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Sunday, September 24, 1995

Vallejo: Dignified in face of adversity

Kristin Delaplane

Despite setbacks, pioneer retained his noble bearing

Information for this article came from the Vacaville Heritage Council.
Second of two parts
Last week: Gen. Mariano G. Vallejo is pictured as a scholar and a military man. He quelled Indian uprisings and held a secretarial position in the Mexican Army. He was put in charge of the Northern Territories. As such, it was his task to settle the area by subduing the hostile Indians and promote settlement in the area to prevent Russian encroachment. In the course of this time, he formed an alliance and friendship with Chief Solano.

In the early years, in seeing to the settling of the area, General Vallejo assisted many of the first settlers in Solano County in the 1840s in obtaining their land. Land grants were only casually surveyed, and this was a situation that was to cause huge disputes in later years with some winners and some losers. Ironically, Vallejo was to be one of the losers.

Vallejo is most noted for recommending the Lihuaytos (later called Los Putos) land grant, a total of 44,386 acres or 10 leagues, to the partners Vaca and Pena.

In 1854, Gen. Vallejo attested in court that in 1838-39 Pena and/or Vaca secured their rights to this grant when they made a scouting trip to the area and Vallejo pointed them to the Lagoon Valley area.

It is known that the Vaca and Pena families traveled to the mission in Sonoma for christenings, and no doubt they took that opportunity to visit Vallejo.

When the Vaca and Pena families were united through the marriage of their children, Maria Vaca and Jesus Pena, among those attending the ceremony was Gen. Vallejo. Undoubtedly, they were included as guests at Vallejo’s noted fiestas.

Vallejo himself acquired several grants of land from the Mexican government as a reward for his many services. One was 44,000 acres in the Petaluma Valley, followed by an additional 20,000 acres in the same area.

The Suscol Grant in Solano County, a vast 80,000 acres, 18.92 leagues, extending from the San Pablo and Suisun Bays up into Green Valley, was deeded over to Vallejo in 1844. Vallejo maintained it was to cover a debt owed him by the governor.

Mexico had a “manana” attitude about paying Vallejo’s soldiers. To maintain the peace, Vallejo would dip into his own funds to pay his troops.

As a consequence, the Mexican government owed Vallejo. The Suscol grant was payment.

It was said that he could climb to the top floor of his adobe to view his troops, watch for unfriendly Indians and see the clouds of dust on the horizon that his growing herds of cattle made traveling between Suisun and Petaluma.

From the mid-1830s through the ‘40s, the Vallejos entertained lavishly. Guests came from near and far.

One guest was Capt John Sutch, who owned the Fremont Hotel on Battery Street in San Francisco.

There was a severe flood in San Francisco and the Sutch family - John, his wife, Ellen, and their four children - moved to Stockton until the water receded. That Christmas they were invited to the Vallejos’ home.

Vallejo sent eight to 10 vaqueros with a team and wagon to fetch them. The armed vaqueros rode beside the group to protect them from being attacked by grizzlies.

Trunks had been packed because an invitation of this sort meant a stay of several weeks. Rodeos, hunts and lavish banquets were the order of the day. Any guest, short on funds, could dip into the substantial quantity of coins he kept in the guest room.

This practice, Vallejo reasoned, avoided them the embarrassment of having to ask him for a loan.

The general’s generosity was legendary. He was noted for his kind heart, and the pioneer settlers, no matter what their race, creed or nationality, came to count on Vallejo. He gave cattle, land and loans; whatever was needed.

Time proved that the Russians were not intent on gaining territory in California as was earlier supposed. Indeed, they abandoned the area altogether.

In the 1840s, the Mexican hold on California was weakening. There were less than10,000 Mexicans living in California, which was a loose network of small towns and settlements.

Many, including Mexican nationals were unhappy with Mexico’s lax rule, and the United States was positioned to step in. Vallejo welcomed this. He recognized the lack of support from Mexico and its inability to govern the area. Publicly, he made his position known.

Despite his position favoring the United States, on June 14, 1846, a rebel group of some 30 Americans seized Vallejo and a handful of them took him to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. On their way, they stopped overnight at the Pena adobe.

The remaining rebels in Sonoma proclaimed California an independent republic and hoisted the flag bearing the grizzly bear. Thus, this revolt became known as the Bear Flag Revolt.

For three weeks, the flag flew until an American officer, Lt. Joseph Revere, grandson of Paul Revere, replaced the flag with the Stars and Stripes on July 9, reminding these rebels who was in charge.

A broken Vallejo was kept in jail for four weeks. His release was finally ordered by the government in August.

The lieutenant who escorted the general back to Sonoma was Robert Semple. When they passed through what today is Benicia, Semple discovered that Vallejo held title to that land. Semple convinced Vallejo to sell him a parcel to establish a city.

