Click Here to Print This Story!   Click Here to get a PDF Copy of this Story!   

Sunday, April 26, 1964

Oldest Structure

Ernest D. Wichels

What is the oldest building in Solano County?  This afternoon Solano citizens will be welcome to a preview of the reconstruction work nearing completion on the Pena Adobe. It is located on U.S. 40, one mile west of Vacaville.

The Pena (pronounced “pain-yah” ) home is the oldest structure built by man which exists in our Solano County. The Vaca and Pena families began their trek from Santa Fe, N.M., to California about 1840. A year later they arrived in Los Angeles. Then the caravan folowed the El Camino Real through Santa Barbara to Monterey, thence to Sonoma and on to Vaca Valley. The Pena family, on arrival, comprised Juan Felipe Pena, his wife Isabella, five sons and one daughter.

Hospitable General Vallejo kept the family at his Sonoma headquarters while the men in the party journeyed to Laguna Valley and builttheir homes. Senor Vaca built his adobe to the east of Senor Pena—closer to the City of Vacaville. Vaca’s adobe has long since disappeared—mainly because of the 1892 earthquake.


Our scholarly historian, Wood Young of Fairfield, who has prepared a 10,000 word manuscript of the Pena history, tells of the true “gente de razon”—enjoyment of life—which these people had during the 1840s. They gave unstilted hospitality to all, and with Indian warriors tending the increasing herds of cattle, time existed for the pleasures so dear to the Dons’ hearts. Fiestas, rodeos, fandangos, horse racing, grizzly bear versus bull fights, were some of the reasons given for entertaining.

The Pena Abode is located on what was the Los Putos grant, not to be confused with the Rio de Los Putos grant on Putah Creek given to John R. Wolfskill, first American settler in the Solano area. Family tradition says that 25 Santa Barbara Mission-trained Indians sun dried the adobe brick and built the casas of both Vaca and Pena. Some of the first cattle were purchased from General Vallejo, although Antionio Pena, brother of Juan Felipe, with the two Vaca brothers, journeyed to Old Mexico on horseback and drove back an unknown large number of cattle. At this point we should explain why the property of Pena has been called the Armijo grant. Juan Felipe Pena’s mother became a widow when he was young, and she re-married an Armijo. When Demetrio Pena, eldest son of Juan Felipe, went to the Mexican Governor’s office for the grant, he was introduced by his step-father’s name, and in that name the grant was made and was never corrected.

Many of the Vacas built dwellings near Putah Creek—Jose, Miguel and Teofilo; Francisco Pena and Gavino Pena likewise lived in temporary shelters near the creek - presumably to better tend the growing herds. When Demetrio Pena married Inez Berryessa (the pioneer settler of the valley now covered by the lake) he built an adobe in 1849 near the present casa—but it has long since disappeared.


The Vacas and Penas had their own private cemeteries on their rancho. One was situated on a small eminence one mile southwest of the Pena Adobe, known as Steinmetz Hill. The site was needed for the enlargement of U.S. 40 and in 1963 the State purchased the property. Early in 1964 the bodies—some fifteen, of which thirteen were children and two were adults - were moved to a new site on a hilltop just east of the restored Pena Adobe. This afternoon, at 2 o’clock, this new burial ground will be appropriately blessed and dedicated by the Solano County Historical Society, assisted by clergymen from Vacaville.

With the raising of the American flag in July 1846, and particularly after gold was discovered January 19, 1848, conditions changed and troubles also came to our Spanish rancheros.

There was trouble with squatters, and disputes concerning the boundaries of the grants as well as the titles of the grants themselves. It was not until 1858, in fact, that the Vacas and Penas obtained their final Patent to Los Putos Rancho from the U.S. Government.

The first sales of Rancho property began in 1849, when Manuel Vaca sold half ‘a league between Alamo and. Ulatis Creeks to John Patton and Albert Lyon for $8,000. In 1850 Senor Pena sold half a league to Haunt Hollingsworth and Jacob Hoppe. Then again, in 1850, came the history making sale of the site of the future city of Vacaville, when nine square miles, were deeded by Vaca to William McDaniel with the provision a city be named after him. Lansing B. Mizner of the famous Benicia family joined McDaniel as a partner.


Difficulties were also experienced by the wills left by Dons Vaca and Pena. Their desire was to, pass the lands on their children by deed, but legal descriptions were vague and titles were confused.

Vaca died in May of 1856 or 1857, but his place of Interment is not known. Sacramento, Benicia and Sonoma have been mentioned, but no trace found. Pena died March. 15, 1863 and his grave is in the old Benicia City Cemetery. While the Vaca lands were sold very rapidly, Nestora Pena—the daughter, retained her inheritance until eighty years of age. Her niece, Mrs. Rose Coombs, is the source of much of our current information. Her descriptions of the Adobe furnishings, manner of cooking, and the dresses and mantillas of silk imported from China are most fascinating.

The chain of title to the site of the Pena Adobe continued down to about 1957 when Supervisors D. A. Mowers and William Goheen purchased 44 acres and donated 1% acres containing the Adobe to the Solano County Historical Society who, in 1961, transferred it to the City of Vacaville for restoration. The city, the county, the California Medical Facility and Vacaville citizens have been generous in this work.

One column cannot do justice to Mr. Young’s 40 page manuscript.  One hopes it will soon be published and the interesting story of our pioneer Vaca and Pena families, and their descendants, become better known.