The Story of the Suisun Indians


Suisun Valley long before the "white man" came was the home of small bands of Native Americans, who lived off the land using only stone tools, and their wits. They survived through a deep understanding of nature, learned and passed down over the generations. They lived in grass huts, and ate acorns and berries, roots and insects, fish and small game. Their loyalty was to their village, not to any tribe, for they had none. And they looked to a village headman, called a "sektu," for guidance, or perhaps to a young war leader, called a "yeto," to lead them in a fight, but there were no true chiefs. When Spanish settlers first encountered these people they called them "Indians", but the natives knew themselves as "Patwin", which translates to "the people".

Spanish soldiers on March 28, 1776 established a presidio (fort) on the San Francisco Peninsula, and soon thereafter on June 29th the padres (priests) who came with them founded Mission San Francisco de Asis (Mission Dolores), with the intent of bringing the natives to Christianity. The mission "Book of the Dead" records that in January of 1804 fourteen Indian converts, known as "neophytes", ventured out "far beyond the strait of the Carquinez to the village of the Suysuyu (Suisune)", but never returned and presumably perished. Most likely this village was in the the grassy plains that stretch below the rock cliffs of modern Rockville, where stone slabs containing more than 90 bedrock mortars are evidence of a nearby Patwin encampment.

Some say that Suisun, the name of the valley where these people lived, is a Miwok Indian word (possibly used by the Chupcan people) that means, "where the west wind blows". Others say that it means "big expanse", as in an open plain. However, all this may be more folk tale than fact, and the true meaning of the name given these people by their Spanish conquerors has probably long since been forgotten. It is also claimed that the name of their village was Yulyul (Yucal), which is supposed to translate to "place of the setting sun", but this is probably fiction also. The Suisune were in fact only distantly related to the Miwoks, and they spoke a language that is quite different from what the Miwoks spoke. No doubt a few Patwins knew the Miwok tongue, but most of the time when small groups of the two got together to trade, they probably did not understand what the other was saying and communicated mainly by sign language and gestures. (see Map 1)

Although the Spanish called the Patwin villages "Indian rancherias", they were little more than groups of dome-shaped huts with mud-caked walls of bark or woven grass. Rancherias neighboring the Suisune were known as Napato (Napa), Suskol (Suscol), Soneto (Suisun Creek), Tolen (Tolenas), Ulatato (Vacaville), and Putato (Putah Creek). These names came from Indian words, but again the people here knew themselves as Patwins, for they had no tribal identities in those early days. They are all gone now, but there are bedrock mortar holes, like those in Rockville, in scattered rock slabs and boulders in the surrounding hills, and these remain silent testaments to the native peoples who once lived there. (see Map 2)

The cold waters and cruel winds of Carquinez Strait were a barrier that for many years protected the Suisune from Spanish incursions. However, there were incidents in 1804, 1807 and 1810 where Indian converts from the mission were killed during encounters with the Suisune. Because these converts, known to the mission padres as "neophytes", were property of the mission, a military reprisal was called for. This led to a battle where Spain's most noted Indian fighter Alférez (junior officer) Gabriel Moraga crossed Carquinez Strait with 17 soldiers and several Indian allies to attack 120 Suisune warriors on May 22, 1810 at their village, which some place in Rockville, but historian Jerry Bowen puts two or three miles away, closer to Suisun City. All the Suisune warriors either died in the battle, or by suicide afterwards. Moraga did manage to capture a dozen children to take back to the mission to convert to the Christian faith, and replace the neophytes who had been lost.

There is also an 1850 account by Mexican General Mariano Vallejo, but one not verified in mission records, of an 1817 expedition under the command of a Lieutenant José Sanchez, who was sent for the "purpose of exploring the country and reducing it to Christianity". We are told that the Suisune ambushed his men, and that when Sanchez caught up to them at their village, the Indians set fire to their grass huts and committed suicide by throwing themselves on the flames. However, the eminent historian Hubert Howe Bancroft (1885) notes the similarities in the accounts of the 1810 and 1817 battles, and suggests that Vallejo may "have confounded two different battles". Irregardless of the details, many Suisune died in these encounters.

