History of the Bella Vista Ranch

(version 8/14/2011)



Bella Vista Ranch was once part of the ancestral lands of the Suisun Indians, a small tribe that lived in the Suisun Valley of Solano County, California. After the founding of Mission San Francisco de Solano in Sonoma on July 4, 1823, the Suisun Indians and their lands were assigned to the Rancho Santa Eulalia, a farm that was administered by the mission. However, after Mexico declared independance from Spain in 1826, the government began freeing the Indians, who had been virtual slaves of the mission padres, and the missions and their ranchos began to decline. Attempts were made to keep the missions intact and turn them over to the Indians, but pressure, largely from American settlers, to sell the lands, led to the decision in 1834 to disband the missions. The lands were offered first to the Indian workers, but in the end most of it was acquired by Mexican citizens, many of them former U.S. citizens, and the Indians found themselves with neither land nor animals.

Francisco Solano, an educated Suisun Indian who had been placed in charge of daily operations at the Santa Eulalia mission farm, was accepted by the Indians there as their chief. When the Sonoma mission was disbanded in 1835, Solano remained as the Suisun leader and began the process of acquiring the Suisun Valley for his people. He applied on January 16, 1837 to General Mariano Vallejo, the Comandante-General and Director of Colonization for the Northern Frontier, for a grant of four square leagues (17,814 acres) covering most of the Suisun ancestral lands, which Vallejo approved two days later on January 18, 1837 as the Suisun Indian Rancho. Although Solano and his people were free to use the land, this grant was approved provisionally until such time as they made certain specified improvements to the property.

The specified improvements were as follows.

  1. "build a house, and it shall be inhabited."
  2. "the boundaries [of the grant] shall be marked out; and he [Solano] shall place in them, besides the landmarks, some fruit or forest trees of some utility."
  3. "The magistrate who gives the possession will have it [the grant] measured according to ordinance, leaving the excess that may result to the nation."

About the same time, Jose Francisco Armijo, an Alcalde Auxiliar (basically an assistant Justice of the Peace) for Contra Costa, began approaching the Mexican government for a land grant to the north and east of Solano's Suisun grant. Armijo, like Solano, worked with General Vallejo in the process, and he filed a formal request for land on November 22, 1839. The Mexican Governor Juan Alvarado granted Armijo's petition on March 10, 1840 for three square leagues (13,315 acres), which became known as the Tolenas Rancho.

Although the Suisun grant at this point was provisional, the necessary improvements were made, and Governor Juan Alvarado on January 21, 1842 issued a patent giving Solano full title to the Rancho. However, small pox epidemics in 1837 and 1838 wiped out most of the Suisune, leaving Solano without the resources to work the land and prevent squattors from moving in. This left him no choice but to sell out to Vallejo on May 10, 1842 for a price of 8,000 reales ($1,000) in Mexican silver, with June 10, 1842 as the date of the conveyance of title. He then abandoned the land and disappeared for several years, probably relocating somewhere to the north in Napa County. Another confirmation of the grant was made on October 3, 1845 by then Governor Pio Pico, even though Vallejo by then was the actual owner.

Jose Armijo, in the meantime with his son Antonio, built a crude structure on the Tolenas Rancho to fulfill his grant provisions, afterwhich he returned to New Mexico to gather relatives, workers and provisions. He began the trip back to California in May 1841 and arrived sometime later with 100 head of cattle. He built a five-room adobe in the area of the modern Rancho Solano housing tract, probably near the west end of where the golf course is, to replace the earlier structure Jose had erected, and he began running cattle in the surrounding hills. However, he did little in the way of cultivation, which was another of his grant provisions, which delayed confirmation of the Tolenas grant until March 17, 1846, just before the Bear Flag Rebellion ended Mexican rule in California.

As the Armijos established themselves on their Tolenas Rancho in the 1840s, they fast developed a reputation for violence. A neighbor, Samuel Martin who later built the Stonedene mansion in nearby Rockville, insinuated that they may have been responsible for the disappearance and probable death of two miners who had been caught butchering an Armijo cow. Also, Bancroft in his "History of California" reports that in 1847 Antonio Armijo with some accomplices from Sonoma raided an Indian village in the Sacramento Valley, killing 12 Indians, one a child, and enslaving 40 of the survivors. Though accused of the crime and briefly jailed at Sutter's Fort, Armijo was quickly released and ultimately acquitted.

Also, when the Armijos began tending their cattle on the Tolenas grant, a dispute, or more appropriately a range war, arose with General Vallejo of the Suisun grant over the poorly defined boundary between their respective ranchos. Vallejo in 1847 instituted an action of trespass against the Armijos, supposedly making a statement at some point that a certain Arroyo Seco, or dry gulch, was the boundary between the Ranchos. Whether the statement was made or not, thousands of acres were at stake, as the Armijos basically claimed all of the Suisun Valley east of Suisun Creek, even though these lands were clearly part of the ancestral Suisun lands.

