J. P Munro-Fraser.

History of Solano County...and histories of its cities, towns...etc. .. online

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being Landy Alford and Nathan Barbour. What their experiences were let
us here relate. Starting from Andrews county, Missouri, for this, then
almost " undiscovered country," they crossed the plains and came to the
banks of the Feather river in October, 1846. The waters being in flood it
was too deep to ford, they, therefore, with that wit which becomes sharpened
by a stern necessity, devised the following mode of reaching the opposite
bank. Taking the box, or bed of their wagons, they fastened to each corner
an empty keg, thus making a raft or float ; in this they conveyed, not only
all their household goods, but also their entire families, the live stock which
they were bringing with them being compelled to swim across. Not long
after this our party found themselves at Wolfskill's ranch, already referred
to, and here they divided, the Alford's going to Sonoma accompanied by
Barbour's wife, while Barbour remained behind for a few days, and finally
enlisted in the battalion that Fremont was at the time recruiting, with
which he went to Sacramento and served five months. In the end of March,
1847, Mr. Barbour followed his friends to Sonoma where he, with Alford,
framed two houses which they intended erecting on a couple of lots given


them for the purpose. On one occasion while at work shaping out their
posts and beams, they were found by Thomas 0. Larkin who made them an
offer of a startling nature, this being no less than a proposal to take both
their houses to Benicia free of charge, to give them one thousand dollars
each for them, they having the privilege of living in them during the
winter, only with this simple proviso, that they should be erected on certain
specified lots in that city. The offer was accepted and they moved to
Benicia in October, 1847. With the same train in which started for Cali-
fornia those mentioned above, traveled Daniel M. Berry, who with his
family arrived in September, 1846, and at once proceeded to Rio Vista, but
in the following spring removed from there and came into the Suisun valley
and pitched a tent on what is now the farm of Joseph Blake, situated about
six miles west of Fairfield. In this year there also located in Vaca valley,
Albert Lyon, John Patton, J. P. Long, Willis Long, and Clay Long, who
commenced the business of stock-raisers. At this time there also lived in
the adobe at Rockville, formerly occupied by Solano, the proselytized chief
of the Suisuns, one Jesus Molino, an Indian who farmed some land.

Captain Von Pfister, a most worthy gentleman of Benicia, who arrived in
that city in the month of August, 1847, possesses a set of books, a day-book
and journal, used in his business, which impart a fund of information in
regard to the early settlement of the county, and in a measure serves as a
directory for that year. When the captain landed in Benicia, one William
McDonald was then building an adobe, which Von Pfister rented on com-
pletion, and opened the first store in the county. From this establishment
the neighborhood for many miles around was supplied, including residents
in Contra Costa, notably the Spanish family of Martinez, who founded the
pleasant town of that name on the opposite shore of the Carquinez Straits.
The books above referred to inform us that there then lived in the county the
following gentlemen — of course there were others whom it has been impos-
sible to trace — all of whom did business at this pioneer emporium. Robert
Semple, Edward Higgings, Charles Hand, Benjamin Furbush, David A*
Davis, William Bryan, George Stevens, James Thompson, Stephen Cooper,
F. S. Holland, Landy Alford, Benjamin McDonald, William Russell, William
Watson, William I. Tustin, Henry Mathews, while Ward & Smith, and
Robert A. Parker, then the principal merchants of Yerba Buena, were the
wholesale establishments with which Von Pfister did business.

The foregoing names are produced merely to give a sort of general idea
of who some of the original settlers were, but it must be by no manner of
means inferred that they were the first to locate in that section. It is fair
to assume that Doctor Robert Semple was the first to appear with any
defined ideas of taking up a permanent residence on the spot, for to him
and two others did the land belong ; there were no houses wherein to live ;
so those who came were per force content to dwell in their wagons and


tents. Yet this was for no lengthened period, as in 1847 we find on record
that houses were constructed by William I. Tustin, now of San Francisco.
Robert Semple, William Bryan, William Russell, Thomas O. Larkin, Stephen
Cooper, Nathan Barbour, Landy Alford, and a man named Benedict.