The deaths of so many Suisune over the years had a profound effect on those who survived, and most, either willingly or eventually by force, left their Suisun Valley home to become neophytes (Christian converts) at the mission. Most were sent first to the San Francisco Mission, but when plans were made in 1823 to construct a new mission a days ride north of San Francisco, many Patwin neophytes were relocated to aid in the construction. The new mission was dedicated on April 4, 1824 as San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, and this became the new home for most surviving Suisune.

One unusual Suisune neophyte at the Sonoma mission was a young man who came to be known to his people as "Sem-Yeto", which translates to "the war leader with the strong hand". Alternate translations might be "the fierce", or "the brave one with the mighty hand". However, mission records make no mention of this, and give his name as "Sina". He may have been one of the children captured in 1810 by Moraga's encounter with the Suisune, but we know little of Sina's childhood. We do know that when he was still just a young boy he took the Christian name of Francisco Solano at his baptism on July 24, 1810 at the San Francisco Mission. Legend claims that he grew to be six feet seven inches tall, which means he must have towered over both Indian and Spaniard alike. When he arrived at the Solano Mission as a young man, his stature, and command of the Spanish language led him to become the leader of the Suisune people.

Tribal chiefs were not originally part of Patwin culture, yet both contemporary and modern accounts portray Solano as "Chief of the Suisune". They also portray the Suisune as a tribe, who by the 1830s included the Tolenas, Malaccas and others. Solano was both a friend and ally of General Vallejo, and he and the Suisune were instrumental from 1835 to 1843 in helping Vallejo stem Indian uprisings by the Wappo, Satiyomi (Pomo) and Yoloitoy (Patwin) "tribes", who lived north of the Suisune homeland in the Napa and Sacramento Valley regions. However, a plague of small pox in 1838 decimated Solano's people, reducing their numbers from a once thriving community of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Patwins in the 1820s to a few pitiful survivors during the 1849 Gold Rush when hoardes of white settlers moved in to wreck further havoc on what remained of the native population. Little was left for Solano in the Suisun Valley, so he vanished for several years, his whereabouts unknown.

Solano reappeared unexpectedly in Rockville one day in 1849 or 1850, weak and in ill health. He died soon afterward, and later the decendants of pioneer Samuel Martin claimed that Solano was buried under a buckeye tree growing near the spot where Martin in 1861 built his fine stone mansion. That old buckeye disappeared around the time they began building a new campus for Solano Community College, but the old timers know where that tree once was. There was great interest in finding Solano's grave around 1934 when a statue by sculpter William Huff was erected near Cordelila as a memorial to Chief Solano, but excavations around the site of that old buckeye turned up no likely grave.

Francisco Solano was not the last of his people, but they did not long survive him. The disease and depradations of the white men ultimately took their toll, and the Suisune by the 1920s were all but extinct. Only a few were buried in their homeland. When Solano Community College was dedicated in 1971 they placed a plaque on campus that claims Chief Solano is buried nearby, but no one knows where. They placed another plaque in 2002 to honor an unknown Native American whose remains were found nearby and reburied in 1975 beneath an ancient oak in front of the school. But this is not where Solano lies either. He and his people are gone now, yet their legacy lives on in the valley that still bears their name.


Shown above are two Patwin men drawn by Louis Choris in 1816 when he visited the San Francisco Mission. The man on the left is a neophyte from the Ululato (Vacaville) Indian rancheria, and the man on the right is from the Suisun rancheria.








More Information on the Indians of Suisun Valley



When we first decided that we wanted to learn more about the native peoples of Suisun Valley, we quickly found that much of the information out there seemed contradictory. We have since come to the conclusion that the authors of many of these articles are far more interested in telling a good story than anything else, and "tend to be a bit loose with the facts". Below are links to what we think are some good articles that maintain a higher level of historical accuracy than most of the others. Stephen Power's (1877) chapter on "The Patwin" in his book on the "Tribes of California" is good for learning about Patwin Indian culture, as it is based on his personal observations of how the California Indians lived, at a time when some of them still lived as their ancestors had before the white men came. Take what is written in many of the others with a grain of salt.

Map 1: Tribal Groups

(modified from Wikipedia & Calif. State Parks website)



(by Stephen Powers, 1877)

Map 2: Patwin Settlements

(modified from Johnson, 1978)