Vallejo deeded the land to Semple and Semple’s partner, Thomas Larkin. The partners honored Vallejo by naming the town after Gen. Vallejo’s wife, Francisca Benecia Carrillio.

Meanwhile, when Chief Solano heard of Vallejo’s arrest, he also was told that the general had been killed. Fearing a similar fate, the Indian fled north to Oregon.

Once he returned home, Vallejo wrote in a letter to Larkin about what he came back to find: “. . . I have lost more than a thousand horned cattle, 600 tamed horses and many other things of value that were taken from my house and at Petaluma.”

Before Vallejo was detained, his personal holdings included 175,000 acres. Though hardly ruined, his holdings upon release were reduced to 150,000 acres. He also kept his home and great numbers of livestock.

And, even though he had suffered an injustice, Vallejo embraced the United States as his own country.

Ever the philosopher, he looked at the greater good, the big picture, and not just his own misfortune. He firmly believe that the lot of his countrymen would be enormously improved under American rule.

In 1850, Chief Solano, lonesome for his homeland, returned to Rockville and the Suisun Rancho, part of what once had been the main village of his tribe. Shortly after his arrival, the old Indian passed away.

In 1851, Vallejo’s second child, Epifania, married Capt. John B. Frisbie, who was stationed at Sonoma under Vallejo. She was 15 and he was 26. Their first home was Benicia and then they moved to Vallejo, where Frisbie became a major mover and shaker.

For his part, Gen. Vallejo served as one of the members of the Constitutional Convention in Monterey in 1849 and later was the first state senator from Sonoma County.

Vallejo’s generosity never slackened. In a grand gesture, he gave the new state of California 156 acres by the Straits of Carquinez and donated $360,000 to erect a state capitol. Vallejo had suggested the city be named Eureka, but the consensus was to name the city after the general. Thus it was that the state capitol was located in the city of Vallejo beginning in 1851. It was a short-lived designation; the capital was moved to Benicia in 1853.

As a statesman, Vallejo had an erect carriage, and was a handsome elder statesman as he had been a dashing officer. He was noted as a grand conversationalist and an eloquent speaker.

Vallejo was never a general in the Mexican Army. When Juan Bautista Alvarado proclaimed himself governor of an independent state of California following several popular uprisings against Mexican rule, he bestowed the title of comandante militar general on Vallejo. The highest rank Vallejo officially reached was colonel of cavalry.

In 1851, Vallejo built a large home on a 250-acre estate in Sonoma. The home was called Lachryma Montis and cost $50,000. He lived there for the next 40 years.

Vallejo filled his rooms with cargoes that arrived from Europe and the far East. He hired the finest tutors and a music teacher for his 16 children.

He took pride in his library. At one point, he had assembled 12,000 books. He was also a patron of the arts.

At the end of 1854, Gen. Vallejo deeded the “Town of Vallejo” to his son-in-law, John B. Frisbie. For years, Frisbie did much to pump life into the town of Vallejo and see that good business was thrown its way.

The Suscol land grant, however, was not upheld by the courts. Their reasoning was that land grants were never to exceed 11 leagues, so the Mexican governor had no right to deed the Suscol grant, a vast 18.92 leagues.

Of course, by the time this ruling was made, it was a moot point, as the land was already well-populated with squatters.

It was at this point that Vallejo saw his empire dwindle even more. He had already sold some land when he had needed cash.

The fallout from the Gold Rush era further diminished his fortune. Squatters overran his land, building cabins, felling acres of trees and usurping his fields. There was nothing he could do but watch. It would have taken an army to stop the ravages of his lands. The courts were of no use, being unable to validate his rights by force.

In desperation, he managed a personal meeting in Washington with President Lincoln, but the government had more urgent matters to attend to than a small territorial dispute in California.

Broken-hearted, but without malice, the “Autocrat of Sonoma” returned home resigned to the crumbling of his estate. As he put it to a friend: “Even though the rich saw themselves robbed . . . the condition of the poor has been improved.” Vallejo remained active with his farming interests, literary pursuits and expanding family. He spent years writing a five-volume history of California.

In 1890, he died at age 82 in his library, surrounded by his beloved classics.

His estate was a mere fraction of its former glory. It totaled 300 acres in Sonoma and the Pajara ranch in Monterey County, which he inherited from his father.

Clarification on the Sept. 10 story on Tremont Township: The Tremont Mite Society uses the church every year for an open house and it raises funds periodically for major upkeep, such as, in recent years, painting, a new roof, a new porch and restroom facilities. The Silveyville Cemetery District maintains the Tremont Church with a caretaker on the grounds.