In this year, too, Samuel Green McMahon arrived in the northern part of
the county and located on certain lands in the WolfskiD grant, on Putah
creek, while in the previous year Don Juan Bidwell, an American, who had
adopted a Spanish synonym of his name, and had served against the Bear-
flag party with the Spaniards, received a grant of land in what is now Rio
Vista township. About this time William McDonald, of Benicia, purchased
a farm in the Sulphur Spring valley, on what was for many years after
known as the Wood's ranch, and there broke the first ground in the south-
ern portion of the county, and produced crops, principally of vegetables,
which were a marvel to those early residents who had come from the
Eastern agricultural States.

In the fall of the year 1847, Captain Von Pfister, traveling overland,
visited the site of the present State Capital. His journey was made through
that portion of the district now known as Solano County, he having started
from Benicia and forded the Rio de los Putos, somewhere between Wolf-
skill's house and that portion of the marsh where the creek loses itself in
the tules, presumably at the point where the old Spanish trail crossed that
stream. There were then only five houses between these two points, at
four of which the captain visited. The first was that of the Indian, Jesus
Molino, at Rockville ; here he found about one hundred acres of ground
under cultivation, producing beans, peas, wheat, barley, and other cereal and
bulbous plants with which the producer was wont to purchase his necessary
stores ; his farming implements were of the most primitive kind, the plough
used being the crooked limb or elbow of a tree, armed with a pointed,
rough, iron socket, which was unevenly dragged through the soil. He next
visited the Berry ranch, in Suisun valley, and here found a clap-board house,
the only one in the district of the kind ; and hence he proceeded in turn
to the ranches of Armijo and Vaca and Pena, and made his exit from the
county as already described.

This year of 1847 may be said to close the pre-historic days of the State,
for it was not until the following year that California became a household
word and had her name tremblingly and hopefully pronounced by eager
lips. As things were then, matters progressed smoothly, but it was little
calculated what was in store for the county in the future ; what there was
we shall attempt to define as we go on.

The year 1848 is one wherein reached the nearest attainment of the dis-
covery of the Philosopher's stone, which it has been the lot of Christendom
to witness : on January 19th gold was discovered, at Coloma, on the
American river, and the most unbelieving and cold-blooded were, by the

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middle of spring, irretrievably bound in its fascinating meshes. The wonder
is that the discovery was not made earlier. Emigrants, settlers, hunters,
practical miners, scientific exploring parties, had camped on, settled in,
hunted through, dug in and ransacked the region, yet never found it ; the
discovery was entirely accidental. Franklin Tuthill, in his History of Cal-
ifornia, tells the story in these words : Captain Sutter had contracted with
James W. Marshall, in September, 1847, for the construction of a saw-mill,
in Coloma. In the course of the winter a dam and race were made, but
when the water was let on, the tail-race was too narrow. To widen and
deepen it, Marshall let a strong current of water directly into the race,
which bore a large body of mud and gravel to the foot.

On the 19th of January, 1848, Marshall observed some glittering particles
in the race, which he was curious enough to examine. He called five car-
penters on the mill to see them ; but though they talked over the possibility
of its being gold, the vision did not inflame them. Peter L. Weimar claims
that he was with Marshall when the first piece of the " yellow stuff " was
picked up. It was a pebble, weighing six pennyweights and eleven grains.
Marshall gave it to Mrs. Weimar, and asked her to boil it in saleratus water
and see what came of it. As she was making soap at the time, she pitched
it into the soap kettle. About twenty-four hours afterwards it was fished
out and found all the brighter for its boiling.

Marshall, two or three weeks later, took the specimens below, and gave
them to Sutter, to have them tested. Before Sutter had quite satisfied
himself as to their nature, he went up to the mill, and, with Marshall, made
a treaty with the Indians, buying of them their titles to the region round
about, for a certain amount of goods. There was an effort made to keep the
secret inside the little circle that knew it, but it soon leaked out. They had
many misgivings and much discussion whether they were not making
themselves ridiculous ; yet by common consent all began to hunt, though
with no great spirit, for the " yellow stuff " that might prove such a prize.