Land disputes under Mexican law were decided with the local alcalde, or justice of the peace. However, California in June 1846 had become part of the United States. Nonetheless, the case was presented to Lilburn W. Boggs, alcalde of the Sonoma district, who turned it over to two arbitrators for final decision - Vallejo choosing Cajetano Juarez for his arbitrator, and the Armijos choosing Salvador Vallejo, General Vallejo's brother, for theirs. The arbitrators on August 16, 1847 placed the boundary between the ranchos at a ridge, or sierra, at the head of Suisun Valley - most likely the ridge that today runs along the north side of Bella Vista Ranch Road. This decision was a compromise, liked by neither party, but one that favored Vallejo. To no surprize, the Armijos ignored the decision, and armed conflict continued.

The Armijo's immediately applealed the arbitrator's ruling, and the land dispute now went to a jury trial. In the meantime, the original defendant, Jose Francisco Armijo, died in November 1849, probably of pneumonia, after returning from a cattle drive to Sacramento, leaving his son Antonio Maria Armijo to carry on the appeal. To add an additional complication, Chief Solano, the original grantee of the Suisun Rancho, died around the same time. Antonio presented to the jury documents of his father's to prove that Vallejo at one time considered the previously agreed upon north boundary of the Suisun grant to lay entirely within the Tolenas grant, thus invalidating the ruling by the arbitrators. Despite questions as to the validity of these papers, the jury delivered a verdict that favored the Armijos. But, as before, the decision did little to resolve the dispute.

Land prices were now skyrocketing in the Suisun Valley as the Gold Rush brought in waves of land-hungry immigrants, and the Armijos and Vallejo could not resist selling off portions of their disputed lands. First Antonio Armijo on August 1, 1850 sold some contested acreage, which today is located just east of Suisun Elementary School, to Daniel Berry. Then, Vallejo on December 11, 1850 sold the entire Suisun grant, which included the Berry acreage, to Capt. Archibald Ritchie for $50,000, a healthy return on the $1,000 Vallejo originally paid to Chief Solano. Ritchie then sold a one-third interest in his acquisition to Capt. Robert Henry Waterman - included in the sale of course was property claimed by the Armijos.

Five months after Jose Armijo died, his son Antonio died also on April 10, 1850, and Ritchie and Waterman appealed the jury decision, in which they now opposed Sampson Smith (d. 1897), a county constable in 1852 and 1853 and future county supervisor (1862-73), who had come to represent the Armijo interests by acquiring the Daniel Berry parcel on May 1, 1851. Sampson's acreage had originally been sold by the Armijos to Berry, but sat well within the Suisun Valley, and as such was clearly part of the Suisun grant.

A Land Grants Commission was formed to determine ownership, and the case of Waterman versus Smith ended up in the California Supreme Court. Ritchie's purchase of the Suisun grant was confirmed by the court in January 1853. However, the United States government then stepped in and attempted to claim the Suisun Grant by disputing the legality of Chief Solano's title to the original rancho. Ultimately, the case of the United States vs. Ritchie was heard in the U.S. Supreme Court during the December term of 1854, and again a decision was rendered that favored Ritchie, which confirmed for a second time Ritchie's title to the land.

Although Archibald Ritchie was killed in a carriage accident on July 5, 1856, a final survey and patent were issued to his estate on January 18, 1857, which made his sale of an interest in the Suisun Grant to Waterman legal. The court also ruled that Armijo did not have absolute title to the Tolenas lands from the Mexican government, and that his grant did not invest him with any specific three square leagues. Thus, the jury decision was reversed. It took many years to resolve all of the remaining legal issues, but the main dispute was more or less settled on Jan. 24, 1860 with the Ritchie estate and Waterman issuing a deed to Sampson Smith.

Bella Vista Ranch began to take shape in the early 1850s, as the Vallejo-Armijo range dispute was being dragged through the courts, and the feuding parties sought to profit from land sales before the courts potentially ruled against them. One such transaction was the sale by the Armijo's of 2,214 acres in the westernmost part of the Tolenas Rancho to a land investor named Miles Dean on October 18, 1852 (Deed Book F, p. 578). Dean, in turn, sold 211 acres of this parcel just a few months later to Nathan Lincoln on Dec. 16, 1853 (Book L, p. 385). Nathan sometime before 1861, and probably before 1860, built a house on this land at the head of Suisun Valley, and possibly another house overlooking Gordon Valley to the north. As such, Nathan Lincoln may be considered the founder of Bella Vista Ranch. There is more on Nathan Lincoln elsewhere on the website.

