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Saturday, October 19, 2002

Native American ghosts residing in Suisun?

Nancy Dingler

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The young mother whirled around in horror when she detected the sound of the car rolling on the gravel.  She let out a scream as her son, who was playing in front of the car, disappeared under its wheels.

The brakes having failed, the car rolled down the steep driveway, coming to rest with a bump against the gatepost. As the distraught mother rushed to her 4-year-old’s aid, he told a tale that he had been saved from the car by the ghostly apparition of an Indian.

The Indian had lifted the car over him. Her son was quite ardent and insistent as to what he saw.

Evidence was plentiful, for he had not a scratch or bruise about him.

This is not the first time residents have confided to me about suspected, supernatural happenings. An inquiry was made as to whether or not I might know who the previous occupant of a house on Suisun Road might have been, because the current owner and visiting friends were convinced that there was a ghost afoot.

The caller explained that things, like dishes or cooking pots would get moved in the kitchen without explanation. And when the homeowners went on vacation, they came back home to find the furniture rearranged - once again, no easy explanation.

Could there be strange doings in the Suisun Valley by the ancient natives to whom the valley was named after?

Webster’s definition of a ghost: “a disembodied soul; esp: the soul of a dead person believed to be an inhabitant of the unseen world or to appear to the living in bodily likeness.”

Many well-known writers of ghost stories have contended that ghosts are souls who died violently, or suddenly, or can’t leave their earthly bounds until some wrong has been made right.

The written history of the Suisun natives is littered with tragedy; sudden, violent and agonizing deaths.

Perhaps the ancient Suisuns are still here, among us.

For centuries the Suisuns, who were part of the larger Patwin tribe, lived around the marshes, valleys and plateaus of what we now refer to as the Suisun Valley. Their name, Suisun, means “west wind.”

Contrary to popular romantic belief of bucolic, peaceful one-with-the-earth Indians, the tribes were very warlike. A. L. Kroeber, a noted anthropologist in the 1920s and ‘30s, wrote several books about the Patwin culture. In these volumes he described the culture of violence. The different warring tribes were like feuding families, seeking vengeance and redress: “Most Patwin wars were caused by poaching. In the hills boys were definitely trained to avoid arrows.

“There were three general kinds of fighting - attacks on poachers, pitched battles, and dawn raids on sleeping towns (villages). The last usually resulted in a massacre of the population and a burning of the village. Captives were rarely taken, but if they were they were later tortured to death. Women were usually killed. Scalps were taken.”

Into this already dangerous world, stepped an even greater threat - the Spanish army. In the year 1768, the first expedition to Alta California (Northern California) was headed by Jose de Galvez, who was looking for possible settlements.

To put this into perspective, the first Spanish mission was founded in San Diego the following year. By 1776, Mission Dolores was established in San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena). In seven short years, Father Junipero Serra had established a string of missions along the California coast.

Hand in glove with establishing the missions, was the “converting and Christianizing” of the local natives. Many of these captives ran away to Alta California to take up habitation with the various Patwin tribes.

The Patwins did not sit passively by when they learned of, what they considered, the horrors of the Spanish and their missions. They led raids on the missions, ostensibly to free their brethren, as well as take what booty they could, and kill the missionaries.

This, of course, was met with disfavor by the Spanish.  In 1810, an expedition led by Gabriel Moraga and 17 horse-mounted soldiers raided the Suisun’s main encampment at Yulyul (remnants at Rockville Park), killing about 100 Suisuns. As devastating as this raid was, it did not deter the Suisuns from vengeance and reprisal against the Spanish.

By 1817, the Spanish were well nigh fed up with the continuing raids against the missions. The Spanish governor in Monterey, Jose Arguello ordered Lt. Jose Antonio Sanchez on another punitive mission against the Suisuns.

This is the raid in which the Suisun’s revered chief Malica was killed, along with hundreds of his followers. Many others were taken as captives, which included a 10- or 11-year-old boy named Sem Yeto, who would later be baptized as Francisco Solano.

The Suisuns were reportedly quelled and quiet for a number of years. When Solano grew into adulthood and attained a height of 6 feet, 7 inches, he returned to the remnants of his people, who were living in Sonoma. Shortly afterward, they made him chief. Raids among the “tribelets” continued.

Solano having been educated by the missionaries and from life experience, steered his people away from taking retribution against the Spanish until 1830, when Lt. Mariano Vallejo arrived with a contingent of troops to set up a garrison to thwart Russian advances into Spanish territory.

After a bloody battle at Suscol, Solano sued for peace with Vallejo. It turned out to be one of history’s great alliances and friendships.

Vallejo would rise to general and keep the Alta California natives in line and Solano would, with Spanish help, get rid of all of his enemies. This friendship lasted through Mexican Independence from Spain in 1821, the secularization of the missions in 1833, and through the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846.

During this time, the most tragic episode occurred. From 1837 through 1839, smallpox ravaged the area. Only a handful of Native Americans in Alta California survived.

So, the next time the tule fog rises from the local marshes, or an unexpected zephyr brushes your cheek, perhaps it is one of the thousands of ancients, long dead, who is still seeking to right wrongs or protect the living.