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Sunday, April 17, 1983

History from the beginning

Ernest D. Wichels

One of the fascinating aspects of reading and making copies of our early history is that so much of it seems incredible. Especially to us in this era of computers, silicon chips, non-stop planes to Europe, color TV, and the thousands of other items that comprise present day living.

But one of the advantages of reading what an historian of say 1870 has to say is that he was a part of what he was writing; he talked to these first settlers of Napa and Solano, and he didn’t rely on someone else’s version of those early days.

Thompson and West published an atlas in that era, and the writers have left to us an authorative treasure of history. Only a few of these atlases survive today, some in a library or two or in the hands of history buffs. Ours is a decimated and mutilated copy which served the girls in St. Catherine’s Convent in Benicia for a century, and was given to the Solano County Historical Society.

We could devote many pages to the population figure! which would amaze our readers. Here are just a few: Los Angeles, in 1870, had 2,776 persons; Napa had 1,879; Vallejo. 6,391; Vacaville. 343; Suisun City, 462; Fairfield, 329; Rio Vista, 319, Dixon, 317, Benicia, 1,6561 San Francisco, 149,473.

Of Solano’s population of 16,871. 11,263 were American born, and 5,608 were “foreign born.” Of the latter, 2,443 were from Ireland. A total of 4,532 were “native sons,” while the greatest number from other states was 1,202, from New York.  In Napa, with a county population of 5,394, the largest number of foreign born came from Ireland (512) and not from Italy as some may think.

The Thompson and West authors of 113 years ago vote an entire chapter to “Aborigines and Early American Settlement.  Here are excerpts: “The Wolfskill family are without doubt the pioneers of Solano County.  “William Wolfskill came to California as early as 1828 and settled in Los Angeles. In 1842 he obtained of the Mexican government a four-league grant of land on the Rio de los Putos. and upon this grant the first American settlement was made, where the family of Wolfskill still reside.

“In 1842 the Armijo family settled in Suisun Valley, followed the succeeding year by Vaca and Pena, who settled the vicinity of the town of Vacaville, These four families, up to 1846. at least, comprised the white population of Solano County.  “It may not be amiss to inquire what was the apperance, what were the surroundings in the country that in 1846 and 1847 attracted white settlers.  “All the valleys were covered with a most luxuriant growth of wild oats, among which fed vast herds of wild cattle, horses, elk and deer, while on the hills and in the canyons of the mountains the fierce grizzly disputed the supremacy of the soil.

From 1846 to 1850 but few settlers came into the county. Benicia was the first permanent settlement, although a point at the junction of the Sacramento river and Cache creek, a short distance above Rio Vista was settled by Feltis Miller and J.D. Hoppy, in the Spring of 1847, and this settlement was further increased in the fall of that year by the arrival of Daniel M. Berry’s family.  “in the fall of 1846, John Stilts (grandfather of Vallejo’s late Chief of Police), passing through the county on his way from Feather River to Sonoma County, camped for the night on the farm of Charles Ramsey, in Green Valley. In 1848 he returned to the valley to become its first permanent settler, and there he still resides.

Stilts was followed in a short time by W. P. Durbin and Charles Ramsey.  In the spring of 1848, the family of Daniel B. Berry, consisting of six members, removed from Cache Creek, and became the first permanent American settlers in Suisun Valley. The widow of the pioneer Berry still lives (1879) upon the site where the first smoke arose from an American settler’s fire.

Prior to 1850 the increase of population in the valley was decidedly slow. Before that date, in addition to those mentioned it is remembered that there were here Halt Fine, Joseph Gordon, Landy Alford, Nathan Barbour, Henry Sweitzer, John M. Perry, William Taylor, and William Ledgewood.

It should be noted that these parties were in the Suisun Valley, and do not include the settlers in Benicia, who, in 1850, were quite numerous.

From the year 1850 onward, immigration to the valley became comparatively rapid, and the poll-list kept at the first general election held in the county, on the second day of November, 1852, follows in this article.

“There were then but two townships In Solano County, Benicia and Suisun and the polling place in the latter town was at the Berry ranch.

“At this election, George A. Gillespie acted as inspector; Samuel Martin (the Martin house is the historic stone mansion opposite the Solano Community College on Suisun Valley Road) and Henry K. Curtis, as judges; John Kelly, Jr., and T. J. Mosier, as clerks.”

The names of those voting is a “Who’s Who” of early pioneers, and it is surprising to see how many of these family names are represented today in this county.