Solano County home of the brave

is Solano county The greatest place on earth?

The short answer is no.

But I have yet to find a place that is as awesome as Solano County California. I am also not just saying that because I have spent over 20 years of my life living there. It has a diversity and certain kind of attitude about business, life, outsiders, insiders, townies, the military, the educated elite, that is unlike anywhere else I have been too.

If Tocqueville was alive today and visited Fairfield/Suisun he would probably recognize the apathetic somewhat dumb attitude Americans have, but he would be pleasantly charmed by the quirkiness and charm of Solano County California. It is a combination of Big City and Backroad Country that is as American as it gets.

It is why people for a very long time have been fascinated with the county, it's people are a little odd, a little quirky, dare I say a little out there, but that's just because most of those people are from out of town. They just don't understand, and they conveniently forget that the town they are from probably isn't that great either and it becomes easier to just blame everything on Solano County.

But nowhere else I've been too with the possible exception of Riverside County, does government things "The Right Way" most of the time.

Where else can you ring in Christmas Jubilee with a fireworks display?

Or be able to avoid the interstate and take country backroads that touch every single city in the county?

Nowhere else has history that includes a town story about a drunken president, suicidal native Americans, Hollywood movie stars, poets, a captain who was marooned by his own crew, two cities that were former capital cities of California, a river town that was famous for 15 minutes because a lost humpback whale like Free Willy, a former Navy submarine shipyard, an active Air Force base, a former Army arsenal, an active Coast Guard school run by the CSU, and as many brand name food production factories as you can think of. That kind of mix of Americana can only be found in Solano County California.

A good Reputation

A Mighty Arm named Chief Solano

California’s specific version of mental illness, comes from the fact that it might be one of the only states in the USA to not get the history of their founding correct and right. All the information is public and available, it is just not together in one place for the public to learn from, and in some cases the information has a town based bias in it. I think it is a problem.

California has many founding fathers from other parts of the world and other parts of the United States. However, it’s first founding father is Sam Yeto, because he was a Native American who was here first. (I’m going to get back to Sam, but first I have to have a short tangent/rant about liberals and their version of history, it’s a problem as well)

Liberals have a feeling of historical guilt, which probably comes from the UC and CSU system. This feeling is also partly based in a romantic, not 100% factual view of Native American life in California prior to European arrival. It tells a story about how these Native Americans lived in large families, did nothing but make bread from acorns, and were similar to the modern day equivalent of being a new age hippy vegan who lives on a commune in Oregon. The Europeans came, killed them all and took their land, so we should feel guilty about it now. Factually, this is not a full true account of California’s first people and later founding, and it is not good enough.

The counties of Marin, Sonoma, Napa, and Solano are all Native American names. In 1579 Sir Francis Drake lands in Pt. Reyes in Marin county and names California “Nova Albion” or “New Albion.” There were Native Americans living in the North Bay where he observed their attention to detail in gathering nuts and turning acorns into bread by leaching out the toxins.

In 1769 California’s first Mission in San Diego is founded by the Spanish and they began building missions northward along California’s coast. In 1806 Russian traders sail into the San Francisco Bay, and in 1812 they establish a small base in Sonoma County naming it Fort Ross. The fort was an outpost for the seal fur trade, and was built with the help of the Inuit Native Americans from Alaska.

In 1776 mission Dolores was founded in San Francisco, the Spanish began converting Native Americans to Catholicism. In 1804 14 of these converted Indians trespassed into the Suisun Bay and were probably murdered by the local Native American tribe because they had converted. That tribe became known as the Suisun tribe. The Suisun tribe continued to attack in the Spanish in stealth and murder converted Indians wherever they were found. That went on for 6 years until the Spanish sent Gabriel Morega to Solano County to solve the problem .

In 1810, the Spanish who came to fight the Suisun tribe were the first Europeans to step foot in Solano County. After the battle, the Suisun tribe retreated to their huts near present day Travis Air Force Base. Then something happened in the first two huts causing deaths of a few natives. When all hope was lost the Suisun Indians in the third hut set themselves on fire and committed suicide instead of surrendering. The Spanish took six boys and six girls of the Suisun tribe. One of the boys was named Sam Yeto, he “converted” and became known as Chief Solano.