In February, one of the party went to Yerba Buena, taking some of the
dust with him. Fortunately he stumbled upon Isaac Humphrey, an old
Georgian gold-miner, who, at the first look at the specimens, said they were
gold, and that the diggings must be rich. Humphrey tried to induce some
of his friends to go up with him to the mill, but they thought it a crazy ex-
pedition, and left him to go alone. He reached there on the 7th of March.
A few were hunting for gold, but rather lazily, and the work on the mill
went on as usual. Next day he began " prospecting," and soon satisfied
himself that he had struck a rich placer. He made a rocker, and then com-
menced work in earnest.

A few days later, a Frenchman, Baptiste, formerly a miner in Mexico,
left the lumber he was sawing for Sutter at Weber's, ten miles east of
Coloma, and came to the mill. He agreed with Humphrey that the region



was rich, and, like him, took to the pan and the rocker. These two men
were the competent practical teachers of the crowd that flocked in to see
how they did it. The lesson was easy, the process simple. An hour's
observation fitted the least experienced for working to advantage.

Slowly and surely, however, did these discoveries creep into the minds of
those at home and abroad ; the whole civilized world was set ao-oof with the
startling news from the, shores of the Pacific. Young and old were seized
with the California fever ; high and low, rich and poor, were infected by it ;
the prospect was altogether too gorgeous to contemplate. Why they could
actually pick up a fortune for the seeking it ! Positive affluence was within
the grasp of the weakest ; the very coast was shining with the bright metal
which could be obtained by picking it out with a knife.

Says Tuthill : Before such considerations as these, the conservatism of
the most stable bent. Men of small means, whose tastes inclined them to
keep out of all hazardous schemes and uncertain enterprises, thought they
saw duty beckoning them around the Horn, or across the plains. In many
a family circle, where nothing but the strictest econonomy could make the
two ends of the year meet, there were long and anxious consultations,
which resulted in selling ofT a piece of the homestead or the woodland, or
the choicest of the stock, to fit out one sturdy representative to make a for-
tune for the family. Hundreds of farms were mortgaged to buy tickets for
the land of gold. Some insured their lives and pledged their policies for an
outfit. The wild boy was packed off hopefully. The black sheep of the
flock was dismissed with a blessing, and the forlorn hope that, with a
change of skies, there might be a change of manneis. The stay of the
happy household said " Good-bye, but only for a year or two," to his charge.
Unhappy husbands availed themselves cheerfully of this cheap and reput-
able method of divorce, trusting Time to mend or mar matters in their
absence. Here was a chance to begin life anew. Whoever had begun it
badly, or made slow headway on the right course, might start again in a
region where Fortune had not learned to coquette with and dupe her

The adventurers generally formed companies, expecting to go overland or
by sea to the mines, and to dissolve partnership only after a first trial of luck
together in the " diggings." In the Eastern and Middle States they would buy
up an old whaling-ship, just ready to be condemned to the wreckers, put in
a cargo of such stuff as they must need themselves, and provisions, tools, or
goods, that must be sure to bring returns enough to make the venture pro-
fitable. Of course, the whole fleet rushing together through the Golden
Gate, made most of these ventures profitless, even when the guess was
happy as to the kind of supplies needed by the Californians. It can hardly
be believed what sieves of ships started, and how many of them actually
made the voyage. Little river-steamers, that had scarcely tasted salt water


before, were fitted out to thread the Straits of Magellan, and these were
welcomed to the bays and rivers of California, whose waters some of them
ploughed and vexed busily for years afterwards.

Then steamers, as well as all manner of sailing vessels, began to be adver-
tised to run to the Isthmus ; and they generally went crowded to excess
with passengers, some of whom were fortunate enough, after the toilsome
ascent of the Chagres river, and the descent either on mules or on foot to
Panama, not to be detained more than a month waiting for the craft that
had rounded the Horn, and by which they were ticketed to proceed to San
Francisco. But hundreds broke down under the horrors of the voyage in
the steerage, contracted on the Isthmus the low typhoid fevers incident to
tropical marshy regions, and died.

