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Saturday, July 20, 2002

The intrepid families of Vaca and Pena

Nancy Dingler

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As traffic whizzes by on Interstate 80, few are aware that behind the fence, shaded by trees, still clearly visible on the east side of the freeway, from Fairfield, approaching Vacaville, is perhaps the oldest building in the entire county.

Built in 1842 by Juan Felipe Pena, the house has withstood weather, time, neglect and vandalism. The 2-foot-thick adobe blocks were formed on site from our “famous” local clay soil, straw and water, then allowed to bake in the hot sun until ready for the awaiting walls.

Juan and his family are believed to have hauled by oxen or mule teams, from Napa, the redwood that was hand-hewn for the joists that support the thatched roof and window and door lintels. The entire building’s dimensions, when finished, were 18 by 50 feet.

There were no stoves or fireplace in the house, and certainly, no plumbing. As was the custom in the early households, the cooking was done outside under a thatched shelter. Water had to be hauled in a bucket and was supplied by a hand-dug well with a “luxurious” hand pump.

Sometime around the 1880s, the adobe was modernized and enlarged by encasing the entire building in wood sheathing and frame extension. New wood walls were carried about 3 feet beyond present (and original) portico columns and a frame annex was added at the north end. Kitchen facilities were installed.

By the 1950s, the old house began to deteriorate. It stood as an abandoned ruin in a meadow overgrown with weeds, neglected trees and shrubbery. Old adobe walls, for so many years protected by the encased wood siding, became exposed. The south wall collapsed. Concerned members of the Solano County Historical Society undertook a campaign to save the Pena Adobe.

When Juan Felipe Pena and Juan Manuel Vaca, with their families in tow, headed for California from Santa Fe, N.M., they were seeking a better life. Juan Felipe brought his wife, Isabella Gonsalves and their six children. Juan Manuel had lost his wife in 1839. The widower was accompanied by their eight children.

The intrepid families followed the Old Spanish Trail that terminated at Pueblo de Los Angeles, arriving in 1841. Upon their arrival in Southern California, they were convinced by Mariano Vallejo to settle in the fertile Lagoon Valley.

Part of their agreement with Vallejo was that the families were required to build houses, plant trees and pasture livestock. Both the Pena’s and Vaca’s built homes, only the Pena’s adobe remains.

The “two” Juans having satisfied Vallejo’s requirements, were granted 10 square leagues of the Rancho Los Putos. Ten square leagues amounted to 44,384 acres. This huge territory encompassed all of Lagoon Valley and stretched into what is now Yolo County.

During the 1840s, both families engaged in cattle ranching. Hides and tallow were the principal source of trade and income. It has been speculated that they hauled the hides and tallow by ox cart to landings along the sloughs of Suisun Bay.

The families also engaged the few remaining Native Americans to serve as ranch hands, cowboys and servants. The Vacas and Penas cultivated orchards and gardens near their homes.

This was a tumultuous time in California’s history. In just five short years after their arrival, the Bear Flag revolt occurred, in which Vallejo, his brother and their families were taken to Sutter’s Fort from Sonoma as captives, care of General Charles Fremont and Kit Carson.

Many of the “Bear Flaggers” objected to the treatment by Fremont of the captives and made sure that the Vallejo families were accorded some protection on their way to John Sutter’s fort. One of the stops along the way was at Pena’s Adobe, where they were treated with respect, quantities of food and liquid refreshment.

In 1847, Americans Albert Lyon, John Patton Sr. and Jr., along with J.P. Willis and Clay Long, arrived in the Vaca Valley. In April of 1849, Vaca decided to sell a half-league of land between Alamo and Ulatis creeks for $8,000 to Albert Lyon and the Pattons.

On Aug. 21, 1850, Vaca deeded 9 square m

iles to another new arrival, William McDaniel, for $3,000 to establish the town of Vacaville. Part of the deal was that McDaniel was to establish 1,055 lots.

Under the new Republic of California, nothing changed as far as landownership, but when California went for statehood in 1850, as the 39th state, suddenly the Mexican land grants were being assaulted in the courts. Rancho owners were forced to engage in protracted and costly legal battles in an effort to gain confirmation of their claims.

Settlers by the hundreds moved into the rich valleys on a squatter premise that until the Spanish or Mexican grants were officially validated, they would seize the land. Although the Vacas and Penas had to contend with these vexing problems, they were more fortunate than many of their countrymen. Confirmation was acknowledged by the United States in 1858 for the 10 square leagues of Rancho Los Putos.

Adjustments had to be made to the original boundary lines of the grant, due to the settler problem. The boundary lines were finally established as a twisted and elongated configuration on the maps of Solano County. Southern boundaries enclosed most of Lagoon Valley, while northern lines reached almost to Davis.

Upon having his claim confirmed by the U.S. courts, Pena deeded much of his land to his children. Daughter Nestora received about 1,000 acres and the ranch house. In 1881 Nestora married Jesus Tapia Rivera. The Riveras had no children.

A niece, Maria Dolores Pena (afterward married to John P. Lyon) had lived with Nestora and was deeded the land and old adobe in 1918. Nestora is believed to have been 83 or 84 when she passed away in 1922.
Descendants of the Vacas and Penas still live in Solano County. More than 60 were on hand to sign a guest register at the time Pena Adobe was restored and the park was dedicated on June 2, 1967.