The statue in front of the County Government Building, about 100 years old it is a likeness of Sam Yeto a.k.a Chief Solano. For many years it was near the CHP truck scales on I-80 before it was moved in front of the Library and County government building across from the old Armijo High School that serves as the county court house and jail. Main Street Texas is a special place as well because it has one of the oldest French Dip Sandwiches in California. Joe's Buffet has been dipping roast beef in au jus since the 1950's. Considering the sandwich was invented in the late 1940's in LA I consider Joe's on Texas to be a California institution holding true to the old recipes of generations that came before us. The recipe has been the same for almost 80 years that is a hard thing to keep going in this day in age.

Meanwhile about 50 miles away near Fort Ross were the Kashaya Native Americans. They were known as experts in gambling, chance, and luck. Unlike the Suisun tribe they were peaceful to the Russians. The Russians hired many of them as employees of the Russian American Fur Company and in 1817 the Russians signed a treaty with the Kashaya and gave them civil rights protected by the Tsar of Russia at the time.

In 1823 California’s last Mission was founded by Father Altimira in what later would be the city of Sonoma California. For the first year it was known as New San Francisco, it changed names after its patron saint St. Francis Solano. St. Francis Solano was a priest who used a violin to convert South American Native Americans in the 1600’s. At the founding of the Mission, Sam Yeto who was then named Chief Solano was about 21 years old living in San Francisco.

Mariano Vallejo was born on July 4th in 1807. By 1833 he was an officer in the Mexican army stationed at the presidio in San Francisco. He was ordered to go to Fort Ross and remind the Russians about their territorial incursions of seal hunting in the SF Bay would not be tolerated. In 1835 Vallejo was ordered to found a town at the site of Mission Solano as a garrison and barrier to Russian aggression. He also founded an Adobe in Petaluma which is only 50 or so miles away from the Russians at Fort Ross.

Vallejo arrived in Sonoma to the site of Chief Solano and 3,000 or so Native Americans who were friendly. The number of Native Americans quickly rose to 11,000. Chief Solano was an interpreter and diplomat urging peace between Vallejo and the various tribes. Chief Solano played the role of diplomat peacemaker for Vallejo for the remainder of his life.

Then there were these First American guys and families that were pioneers in the area. These people were Americans who began setting in California prior to the gold rush. George Yount was a beaver hunter who was one of the first people to travel the Santa Fe trail through Las Vegas and into Los Angeles. He traveled north to the Suisun Bay near Benicia California because it has a lot of beavers. He later founded Yountville California in Napa.

Sam Brannon was a Mormon from New York who left New York City with a group of Mormons to settle California. After arriving in San Francisco, he got into an argument with Mormon leadership and left the church. He founded a general store in Sacramento just prior to the Gold Rush, and after becoming successful he retired in Napa and founded a town. The story goes he was still drunk from the night before when he went to the government to file the paperwork for his new town. He wanted to name it “Saratoga” after Saratoga New York. But instead he wrote “Calistoga” so that’s why there is a Calistoga in Napa. But that story could be a lie, the government person could have just told Sam that he couldn’t name his town Saratoga because that name was taken by the town near the mission in Santa Clara, because there is a Saratoga in Silicon Valley.

The Wolfskill brothers are another First American guys. John Reid founded Winters California which is on the border between Napa/Solano/Yolo counties. Meanwhile his brother William traveled the Santa Fe trail with George Yount and he had a small ranch in what is present day downtown Los Angeles, and is also known as the inventor of the Valencia Orange.

John Sutter was from Switzerland and founded Sacramento. Other people were around the area who are important were Josiah Wing who founded the town of Suisun, Robert Waterman who was a sailor who was marooned in San Francisco and later founded the town of Fairfield and Cordelia. He is a different from the later on in history person by the same name who was California’s Governor, Governor Waterman was concerned about legislative process, clerk specifics, and committee rules.

I’m going to skip the Bear Flag Revolt because I think that story is common knowledge. But I want to go back to town mental illness. Specifically Sacramento’s mental illness. It is far too concerned with specifics, and not necessarily the right specifics either. For example, information in Sacramento tells people that gold was found at “Sutter’s Mill.” While that technically might be true, it factually is not true. John Sutter hired James Marshall to run a mill in Coloma, and James Marshall found gold. James Marshall is buried underneath the statue of him in Coloma which is only a 50 minute drive from Sacramento. That is close enough in proximity and a fact for Sacramento to be on top of, same with the Chief Solano history in Solano.

The Navy Town of Vallejo

The photo to the right is of a Japanese Submarine that was captured at Pearl Harbor in 1941. The US Navy took around to different towns in the USA as a way to sell War Bonds for the war effort.

