Mexican Grants and Squatter Troubles, Solano County, CA
From: History of Solano County, California
By: Marguerite Hunt
And Napa County, California.
By: Harry Lawrence Gunn
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago 1926


When the Territory of California became a part of the United States as the result of the war with Mexico it was agreed in the articles of peace that this government should respect all Spanish and Mexican grants. An act subdividing the state into counties and establishing seats of government therein, passed by the first session of the Legislature at San Jose in 1849, defined the boundaries of Solano as follows:

"Beginning at the mouth of Napa Creek and running up the middle of its channel to the mouth of the Suscol Creek; thence following up said creek to the eastern boundary line of Napa County; thence along said boundary line to the northeast corner of Napa County; thence in a direct line to the nearest point of Putah Creek; thence down the middle of said creek to its termination in the tule marsh; thence in a direct line to the head of Merritt's slough; thence down the middle of said slough to its mouth; thence down the middle of Sacramento River to its mouth; thence down the middle of Suisun Bay to the Strait of Carquinez; and thence through the middle of said strait to the place of beginning."

Thus the larger portion of the 545,440 acres of Solano were included under the six following Mexican grants:

The Suscol, lying in the southern and western portions of the county, about 84,000 acres, including the townships of Vallejo and Benicia.

The Suisun, east of the Suscol, containing about 17,750 acres, including Suisun Valley.

The Tolenas or Armijo, north and east of Suisun, containing about 13,314 acres.

The Los Putos, or Vaca and Pena, covering Vacaville and the entire Vaca valley, embracing 44,380 acres.

The Rio Los Putos, or Wolfskill, lying on both sides of Putah Creek, the portion on the Solano County side containing 8,880 acres.

The Ulpinos or Bidwell covered the towns of Rio Vista and Montezuma and contained 17,752 acres.

The boundary lines as originally set down in the various grants by the Mexican government, however, were vague and as the lands increased in value with the passing of the years this fact led to bitter and prolonged litigation. The petition presented to Commandant General M. G. Vallejo by Chief Solano on January 16, 1837, gives a fair example of the manner in which these boundaries were defined:

"To the Commandant General:
"Francisco Solano, principal chief of the unconverted Indians and born captain of the 'Suisun,' in due form before your honor represents: That, being a free man, and owner of a sufficient number of horses and cattle to establish a rancho, he solicits from the strict justice and goodness of your Honor, that you be pleased to grant him the land of the Suisun, with its known appurtenances which are a little more or less than four square leagues from the 'Portzuela to the Salina de Sacha.' Said land belongs to him by hereditary right from his ancestors, and he is actually in possession of it, but he wishes to revalidate his rights in accordance with the existing rights of our Republic and of the order of colonization recently decreed by the Supreme Government.

"He, therefore, prays that your Honor be pleased to grant him the land which he asks for, and procure for him, from the proper sources, the titles which may be necessary for his security, and that you will also admit this on common paper, there being none of the corresponding stamp in this place.
(Signed) "Francesco Solano."

Commandant General Vallejo responded by issuing a decree, granting Solano, temporarily and provisionally, the four square leagues of land requested and instructing Solano to ask the government for the usual titles, thus conforming to the new order of colonization.

A copy of Governor Alvarado's order, issuing the grant following the receipt of Solano's petition, accompanied by the temporary grant, follows, its date being January 21, 1842:
(Seal) "Juan. B. Alvarado, Constitutional Governor of the Department of California.

"Whereas, the aboriginal Francisco Solano, for his own personal benefit and that of his family, has asked for the land known by the name of Suisun, of which place he is a native, and chief of the tribes of the frontier of Sonoma, and being worthy of reward for the quietness which he caused to be maintained by that unchristianized people; the proper proceedings and examinations having previously been made as required by the laws and regulations, using the powers conferred on me in the name of the Mexican nation, I have granted to him the above mentioned land, adjudicating to him the ownership of it, by these presents, being subject to the approbation of the most excellent Departmental Junta, and to the following conditions, to-wit:

1. That he may enclose it, without prejudice to the crossings, roads, and servitudes, and enjoy it freely and exclusively, making such use and cultivation of it as he may see fit; but within one year he shall build a house and it shall be inhabited.

2. He shall ask the magistrate of the place to give him judicial possession of it, in virtue of this order, by whom the boundaries shall be marked out; and he shall place in them, besides the landmarks, some fruit or forest trees of some utility.

3. The land herein mentioned is to the extent of four sitios de ganado major' (four square leagues) with the limits, as shown on the map, accompanying the respective expediente. The magistrate who gives the possession will have it measured according to ordinance, leaving the excess that may result, to the nation for its convenient uses.