The overland emigrants, unless they came too late in the season to the
Sierras, seldom suffered as much, as they had no great variation of climate
on their route. They had this advantage, too, that the mines lay at the end
of their long road ; while the sea-faring, when they landed, had still a
weary journey before them. Few tarried longer at San Francisco than was
necessary to learn how utterly useless were the curious patent mining con-
trivances they had brought, and to replace them with the pick, shovel
pan, and cradle. If anyone found himself destitute of funds to go farther,
there was work enough to raise them by. Labor was honorable ; and the
daintiest dandy, if he were honest, could not resist the temptation to work
where wages were so high, pay so prompt, and employers so flush.

There were not lacking in San Francisco, grumblers who had tried the
mines and satisfied themselves that it cost a dollar's worth of sweat and
time, and living exclusively on bacon, beans, and " slap-jacks," to pick a
dollar's worth of gold out of rock, or river bed, or dry ground ; but they
confessed that the good luck which they never enjoyed abode with others.
Then the display of dust, slugs, and bars of gold in the public gambling-
places ; the sight of men arriving every day freighted with belts full, which
they parted with so freely as men only can when they have got it easily ;
the testimony of the miniature rocks ; the solid nuggets brought down from
above every few days, whose size and value rumor multiplied according to
the number of her tongues. The talk, day and night, unceasingly and
exclusively of " gold, easy to get and hard to hold," inflamed all new
comers with the desire to hurry on and share the chances. They chafed at
the necessary detentions. They nervously feared that all would be gone
before they should arrive.

The prevalent impression was that the placers would give out in a year
or two. Then it behoved him who expected to gain much to be among the
earliest on the ground. When experiment was so fresh in the field, one
theory was about as good as another. An hypothesis that lured men per-
petually farther up the gorges of the foot-hills, and to explore the canons


of the mountains, was this : that the gold which had been found in the
beds of rivers, or in gulches, through which streams once ran, must have
been washed down from the places of original deposits farther up the
mountains. The higher up the gold-hunter went, then, the nearer he
approached the source of supply.

To reach the mines from San Francisco, the course lay up San Pablo and
Suisun bays, and the Sacramento — not then, as now, a yellow, muddy
stream, but a river pellucid and deep — to the landing for Sutter's Fort;
and they who made the voyage in sailing vessels, thought Mount Diablo
significantly named so long it kept them company and swung its shadow
over their path. From Sutter's the most common route was across the
broad, fertile valley to the foot-hills, and up the American or some one of
its tributaries ; or, ascending the Sacramento to the Feather and the Yuba,
the company staked off a claim, pitched its tent or constructed a cabin, and
set up its rocker, or began to oust the river from a portion of its bed. Good
luck might hold the impatient adventurers for a whole season on one bar ;
bad luck scattered them always farther up.
* * * * * ***

Hoards sought the mining camps, which did not stop to study roads.
Traders came in to supply the camps, and, not very fast, but still to some
extent, mechanics and farmers to supply both traders and miners. So, as
if by magic, within a year or two after the rush began, the map of the
country was written thick with the names of settlements.

Some of these were the nuclei of towns that now flourish and promise to
continue as long as the State is peopled. Others, in districts where the
placers were soon exhaused, were deserted almost as hastily as they were
begun, and now no traces remain of them except the short chimney-stack,
the broken surface of the ground, heaps of cobble-stones, rotting, half-
buried sluice boxes, empty whisky bottles, scattered playing cards, and
rusty cans.

The " fall of '49 and spring of '50 " is the era of California history, which
the pioneer always speaks of with warmth. It was the free-and-easy age
when everybody was flush, and fortune, if not in the palm, was only just
beyond the grasp of all. Men lived chiefly in tents, or in cabins scarcely
more durable, and behaved themselves like a generation of bachelors. The
family was beyond the mountains ; the restraints of society had not yet
arrived. Men threw off the masks they had lived behind and appeared out
in their true character. A few did not discharge the consciences and con-
victions they had brought with them. More rollicked in a perfect freedom
from those bonds which good men cheerfully assume in settled society for
the good of the greater number. Some afterwards resumed their temperate
and steady habits, but hosts were wrecked before the period of their license