This photograph was taken while it was at Mare Island California which is also near Vallejo California.

The city of Vallejo is named after Mariano Vallejo who also founded the town of Sonoma. The US Navy began operating a shipyard at Mare Island soon after California became a state in the 1850's. It is one of the oldest naval yards on the West Coast of the USA.

Mariano Vallejo is a descendent of Admiral Alfonso Vallejo who in the early 1500's was the admiral Spain sent to arrest Christopher Columbus on his second expdidition. You can read about how I learned about this little piece of information by clicking on below and scrolling to my "That's Paris" conversation I had at the Orsay Museum with an average Frenchwoman.

Mare Island has some amazing "First" history within the US Navy. It was established by Commodore David Glasgow Farragut on September 16, 1854.

  1. The U.S.S Saginaw was the first US naval ship built on the West Coast at Mare Island. She later would run aground near Midway in the Pacific, and one of her sailors, William Halford would sail 1,500 miles to Hawaii to ask for assistance from the King of Hawaii. He left with another member of the crew, they reached Hawaii at the surf spot now known as pipeline. Halford survived the other crewman drowned. A steamship rescued the rest of the crew of the U.S.S Saginaw. Halford received the Medal of Honor for his bravery and is buried on Mare Island.
  2. Mare Island was the first dry dock, and still holds the record for the fastest yard to ever build a ship. During World War 1 they completed a ship in only 17 and 1/2 days.
  3. Mare Island is home to the first interdenominational military chapel.
  4. In 1904 Mare Island built the first ship to shore radio station, and continued to build radio stations all along the coast of California and even for use in Europe during World War I.
  5. In 1908 Mare Island converted a coal burning ship the USS Wyoming to an oil burning ship giving the Navy its first oil during ship.
  6. In 1910 Mare Island built the first aircraft carrier for the US Navy. the USS Pennsylvania. Two years later Mare Island will build the first all electric ship for the US Navy.
  7. The 1918 Mare Island Marine Football team won the Rose Bowl, they reached it again the next year but lost to the Navy team from Illinois led by the legendary coach George "Papa Bear" Halas, who would later found the NFL team known as the Chicago Bears.
  8. The first messages of the bombing of Pearl Harbor arrive on the mainland at the radio station on Mare Island.
  9. Mare Island has many more "firsts in..." history and it's too many to list all here. But go there and get the list from the docent, it's got some awesome history.

A Landmark County

The following writing is sourced from a book I got earlier this year called "California, a Landmark History" by Joseph R. Knowland.

Joseph R. Knowland was a newspaper man, historian, politician, and mentor to California leaders. He began as a simple state Assemblyman being elected in the late 19th century representing southern Solano County in the cities of Benicia and Vallejo. Joseph R. Knowland would later begin a newspaper in Oakland California and become one of the greatest historical preservationist of the first half of the 20th century as chair of the State Parks Commission and chair of the Historic Landmarks Committee. From 1904 to 1915 he was a member of the US Congress in the House of Representatives. Joseph Knowland is considered the political mentor of future Governor of California and Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Earl Warren. Earl Warren as Governor appointed his son William Knowland to the US Senate. William Knowland was also a former state Assemblymember and Senator. William Knowland would rise to the rank of the majority and minority leader of the US Senate for a period of time in the mid 1950's. Sadly after leaving public office in the early 1960's he began getting into trouble, the newspaper his father began decades earlier began to lose money and William Knowland had a gambling addiction. In the early 1970's former California Senator William Knowland committed suicide he apparently owed more than 5 million dollars to banks and mobsters.

The 1849 California Constitutional Convention was held in San Jose California near present day San Jose City Hall is located. A California's first referendum was held to pick which city would become their capital city. A total of 10,729 votes were cast in 1849 and 6,185 were in favor of having the new city being built and named after the General to become the State Capital of California. The city of Vallejo California.

Capitol with an "O" indicates a building, Capital with an "A" indicates a city. Sacramento has a Capitol Building, and is a Capital City. This photograph is roughly from the spot of where the old Capitol Building in Vallejo once stood. You can see what Mare Island is like today. (this photograph is about 5 years old)

General Vallejo lobbied hard for the Capital City to be in Solano County. He offered 150 across of land as well as $370,000 in cash to help pay for the new building and surrounding government buildings that would be needed. Unfortunately General Vallejo was also not the greatest businessman, he relied on others to follow through on their word and donate money as well, they did not. Through heroic efforts of General Vallejo he was able to get a building together in short order for the Legislature to convene. The legislature convened in Vallejo California in January of 1852.