Another transaction of disputed lands was the sale of 375 acres by Capt. Waterman and Capt. Ritchie on December 16, 1861 (Book Q, p. 424) to a Benecia investor named Samuel Cotton Gray, who set up his brother-in-law Henry Goodwin Wetmore to develop the property, which now became known as the Wetmore Ranch. Henry established a stable there, and served during the Civil War years as the ferrier for the Suisun Light Cavalry, which stabled their mounts at Wetmore's ranch while doing training exercises. Then Gray on September 6, 1866 sold 233 acres of the "Wetmore Ranch" to Joseph Cooper Wolfskill, who had been living on the ranch of his uncle John Reid Wolfskill at Putah Creek in neighboring Yolo County. Joseph was 22 years old at the time. Although Wetmore's brother-in-law no longer owned the property, Wetmore appears to have continued running his stable until at least 1869, either there, or just across the way at Mankas Corner, where Christley Manka had a store and stage stop.

Joseph Wolfskill (1843-1914) with his father Mathus (1810-1891) relocated to the Suisun Valley after Joseph's purchase of the Wetmore Ranch and occupied a small house that Henry Wetmore had built on the ranch just a stones throw from Mankas Corner. Christley Manka and the Wolfskills became very close friends, and Joseph in fact administered Christley's estate after the latter died in 1888. Joseph added more acreage to the northern part of his property until he had increased the size of the old Wetmore ranch by 1878 to 703 acres. Mathus Wolfkill also purchased a 130 acre tract that bordered the southeast corner of Joseph's holdings and sat just across the road from Mankas Corner. Although Mathus' acquisition had previously been part of the Wetmore ranch as well, it was not included in the tract that Samuel Gray sold to Joseph.

The history of the land transactions through which Joseph and Mathus Wolfskill increased their land holdings took place over roughly a ten year period and is recorded in the old deed books of the Solano County Recorders Office. It began with the initial purchase by Joseph from Samuel Gray of 230 acres of the Wetmore Ranch for $12,000 on Sept. 6, 1866 (Book V, p. 82). To this Joseph added 40 acres of flatlands to the north purchased from Richard Apgar for $1,350 on Dec. 18, 1867 (Book X, p. 273), then a 185-acre portion of the hills north of Apgar were picked up from Nathan Lincoln for $3,330 on June 29, 1873 (Book 51, p. 195). Next year, Joseph extended his ranch even farther north, right up to the south edge of Gordon Valley, by buying 128 acres from partners William Wells, Thomas Swan, William Peabody, and B.C. Whitman for $1,280 on May 30, 1874 (Book 53, p. 186). Next was 8-acres on the west side of the Suisun-Knoxville Road and north of the Apgar tract that Wolfskill bought from David Clayton for $99 on Nov. 14, 1874 (Book 58, p. 433), which was rounded out by 112 acres of hills and some flatlands west of the Gray and Apgar tracts and south of the Lincoln tract purchased from John Smither for $1,680 on Aug. 26, 1876 (Book 61, p. 197). All transcations were in gold coin. These gave Joseph a two-mile long by half-mile wide tract that bordered the Suisun-Knoxville Road all the way from the county line to Mankas Corner.

In the meantime, Mathus wolfskill put together his 130-acre block on the east side of the Suisun-Knoxville Road, just across from Christley Manka's store. His first purchase was 50 acres from George Haynes, and the adjoining 50 acres from William Worley, with both transactions on March 3, 1869 (Book C1, p 164 & 166). To this, he added 30 more acres on the north side bought from from E. Henderson and his wife on June 29, 1873 (Book 46, p. 98). All three tracts had been part of the original Wetmore Ranch, but had been witheld from the earlier sale of the ranch to Joseph.

The old Wetmore house that the Wolfskills lived in is said to have been framed in sections back east, basically making it the equivalent of a modern "pre-fab house", then shipped around Cape Horn to be assembled by Henry Wetmore in back of where the Armstrong house still stands today - the Armstrong House being built by Joseph in 1885. Interestingly, another small house identical to the Wetmore house sat on acreage previously owned by Nathan Lincoln on a hill north of the Wetmore Ranch at the head of the flat lands. It would appear that this house was shipped around the Horn in sections also. Possibly, Henry Wetmore, Nathan Lincoln, and various neighbors in the Suisun Valley arranged together to have some of these pre-built houses shipped out from Boston, or wherever, perhaps employing the same carpenter or firm to erect them. In any event, Nathan Lincoln was probably the one who came up with the name Bella Vista (Spanish for "good view") Ranch to describe the view looking from the house out across Suisun Valley to Mount Diablo in the distance. Both the Lincoln and Wetmore houses are shown on the map of the "Survey of Rancho Tolenas and Suisun Rancho, Solano Co., Calif." that the U.S. Surveyor General's office issued in March, 1861.