Very rarely did men, on their arrival in the country, begin to work at
their old trade or profession. To the mines first. If fortune favored they
soon quit for more congenial employments. If she frowned, they might
depart disgusted, if they were able ; but oftener, from sheer inability to
leave the business, they kept on, drifting from bar to bar, living fast, reck-
less, improvident, half -civilized lives ; comparatively rich to-day, poor
to-morrow ; tormented with rheumatisms and agues ; remembering dimly
the joys of the old homestead ; nearly weaned from the friends at home,
who, because they were never heard from, soon became like dead men in
their memory ; seeing little of women and nothing of churches ; self-reliant,
yet satisfied that there was nowhere any " show " for them ; full of enter-
prise in the direct line of their business, and utterly lost in the threshhold
of any other ; genial companions, morbidly craving after newspapers ; good
fellows, but short-lived.

Such was the maelstrom which dragged all into its vortex thirty years
ago ! Now, almost the entire generation of pioneer miners, who remained
in that business, has passed away, and the survivers feel like men who are
lost and old before their time, among the new comers, who many be just as
old, but lack their long, strange chapter of adventures.

No history of a county in California would be complete without a record
of the rush to this coast at the time of what is so aptly named the " gold
fever;" hence use has been made of the graphic pen-picture quoted above.
Where there were so many homeless, houseless wanderers, the marvel is
not so much that thousands should have succumbed to sickness, as that
there was no epidemic to sweep off the entire reckless population.

In the winter of 1849-50 large numbers of miners repaired to Benicia>
and there pitching their tents, plunged into the most head-long dissipation.
Saloons and gambling hells were in full blast, large sums of money being
spent on and in these canvass palaces, ornamented and embellished with the
wildest display of meretricious splendor. In the spring of the year, when
the weather opened, the majority returned to their will-o'-the-wisp pursuit
after wealth in the mines, while those who remained, heart-sick at hope
deferred, cast aside their rockers and picks, and betook themselves to the
ploughshare, so to try their luck at fortune-making by the production of
golden grain, as against the acquiring it from golden sand. In these years
commenced the arrival, in numbers, of settlers in Solano county, a goodly
share of her oldest and most worthy residents having each had, at one time
or another, a long or a short spell at the mines, and truly do they love to
narrate their experiences in these eventful years, which is usually done
with a simplicity at once " child-like and bland."

But to return to the settlement of Solano county : In 1848, John Stilts,
who had two years previously visited the district, returned and settled in
Green Valley, where he was shortly after followed by W. P. Durbin and


Charles Ramsey. In the following spring came Landy Alford from Benicia
to the Suisun Valley, and located on the farm now owned by Lewis Pierce.
Alford was of that class of whom the most stolid citizens are made. He
was a man brought up on the frontier, and, as usual with such characters,
lacked those more refined qualities which education and contact with society
brings. A man who was passionately fond of hunting, and when not
engaged in the pursuit of deer, bear, or other wild animals, or recounting
his exploits to interested listeners, was silent, reserved, and almost moody.
After his coming to this township, and when civilization became more
advanced and game became sparse, he pushed on to the valley of the San
Joaquin, where he died a few years ago. He, with many of the early set-
tlers, have been gathered to their fathers on the brighter shores of the Great
Beyond. A few are left awaiting the summons to join those who have gone
before, but who shared with them the hardships and privations incident to
pioneer life in this part of the Pacific slope, erst the home of Solano and
his tribe of Suisuns.

In this year, too, there established themselves in Yaca valley, J. H., W.
B., and Garard Long, who were soon after followed by Marshall M. Basye ;
General J. B. Frisbie, too, at this time arrived in Benicia : while there were
others, who it has been impossible to trace, arriving almost daily. Most of
these have been gathered to their fathers ; while some have left the county
to reside in other parts of the State. In the fall of 1850, John R. Wolfskill
was joined by his brother Mathias, on his grant on Putah creek ; the same
season Nathan Barbour transferred his residence to Suisun valley ; while in
that year, among the arrivals in the county, were J. H. Bauman, W. A.

Online LibraryJ. P Munro-FraserHistory of Solano County...and histories of its cities, towns...etc. .. → online text (page 7 of 57)