The accommodations were poor, the building was not the greatest, and the state legislature complained. Sacramento offered an invitation for the legislature to move their session to their city instead. A steamboat named Empire was loaded up with all of the furnishings of the Capitol building in Vallejo along with the legislature itself and left Vallejo for Sacramento

Carpets were torn up, stoves and long stovepipes came down on the run, the China chairs were tumbled in a heap out of the State House and carried on men's heads to the wharf. the barkeepers, finding their occupation was gone, decided to stick to the Legislature, and decanters and tumblers, bars and bar fixtures and champagne baskets went pell-mell into confusion and down aboard the boat.

The bartenders mixed with the legislators, judges, and private citizens on the long boat ride up the delta and Sacramento River.

The top photo on this page is one of the only photographs of the Vallejo Capitol Building I have found.

The Attorney General of California declared that the state constitutional provision requiring a 2/3 vote to move the state Capital was invalid and just a simple majority vote by the State Legislature would be sufficient. Upon disliking Vallejo California so much they promptly decided to move the state Capital up the bay a little to the city of Benicia California. From 1853 to 1854 the State Capital was in Benicia California.

Benicia California. there is another Point of Interest next door called the "Hanlan House" I was once visiting Benicia as a history nerd in back in 2017. I got a tour of the old Hanlan House by a very old docent who was 90 years old or more. She knew everything about the house and her mind was quite sharp. Upon chit chatting with her about history and family stories about California Mrs. Murphy told me her story. She grew up in the 1930's in Glendale California, her father was a cameraman in Hollywood. Nothing special, nobody outside of Hollywood would know who he was, but he worked on many movies and made a decent wage. Mrs. Murphy who was about 10 or 11 years old in the mid 1930's got invited to the Birthday celebration of a young child actor by the name of Shirley Temple. I remember her telling me the story about how it was a grand old party of old Hollywood types, it was not really a kids party, but there was a horse, a cake with fireworks on it, basically what you would imagine a rich Hollywood Birthday Party to be like circa 1935. She recalled a memory of a melancholy young Shirley Temple sitting alone, the other kids were too scared to talk to her because of her fame, and the adults were all too busy socializing amongst themselves. Ofcourse Shirley Temple would go on to have an entire different kind of historic career in the US State Department becoming ambassador to Czechoslovakia and Ghana as well as being Chief of Protocal.  

Benicia California had recently built a new City Hall out of old wooden ships from San Francisco. Inside this building is pretty cool, you can see that the wood used in one of the columns was actually a mast of a ship. Benicia California has a fascinating origin story as well.

Originally Benicia California was supposed to be a rival city known as Yerba Buena which in 1847 changed their name to San Francisco. Before the gold rush Yerba Buena was a very small town of only a few hundred sometimes only a few dozen people, it consisted of the Presidio near present day Golden Gate Bridge and Mission Dolores near Noe Valley/Mission District/Castro. When Sam Brannon arrived on a boat named Brooklyn with a 240 Mormons from NYC they more than doubled the population of Yerba Buena in July of 1846.

Benicia was formally known as "Francisca" but after Yerba Buena changed their name it became known as Benicia which was the name of General Vallejo's wife. The city was founded by two men one was Dr. Robert Semple who was a dentist from Kentucky. Thomas O. Larkin was the only US consul to Alta California. He is not to be confused with Thomas Larkin Thompson who was also an interesting CA historical person in the 1800's from this Solano/Sonoma area. His sister, Mary Mercer Thompson married Edward Ord who was a surveyor and city planner of Los Angeles California, he would go on to serve in the Civil War and play a pivotal part in the battle of Appomattox and was present at the signing of Robert E. Lee's surrender, he also led an investigation of the confederate involvement in Lincoln's assassination concluding there was not much which helped stop a call to restart the war. Thomas Larkin Thompson would also go on to be the head of the commission in charge of the California exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1894, a fair that helped showcase the exceptionalism that is the golden state of California.

A year later Sacramento would become the State Capital for good. But our Solano County story is just beginning. It was about this time a young clipper ship captain was setting a world record (this dude still owns it) for sailing from NYC to Hong Kong trading tea. But first, we have to talk about the Boston Tea Party and an international trade embargo.

