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Sunday, July 25, 2004

How Jose Armijo got a land grant

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

Galloping vaqueros mark lines

This week we continue the story of the Armijo family and the Tolenas land grant. It is based in part on an untitled and unpublished set of articles on Jose Francisco Armijo by David A. Weir, the former publisher of the Solano Republican and author of a biography on Captain R. Waterman. I am grateful to Ian Thompson for a copy of this manuscript.

With the secularization of the missions in 1835, large tracts of free land became available to Mexican citizens. Conditions for a land grant were fulfilled if the settler was a Mexican citizen or married to a Mexican citizen, had a house built on the land, occupied the area, marked the boundaries and owned cattle on the land.

On November 22, 1839, Don Jose Armijo submitted his official petition in Sonoma for a land grant in the Suisun Valley area. It was addressed to the “Senor Commanant General sic,” at the time General Vallejo, as follows:

“Jose Francisco Armijo, by birth a Mexican, before your Honor, in the manner which may be best for me in the law, say: That having four sons, natives of the same country, without owning any lands to cultivate, finding myself owner of about one hundred head of cattle, the product of which I annually lose, supplicate that our Honor will be pleased to concede to me the place known to me by the name of Tolenas. That in company with my son, Antonio Maria, I dedicate myself to the cultivation of my own land and the breeding of cattle, with the understanding that the land which I solicit is from the place already mentioned to Ololatos Creek, containing about three leagues of land, more or less, and it joins with the Suisun rancho.

“For this I pray you will be pleased to decree as I have petitioned, for which I respectfully forward, herewith, the map.

“This favor I shall perpetuate on my memory.”

A note underneath added, “Does not know how to sign.”

Armijo immediately was given permission to occupy the land. Commandant General Vallejo noted on the margins of the letter that he should try to cooperate with the native Indians still living on the land, inspire them with confidence in the settlers, and, should any rebellion occur, immediately communicate with Chief Solano.

The petition was forwarded then to Governor Juan Alvarado in a letter signed by Jose Castro:

“Most Excellent Senor Governor:

“The Prefecture being informed of the petition which Jose Francisco Armijo makes in claiming the land which he indicates, and of the order of the Senor Commandant General, no objection is found to the concession which the Government ought to decree, provided the party interested obtains the necessary requisites to be attended to, and that the place which he solicits is found to be entirely vacant.”

Don Armijo met all the requirements and the land was found vacant. Governor Juan Alvarado awarded him the grant of three square leagues on March 4, 1840. The land was bordered on one side by Chief Solano’s Rancho Suisun grant, and on the other side by the 1842 grant of his cousins, Manuel Vaca and Juan Felipe Pena.

While the land grant was officially recorded, its borders were only vaguely defined.

Californios, as the new settlers preferred to call themselves, used a lariat to record measurements. A lariat, 50 to 60 feet long, was a kind of supple lasso of great strength. It was braided from three strips, each cut in circular rings out of one hide.

The land survey occurred on horseback. Two vaqueros would stretch 50 “varas” 150 feet of lariats between them. At each end of the 150 feet, they would touch the ground with a pole. They in turn were followed by the don, who counted the number of poles.

The whole operation occurred at full gallop, slowing only down for the lowering of the posts. Swamps and other inaccessible areas were measured by eye, with mountains and other landmarks giving visual aids. Descriptions such as “a clump of dogwood,” “trails crossing under an oak tree” or “entrance to a bear’s cave” designated specific points of the boundaries.

The survey results would then be recorded. In time, the obviously vague description of land borders led to extensive land disputes.

After Don Armijo received his land grant, he quickly fulfilled a requirement by constructing a “palizada,” before setting out on his return to Santa Fe to fetch his family.

According to David Weir, the Armijos made the journey to California in May 1841 in three wagons, built especially for the trip, drawn by mules. Besides the family, four Pueblo Indians accompanied the train as vaqueros.

Weir quotes or, more likely, paraphrased and interpreted, judging by the flowery, romanticized ideas and descriptions more typical of the 1940s an article in the Solano Herald of 1858, which recorded some of their experiences.

He quotes, “At times the travelers suffered from the lack of water to add to the hazard of steep hills, deep gulleys, hot winds and dust storms, with blistering heat and scarcety sic of forage for the livestock, and a lack of wood for their camp fires. ...

“But there were many other days when the trail was level, straight and joyous, and when camp was pitched after a long day, there was an abundance of good water and green pasture, with willow and oak tree shade under a glad sky ... So when monotony sic, desolation, rocks and desert dragged and tormented body and spirit in the seemingly endless stretches of mountain and plain, there came always on the trail places of beauty, refreshments and gladness wrought by delightful stretches of lustrous flowers, wild roses and far expanses of green meadow, so before their frugal evening repast they would kneel on the turf and offer thanks to Him who created such beauty and Whose hand guides and defends them on their journey.”

The Armijos arrived at the Strait of Carquinez sometime in September 1841. By means of timber floats, they were able to ferry the wagons and animals safely across the strait to finally reach their new home.

Among the items packed were several young Cypress saplings, which Don Armijo planted on the Armijo Rancho and, according to Weir, were still standing close to the Armijo Adobe many years later.

The family immediately began construction of a larger residence, not far from the first palizada. Not much is known about this building, but it likely may have been an adobe building.

By 1845, with their children and spouses, the first grandchildren and a number of vaqueros and servants, the family must have outgrown this building. They began the construction of another adobe building, “in a pleasant open pasture near a large rock lined spring surrounded by cottonwoods and oak trees, at the foot of a high, gently sloping hill,” roughly one eighth of a mile northwest of today’s Rancho Solano Country Club.

It took them at least two years to build the new adobe house. While Don Jose and his wife continued to occupy the smaller adobe, their son Antonio and his family, and presumably their other children, then moved into the bigger building.

This third adobe was built in U shape, with 9 foot high walls, heavy oak beams and a tile roof. The thick adobe walls helped insulate the rooms, keeping them cool in the summer and warm in the winter, according to David Weir quoting a Solano Republican story of 1920, told by J. M. Baldwin, an old time resident of Suisun Valley.

I will continue the Armijo family’s story in my next column.