Joseph and Mathus planted wheat on the flat lands where Gordon Valley Creek crosses Bella Vista Ranch, keeping the hills to the west and north in grass for grazing cattle. Wheat in the late 1860s was the main crop in the area, with huge wheat farms in the Berryessa Valley to the north. Wheat does not require as much water as other crops, and it is said that the planting of it was largely a response to a drought during the 1860s. The Berryessa wheat farms, which were flooded beneath Lake Berryessa when Monticello Dam was built in 1957, delivered their wheat by wagon to a steam-powered flour mill (Suisun City Mills) at the port of Suisun, from whence it shipped out. Joseph was also one of the first to plant Bartlett pears in the valley, and he is said to have had a giant walnut tree on his ranch that produced an annual harvest of 250 pounds of nuts. He also planted various other fruit trees, and some of the olive trees he planted on the "upper property" still stand to this day.

The newly built Berryessa-Suisun road, also called the Knoxville Road, corresponds to the modern Gordon Valley Road, and ran along the east side of the ranch. Mankas Corner, which sat on this road near the southeast tip of the ranch, was the last stage stop on the run to Suisun. The Knoxville Road was also the main thoughfare linking the giant Knoxville quicksilver mine at Redington in northernmost Napa county with the Suisun port. Thus, the late 1800s witnessed a steady stream of miners and wheat caravans passing along the east side of Bella Vista Ranch - many of them spending the night at nearby Mankas Corner, which became a popular gathering place for the northern Suisun Valley.

Joseph and Mary Wolfskill on December 15, 1908 subdivided some of their farm lands on the flats between the Bella Vista ranch house and Mankas Corner into nine or so lots, each roughly 20 acres in size. By the time of Joseph's death in 1914, all but lot 1 had been sold, leaving 569 acres that Mary inherited on Aug. 13, 1914 (Book 179, p. 359). Lot 2, one of the northern lots which included the upper house, was sold to Manuel P. Monez (1887-1973) on April 22, 1912; and lot 3, between the house and Knoxville (Gordon Valley) Road, was sold to Brenton Rupel Stewart (1880-1950) in 1913. Brenton then bought the Wolfskill house from Manuel on October 14, 1914. Lot 4, which sat between the other lots and Gordon Valley Creek, changed hands a couple of times, until being picked up around 1914 by Brenton's mother-in-law Eliza Gray, and his sister-in-law Ida Gray (d. 1914). By 1919, Brenton had all three lots, and Bella Vista Ranch became a 58-acre parcel known as the Stewart Ranch.

Manuel Monez, who had originally bought the Wolfskill house on lot 2, also acquired property on the east side of Gordon Valley Road, where he established a fruit stand that operated for many years. When Manuel subdivided his property and sold off one of the subdivisions to John and Marcia Nichols, they continued to run the fruit stand into the 1960s. Manuel most likely sold lot 2 because he was unable to dig a reliable water well on the hilltop where the Wolfskill house sat, whereas wells on the flats below had plenty of water.

Henry Branscomb Clayton (1855-1931) had the next lot to the south of the Monez fruit stand, and he purchased lot 4 of Bella Vista Ranch because it adjoined his property. However, it is said that his wife Isabelle believed that the additional acreage was too much for Henry to handle, and she convinced him to sell out to Brenton Stewart.

Brenton Stewart, the new owner of Bella Vista Ranch, had been born on his family's dairy in Denverton, just a few miles from Suisun on the road to Rio Vista. Brenton worked for 11 years in a Suisun hardware store to save enough money for a ranch of his own, and realized that dream when he acquired the Wolfskill properties over a period of several years. When Brenton moved into the old Wolfskill house in 1914 with his wife Lola, children Brenton, Jr. and Jane, and mother-in-law Eliza Gray, he planted apricots, prunes, pears and peaches, becoming one of the first growers in the valley to shift from harvesting wheat to growing fruit trees. He probably also planted the walnut trees that still stand. Brenton became highly respected as a fruit grower, and also served as a trustee for the Armijo High School and Suisun School districts. Brenton's mother-in-law died at the ranch in the 1920s, then his wife Lola in 1931, afterwhich he hit on hard times, as did many during the Depression, and his property on November 26, 1935 was acquired by the Bank of Suisun. It is said that Brenton owed $700 on the ranch and that he lost it when he could not make a $23/month payment.

Eventually, the Stewart farm ended up with George Russel Gaston (1896-1951), who came from an old Petaluma famly, and his wife Ruth (1892-1988). They supplemented the income they received from the fruit trees by raising chickens, which Ruth's family had done in Petaluma, and they built the chicken sheds that still remain on the property. George and Ruth continued to also live off the orchard that Brenton Stewart had started, and after George died in 1951, Ruth managed the orchard until 1963, when she sold Bella Vista Ranch to Bob Carty, the present owner, who tore out the fruit trees, and eventually most of the walnuts, and replanted the ranch in wine grapes.


Chronology of Land Ownership - Bella Vista Ranch