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AUTOBIOGRAPHY: Isidora, widow of California Indian chief, Solano

(Narrative of the Interview I Had with Isidora, Widow of Prince Solano)

Transcribed in Spanish by Enrique Cerruti (1874)
Translated from Spanish by Beebe and Senkewicz (2006)


April 10, 1874

MY NAME IS ISIDORA. I am ninety years old. The Indians who knew me when I was wife of Capt. Solano called me "Princess" and they still treat me like a princess. And even some of the white men, such as Remigio Berryessa, Gonzalo Ramirez and Capt. Salvador Vallejo, and many others who from time to time come to Lachryma Montis (Vallejo’s home) to visit us still call me Princess. They remember that whenever my husband would get angry, I would do everything possible to calm him down.

Although I was young, I, like the other Indians of my tribe worshiped the god called Puis, who was a mortal being like myself. He dressed all in white feathers, but wore black feathers on his head. My people worshipped him as though he were a real god.

Later, I married the great Solano, prince of the Suysunes, Topaytos, Yoloitos, and Chuructos. He became prince of the Topaytos after he had conquered them. During his lifetime he inspired fear in eveyone, whit emen and Indians, with the exception of his friend General Guadulupe Vallejo. Solano always refused offers of friendship from Sutter, Yount, and many other blonde men who wanted to be his friends.

[The picture to the right shows General Vallejo in Sonoma with an Indian Woman, who is not identified. She might be Isidora Solano, except that Isidora was supposed to be fairly tall, whereas the woman shown in the photo is short. The picture is from the collection of the Bancroft Library.]

The priest Guias (Prince Solano always called Reverand Fray Lorenzo de la Concepcion Quiajs by the name of Guias), who baptized me and gave me the name of Isidora Filomena, taught me how to be very charitable toward the poor, very gentle with my husband, and very compassionate toward the prisoners. This is why I prevented my husband from killing enemy prisoners after he had conquered all of his enemies with the eight thousand men he led. Back then, it was customary to tie the prisoners to trees and shoot arrows at them. I told him, "Leave them with Vallejo. He will make them work the land." Fr. Guias advised the same thing. Solano followed our advice and many poor souls were spared.

I belonged to Solano before I married him and even before I was baptized. Iam not Suysun like he is. I belong to the Churucto tribe. My father's tribe lived near Cache Creek. I do not know the name of the county to which it belongs today. On a trip Solano took there to do some negotiating, he stole me. My father and many Satiyomi wnt after him, but they could not catch him.

I have already gone downhill. I drink a lot of liquor because I do not have very much land filled with cattle. The blonde men stole everything. They left nothing for poor Isidora, who married Bill after Solano died. Bill is not a very loving man. I did not give birth again. With Solano I gave birth to eight little ones. They all died except for one son named Joaquin, who works the land to make a living. He usually gives me twenty pesos. Commander Vallejo lets me live in a house with some land for free.

When Solano would go off to fight, he would arm his people with flint daggers, flint lances, and flint arrows. All the weapons were made poisonous with the herbs. I do not know if there was something else mixed with the herbs. Solano's warriors did not wear a jacket, a shirt, shoes, pants, or a hat. They were not stupid, They wore nothing on their bodies that a white man or another Indian could grab onto. They went into battle buck naked. Only on their head would they put some feathers. The Indians who carried the food would wear an ash-gray feather taken from a wild chicken. The soldiers who fought with lances and arrows would wear white duck feathers. All the chiefs would wear black feathers. In the beginning, Solano would put feathers on his head, but not after all the Indians were ordered to dress like gente de razon. Vallejo gave him a fine weapon and the missionaries gave him a hat and some boots.

We would use our fingers to count, and that is how we counted up to ten. Ten in the Suysun language is pronounced papa cien. We did not have enough fingers to count from ten up, so we would make piles of sticks. That way we could count up to one hundred. This is how we counted in our Suysun language:

20 panum papa cien
30 punor papa cien
40 emu papa cien
50 etem papa cien
60 cac eta papa cien
70 cala pata papa cien
80 panum buya papa cien
90 eta ele papa cien
100 papa cien

Before the white men arrived in Suscol. we had lots of food and it was very good and easy to obtain without much work. There were lots of animals to hunt, and the countryside provided lots of wild onions. We called the wild onions ur, We also had wild soap that we called amoles. It still grows abundantly near San Rafael. I sometimes sent Bill there to look for it. That soap cleans better than any soap made by man. It removes all stains and does not burn your body or make your skin hurt.

In my land, everone of my race had very red skin like mine. All the women were very tall. I was perhaps one of the shortest. Many of us live to be more than one hundred years old. The women's hair never turns white. Men's hair changes color. Our Indians do not have large feet or large hands like the white Germans or the Mexicans. They are tall and their feet and hands are small. They always go barefoot. My tribe and many others would eat quite a bit of fish. One could find many varieties of fish in our rivers. But the fish that was most abundant was the type called salmon. We did not always catch fish with nets. Many times, when the river would be low, we would place poles in the middle of the river and we could catch lots of fish that way. Some of the fish would be eaten fresh and the rest would be dried and put away for the winter.

