as governor. He became known as “The father of the squatters.”

Legal attacks made on the grants often put the validity of the titles in question. As soon as the courts placed a grant in doubt, squatters made their appearance in large numbers and moved onto the most desirable acreage.

Led by a man named James Dorland, the squatters organized a “Squatters Union,” and a veritable war was on. They erected shacks in their attempts to take possession of the land. They quickly were torn down by the grant owners, only to be put up again.

It wasn’t long before both owners and squatters went about armed with rifles and pistols. There was shooting, blood was spilled and the courts were filled with cases arising from this trouble.

Even Congress finally was appealed to. The events leading to the murder of Manuel Vera are a good example of one of the worst episodes of those trying times.

Near Vallejo, a squatter who had been accused of making an attack on the life of a settler was shot by someone hiding behind a fence. The victim had been accused of attempting a like attack on the life of a settler. The squatters were incensed and decided to take action themselves.

Manuel Vera, an early land owner, was accused of the crime, and threats against his life were made. He was arrested, but there was no jail in Vallejo. To safeguard him while arranging for bonds, Vera temporarily was put in a room in E.J. Wilson’s family apartments, located on the second story of a brick building in the center of town.

Planning to take Vera over to the Navy Yard later for safekeeping, the arresting officer went home to eat his supper. Apparently, he thought the presence of Mrs. Wilson and her little children would prevent any act of violence while Vera was in the Wilson home.

But the squatters were determined to kill Vera. A band of men, estimated to be about 100 in number, began assembling on the eastern outskirts of Vallejo at sundown. Under the cover of darkness they rode into town like a company of soldiers, their faces covered or blackened to hide their identities.

The cowardly horde cleared the streets of people as they skulked their way to the post office located on the lower floor of the Wilson apartment building. Some remained to hold the horses as others entered the building.

It did not take them long to find the terrified Vera and riddle him with bullets.

As soon as the bloody deed was done, the vigilantes beat a hasty retreat out of town. Mrs. Wilson and the children were in another room during the crime and were left unharmed. Although shot 17 times, Vera lived several hours after the murderous attack.

Although the savage act was denounced as a hideous outrage against society and a cowardly act against the laws of the land, no member of the band was fully identified. The squatters had plenty of friends in Vallejo who more than likely shielded them from detection.

The grand jury met soon after the murder, and 17 people were indicted for complicity. It was feared that any attempt to arrest and punish the perpetrators would meet resistance, causing more blood to be spilled, but the county sheriff secured the services of the Suisun Cavalry Company. They arrested all of the accused men without incident. The plan was to try them one at a time, but the jury in the first case brought in a verdict of not guilty. As a result, all the other cases were dismissed.

In an interesting twist of fate, James Dorland, the leader of the Squatters Union, later moved to another county and bought 2,000 acres of land on a Mexican land grant that was also in dispute. Squatters settled onto his property, tempers flared and he was shot and killed by one of them.