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Sunday, June 23, 1996

Before it was Grizzly Island, was it ‘Grisly’?

Kristin Delaplane

Some old timers would say Grizzly Island was named from the days when the grizzlies called the island home. That the bears from Mount Diablo came to feed on the island’s wild hips and blackberries.
Supposedly in those days they were said to be able to cross at a point where the lands of Contra Costa and Solano very nearly met and where the water was quite shallow.

However, many people feel the more likely origin of the name came from the word “grisly,” meaning terrifying, hideous or gruesome. That spelling appears on some early maps. In time, the spelling simply changed to its present-day spelling.

For thousands of years, tule elk abounded in great herds in the Suisun marsh and nearby, but with the arrival of the Spanish and the American settlers, hunting of this animal so increased that in 1860 the last elk was killed.

In the fall of each year, large flocks of ducks and geese would arrive to feed on the rich growth of the Suisun marshland. Some of these birds became permanent residents and raised their young in the area.

Before the surrounding land was settled by the “white” man, the local Indians navigated the sloughs and waterways with crafted tule-raft boats.

On Grizzly Island, many Indian artifacts were unearthed in later years. These artifacts included arrow points, charm stones, obsidian tools, grinding stones and a gossip stone.

The first written documentation of this area comes from the 1776 logs of Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza. Anza, along with 11 soldiers, six muleteers and numerous servants briefly explored the Suisun Marshlands. Excerpts from his diary read as follows:

“We arrived at the shore of the water near the inside the Boca del Puerto Dulce (Suisun Bay), which has hitherto been considered as a large river, but which is not. This Puerto Dulce is indeed a gulf of fresh water, enclosed in a canyon by hills of medium height.

“We saw there some launches very well-made of tule, with their prows somewhat elevated. They had anchored near the shore with some stones for anchors. And in the middle of the water some Indians were fishing in one. For in all this Puerto Dulce the Indians enjoy plenty of excellent fishing.

“Among other fish which they caught, the Indians who were fishing pulled out two large ones, about two vares long. Their method of catching them was this: as soon as they felt from the pull made by the fish that it was in the net, they began gradually to raise one of the poles, and as soon as the fish and the net came into sight, without taking it from the water, they gave the fish many blows on the head. Once I counted 15 blows.

“Now that it was dead, they took it from the net and put it inside their launch. From their form, they appeared to be ‘Tollos’ for they had a very large head, little eyes, small mouth like a tube which they puffed out and sucked in, the body having no scales, thick skin, and some little bones which they had between the skin and the flesh. The commander offered glass beads for them, but the Indians would trade only for clothing.”

Hiram Rush, who was to become a senator, was one of the first to settle in this area.

In 1852, Rush purchased the Potrero Hills and started a cattle- and horse-ranching enterprise. His beginning stock was herded from South Bend, Ind.

It is recorded that as early as the 1850s, Congress granted the swamp and overflow lands of the Suisun Marsh to the state of California, thus enabling the construction of levees and drains that would serve to reclaim the land that was being lost under water.

Grizzly Island became a private holding in 1876 when William L. Chapman was granted a patent to “Grisly Island” by California Gov. William Irwin. Chapman leased out some areas as hunting rights to market hunters - men who hunted the ducks and geese for the San Francisco market. These men navigated the sloughs of Grizzly Island in various types of craft in search of their meal tickets.

It was common in those days to use 4 shot. Unable to shoot that gauge “from the hip,” they rigged their guns to the boats so that the boat absorbed the kick of the gun. It is also said that mules were used for the same purpose - the gun rigged to the mule, which took the brunt of the recoil.

By 1879, some ranchers had settled in the area. Some of these entrepreneurs carried on the hunting tradition of the island by developing private duck hunting clubs. The first such huting club to be formed was in 1879.

A market hunter’s yawl named Loleta was used as a clubhouse for the Cordelia Club, the second club to be formed, in 1880.

The Teal Hunting Club was also organized the following year. It was noted as a club from the “gold era” of hunting. Hunters had their every need taken care: Guns, shells and boots were all supplied for them. Elegance and upper-crust living prevailed.

Dinners at the Teal Hunting Club were served by candlelight and the food served on china. P.L. Siebe was in charge of the El Allegre Club; its “mallard pond” was unequaled in the marsh.

The Roos Club House was another club reputed for its elegance. The main lodge had stained glass windows and the club was surrounded by fruit trees and a vegetable garden.

In 1881, at age 58, J. William Dutton purchased land on Grizzly Island from Chapman. Within a year’s time, Dutton owned approximately 22,000 acres.

Dutton turned around and leased out 21,000-acre parcels to Portuguese and Swiss-Italian dairy men.

The Dutton family home was located at Dutton’s Landing near where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and Suisun Bay intersect at the mouth of the Montezuma Slough, the island’s highway.

Boat traffic was constant. At Dutton’s Landing river boats, paddle-wheelers and schooners from Sacramento and Stockton would stop there to pick up products from Grizzly Island - milk, cream, cattle, pigs, grain - before continuing on to San Francisco.

Grain going to market via these sailing ships had been packed in bags and hauled by barge down the slough to the landing. In the early 1900s, a barge was used to load cows going to market.

The first home built on Grizzly island belonged to the Vincent family. They rented their land from Dutton and ran their dairy cattle behind the house. When the Vincent family moved from the area in 1906, the Vennink family took over their home and dairy.

The Crescent Island School was founded in 1888 and was in session eight months of the year. The Vincent house was within walking distance of the school and the teacher, Miss Nellie Hollaren, who taught at the school from 1897 to 1898, boarded with the family. The salary for teachers was $60 per session.

The attendance at the school ranged from 14 to 21 students. Children either walked, rode horseback or traveled by horse and cart.

A fenced-in corral at the school allowed the horses to be turned loose during school hours. Horse racing was the major event during recess.

John and Mary Katerine Soares came to Grizzly island sometime before the Spanish American War of 1898. John worked as a cowboy for Dutton. Later he was able to afford his own dairy.

The family recalled pumping water from the slough to wash the dairy equipment and their clothes. Large-sized rain barrels were used to collect and store drinking water.

Fresh water was available and the land productive, so as the years went by the land was well-cultivated by islander ranchers.

The Vennink clan had its dairy and also cultivated orchard crops, berries, wine grapes and raised hay, corn and beans. On the Dutton ranch alone, oats, barley and hay were grown successfully. For many years the harvesting was accomplished by men and horse power.

All levels of typists are sought to help with the transcription of oral histories. You can’t help but relish hearing first-hand, never-heard-before accounts of Solano’s past. Speedy accurate typing is not required; close is quite good enough. Your help will be most appreciated. Contact the Vacaville Museum at 447-4513.