When the white man arrived, I did not know what liquor was. But Sutter, who was a gente de razon, would send Joaquinero Indians to trade liquor for hides, pelts, and dried fish. Sutter had an Indian wife. She was not from California. She was a Kanaka Indian [actually a polynesian Hawaiian] who arrived with him on a ship. I do not like the white man very much because he is very tricky and a thief. My compadre Peralta and friend Bernales had many cattle. Sutter tricked them and took eveything but paid for nothing.

We would have very nice dances. The men would dance with men. The women would dance with women. The men danced naked. After the gente de razon came the women wore a skirt. But before, when there were only Indians here, the women only wore a necklace like this one around their necks. (She showed me the necklace and sold it to me.) They wore a crown of feathers on their heads and a string of beads we call abalorios. They wrapped their body from the chest all the way up to the neck with little beads. The larger beads were made into a sash and tied with a shell at the waist. They wore earrings made of feathers and bills from geese and ducks. They would hang the earrings from their ears with a duck bone that had been filed down with flint until it was very thin.

The food we like the most is topoc and huraja.

Some Suysun women had sashes with feathers. Many wore nothing more than a pelt that hung in front but did not go around their waist. Churucto Indians would paint their bodies with charcoal and red ochre. This paint was not permanent. We all had houses made of tule and we lived comfortably. We liked to bathe every day because cleanliness make you storng. We would teach little boys how to hunt. Women did the cooking and took care of the little children.

Solano had good astrologers* who knew all about herbs and how to cure illnesses. They could also fix broken arms or legs. My people always had white teeth which they cleaned with a stick called fresno.

* [Isidora apparently used the Spanish word astrologos, which means astrologer, but she may have meant curanderos, which translates to "healer". Both were types of medicine men in the minds of the Parwin, and given that Spanish was not Isidora's primary language, she may not have completely understood the difference.]

We did not undertand the Satiyomi language because all the Indians from the other rancherias spoke other languages.

I was not embarassed tp get drunk, becuase the gente de razon taught me how to drink. When the Kanak Indian and her husband from the big hacienda on the Sacramento River would bring wine, I always got drunk like the Joaquinero Indians.

I have written down what ex-priness Isidora Filomena de Solano has stated in her own words. I did not consider it appropriate to change the phrases she uttered, which were so charming and were offered with such good intentions. She deserves much respect because of the many ways her husband aided the cause of civilization. The princess was born near Cache Creek, where Woodland is presently located. She has a rather smiling face. She is tall--five feet eight inches. Her feet are very samll. Her hands would fit a size six pair of gloves. Her nose is flat and her mouth is small. Her teeth are white and rather big. Despite her advanced age, she walks without bending over. She wears ladies' boots. She could be considered a woman worthy of esteem if, unfortunaiely, she did not allow herself to controlled by the vice of drunkenss.

In return for the aid that Solano gave Senor General Vallejo, Isidora lives near Lacryma Montis on land that belongs to Vallejo. At the request of Major Don Salvador Vallejo, Isidora agreed to sell me her wedding outfit, which consists of a shell belt, a row of bones strung together that she wrapped around the upper part of her body all the way up to her neck, and a tuft of feathers that whe wore on her forehead. She no longer had the crown of feathers because it burned in a fire at her tule house. Isidora was very attached to these mementos. Whenever the cords that held together the bones and the shell wore out, she would obtain new cords and restring the bones and shell. She valued that outfit very much because Solano had given it to her. She planned to be buried in it.

Enrique Cerutti
April 9, 1874

The undersigned were present at the interview which Don Enrique Cerruti had with Princess Isidora Solano. After having read the above, we certify that everything the senor has written down is what Isidora Solano said in our presence and in her own words.

Salvador Vallejo [the brother of General Vallejo]
M.A. McLaughlin
April 10, 1874

[Below are additional notes added by Cerruti after the interview.]

When we were about to depart, the Princess Solano went to her sleeping room and presently came forth holding in her hand a bag containing several strings of beads made out of bones and shells, a belt about six inches wide made from the same material, and many articles of adornment worn by Indian women in ancient days. She assured me that those things consituted the whole of her wedding dress. I offered to purchase the whole and laid a ten-dollar gold piece on the table, but she laughed at me and felt indignant at my presumption. Nothing daunted, I offered her another drink and begged her to intorduce me to her son [the man was acutally her husband], who happened to be in the courtyard cleaning fish. She called Bill---the name of the young prince---and he came forward. I had the opportunity of conversing with him, and I found him an intelligent man about thirty years of age, well learned in the art of reading and writing, tolerably well versed in the mysteries of the Catholic Church, of which he is a constant attendant, strongly in favor of local option, and always ready to censure his mother [wife], who is a decided worshiper of Bacchus. Bill has a few thousand dollars dpeosited in the San Francisco banks, but being very fond of his aged mother, he prefers to remain by her and watch over her in her old age. He greatly deprecates the drunken habits of the Princess but is powerless in effecting a reform.

When Bill returned to his fish-cleaning business I offered the Princess another drink and again broached the subject of selling me her wedding dress. I offered her twenty-four dollars and the rest of the brandy contained in the bottle. She accepted my offer, and I thus became the happy possessor of a sacred relic of days gone by. I retraced my steps towards the residence of Vallejo, and thanked her for having been so condescending with me, and then went home, where I wrote down in an intelligible style the record of my interview with Isidora and her son.