4. If he contravenes these conditions he shall lose his right to the land and it may be denounced by another.
"In consequence I order that these presents be held firm and valid; that a register be taken of it in the proper book, and that it be given to the party interested, for his voucher and other purposes.
"Given this twenty first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and forty two, at Monterey.
(Signed) "Juan B. Alvarado,
"Manuel Jimento, Secretary."

A favorable report was submitted to the Departmental Assembly by the Committee on Vacant Lands and the following order, a copy of which was immediately given to Solano, was issued on Oct. 3, 1845:

"In session of this day, the proposition of the foregoing report was approved by the most excellent Departmental Assembly, ordering the expediente to be returned to His Excellency, the Governor, for suitable purposes.
(Signed) "Pio Pico, President,
"Augustin Olona, Secretary."

The grant which led to the most litigation in the state of California and which was not settled until a United States Supreme Court decision in March, 1870, was the Suscol Grant, held by General M. G. Vallejo from the Mexican government as a reward for excellent services rendered by him and money advanced in the days before the land came under the rule of the Americans. Technicalities were used in assailing the validity of this grant, which extended from the Suisun marches on the east to the Napa River marches and the Straits of Mare Island on the west, and from Carquinez Strait north to Suscol Creek. Most of the land, found to be among the most fertile in the State, had been sold off to settlers, and the cities of Vallejo and Benicia were rapidly forging ahead, when the legality of the grant was first attacked by land sharks and the title to all land held by the settlers thus brought into dispute. Then came the squatters. As soon as a title was questioned they took possession of the land, erecting their little shacks and proceeding on the rule that possession was nine points of the law. It was not long before they were holding large sections of the most fertile lands in Solano, especially in the vicinity of Vallejo and Benicia.

The squatter war resulted. Both sides went about fully armed. As soon as a squatter would erect a shack, the settlers would tear it down and trouble would break out afresh. Finally it culminated in cold blooded murder. One of the squatters was traveling along the road not far from Vallejo when he was shot and wounded from behind a fence by a settler, against whose life he had made threats. Instantly the squatters were up in arms. A settler named Manuel Vera was accused of the crime and mob violence threatened. He was placed under arrest and as there was no jail in Vallejo he was taken to the residence of E. J. Wilson, where the Vallejo Commercial National Bank now stands, as it was believed that a private home would be the safest place for him. The Wilson family occupied the upper floors of the building, the lower being used as a store and post office.

Meanwhile the squatters to the number of one hundred or more had assembled on the outskirts of town, determined to kill Vera. During the day their spies had evidently been at work and had learned of the intention to transfer him to the Mare Island navy yard that night for better protection. While the man who had charge of him went to his home for supper, the squatters, masked or with their faces so blackened as to conceal their identity, rode silently into town. The streets were soon cleared of all persons. A few of the masked men remained in front of the post office to hold the horses, while the others proceeded upstairs. The unfortunate Vera was found beneath a bed where he had tried to conceal himself and was murdered in cold blood. Seventeen shots were found in his body although he lived for a few. hours. Mrs. Wilson and her children were in another part of the house at the time, so they were spared the actual witnessing of the deed, the most horrible in Solano County's history.

Then, as quietly as they had come, the men rode away. The indignation of the law abiding citizens ran high. This crime against a man, being held in the custody of the law, was denounced on all sides. The grand jury met and indicted seventeen persons for complicity in the murder, but it was feared that an attempt to arrest them would lead to more bloodshed as the squatters had many friends in town, hideous as the outrage of their leaders had been. The services of a Suisun cavalry company were secured and the sheriff rode into Vallejo and quietly took the seventeen men into custody. Separate trials for each were determined upon but at the first of these the jury brought in a verdict of "not guilty," and as a result it was thought impossible to secure any convictions and the remaining cases were dismissed.

General John B. Frisbie, who had come to California during the Mexican war in command of a company of New York volunteers and who had subsequently married one of General Vallejo's daughters, led the fight in the courts for the settlers of the county, and in the first stage of the proceedings they were victorious. The validity of the grant was upheld, but when the matter was taken to the Supreme Court of the United States this decision was reversed. The court ruled that General Vallejo held two grants, one at Sonoma, the other the Suscol grant, and that under the Mexican law two grants could not be held by one person. The Suscol grant was accordingly declared invalid.

This was a big feather in the cap of the squatters, who rapidly increased in numbers and seized more lands. Wherever possible the settlers held possession by main force, meanwhile taking the matter to Congress. It was a hard fight but in the course of two or three sessions an act was passed to the effect that the settlers who could prove that they had purchased their titles from General Vallejo or his assignees should be given a patent for such holdings upon payment of $1.25 per acre.

The squatters attacked the authority of Congress to deny them the right of preemption and on March 21, 1870, the Supreme Court handed down a decision to the effect that the squatters acquired no vested rights in the land that could not be taken away by Congress unless said land had actually been paid for.

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