The Tea Trade

Every American knows the story of the Boston Tea Party and the unjust and unfair tea tax imposed on our ancestors by an exploitive Parliament in London known as the House of Commons or the British Parliament.

But what we sometimes forget about this story is that the economics continued for decades later. It became a patriotic thing for people during the revolutionary war to drink the French drink of coffee instead of the British drink of tea. But let's rewind the clock a couple hundred years before the Boston Tea Party.

In the 1600's coffee first arrived in Venice and it was pretty much hated by the Catholic Church. It was black, disgusting looking, and the Pope Clement VIII declared the drink to be the work of the devil. But he also said "Let me try it first." After a taste of coffee he said "The devil's drink is so delicious, let us cheat the devil by baptizing it." and from then on Europe adopted coffee as the prominent beverage. By 1700 there were hundreds of coffee shops in Paris and London and in many European cities.

The East India Company did not like losing out to coffee. London had almost 2,000 coffee shops in the early 1700's. So the East India Company began importing hundreds of thousands of pounds of tea to England and engaged in a massive marketing campaign against coffee and for tea. By the time of the American Revolution British people had all but adopted the drink of tea as a custom. Chinese Tea was considered superior to others.

So after the Boston Tea Party, American Revolution, and the war of 1812 the United Kingdom imposed restrictions on Americans trading tea to England. It was pretty much illegal for an American to sail a ship to China load it up with tea, then sail to England and sell it. This embargo lasted for decades, by the mid 1800's clipper ships became more popular in part because they were faster and could still hold a decent amount of cargo. The opium trade was also going on. England also decided to allow American sailors begin trading tea with them again. One such sailor from Fairfield Connecticut was a man named Robert Waterman. Josiah Wing is another clipper ship captain who was also a friend of Robert Waterman.

This is in Fairfield CA, just north of where the Suisun grant was located

Josiah Wing decided to give up being a sailor and decided to start a town instead. In 1854 he began laying out the plot of what would become Suisun City California. He began in what is today the Embarcadero where City Hall is and Main Street. The Lawler House in Suisun City which was (maybe still is) a place where you can see the works of local artists dates back to 1856.

Robert Waterman was the Captain of the Sea Witch and as captain he set several sailing records. His greatest achievement was sailing from Hong Kong with a cargo full of tea to NYC in only 74 days in 1849. In 1851 a company that builds Clipper ship offered a reward of $10,000 to any captain who could sail from NYC to SF in 90 days or less. Captain Robert Waterman accepted this challenge and became the captain of the boat named Challenge she set sail in 1851.

Unfortunately the crew the company hired was inexperienced and not well trained and Waterman had a personality that sometimes did not sit well with others. There is a reason why his nickname was "Bully" Waterman. Half of the 56 member crew had never sailed before and only 3 had experience, the crew was a disaster. Robert Waterman used violence to flog and whip his crew and stopped a some of the crew from murdering the first officer a Mr. Douglas who was merciless in his harsh actions against the crew.

After 108 days at sea the boat arrived in San Francisco and the crew's version of events caused an uproar in the city. Robert Waterman narrowly escaped a lynching from an angry mob of drunken sailors and San Franciscans. He was instead arrested and tried for beating a sick crew member, he was actually convicted by a jury, but the judge refused to sentence him. Robert Waterman had 8 of his crew arrested for mutiny and only one went to trial and that guy got acquitted.

After this ordeal Captain Robert Waterman decided to visit his old friend Josiah Wing who was living in Solano County at the time. Robert Waterman began raising cattle and poultry and living in the Lagoon Valley at first. In 1856 he decided he would also found a town.

The town of Fairfield California was founded in 1856, and two years later Robert Waterman petitioned the Solano County Board of Supervisors to move the county seat from Benicia California to his new downtown. He designed a Main Street, a park, a place for government buildings such as a court house, library, and county seat. The present day layout of Texas Street in downtown Fairfield has not changed much since 1858.

Texas Street Fairfield California

Sonoma/Solano Solano/Sonoma Connection

Solano County has a sister in history over in Sonoma County. This Sonoma/Solano or Solano/Sonoma connection is an interesting historical secret that can be both illuminating to history buffs while also incredibly frustrating to study. Luckily for you I'm just that kind of stupid to take on the project.

Read all about Mariano Vallejo and his close friend, our favorite Native American, Chief Solano of the Suisun tribe.