Back in the Day: The County Seat Championship of 1858

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The following Back in the Day column was originally published in the Fairfield Daily Republic on Sept. 29, 2011

Fairfield vs. Benicia vs. Vallejo for the County Seat Championship
By Tony Wade


Although this column is about history, I am a humorian, not a historian. Still, I am interested in local history and will periodically highlight different resources for such.

The book “History of Solano County 1879” by J.P. Munro is available at the Solano County Library and can also be accessed online at http://www.archive.org/details/historyofsolanoc00munr.

From the books’ preface: “. . . reliability of data has been our aim, rather than the elegance of diction and the verbiage of language.”

Ironically in my columns I aim for the opposite.

I definitely recommend this book, although truthfully I kinda scampered through it. I did, however, learn a few things.

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Benicia was founded by Dr. Robert Semple on land bought from Vallejo’s founder, Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, with the caveat that it be named after the general’s wife. Benicia would’ve been dubbed “Francisca,” but Yerba Buena had just changed its moniker to San Francisco. Dang, Yerba Buena 49ers has such a nice ring to it, too.

Ultimately, they used one of the general’s wife’s middle names. Now, if I had been Dr. Semple I would’ve pshawed Vallejo’s stipulation and named the city after myself. Thus residents of the quaint city of Semple would be called Sempletons.

Anyway, prior to California statehood in 1850, Solano County was called Benicia County. Vallejo was once the state capital, but that honor was wrested away by Benicia. Then Solano County’s seat was in Benicia. Finally, like an exasperated Jan Brady, other Solano county cities shrieked “Benicia! Benicia! Benicia!”

The belief that the county seat should be moved to a spot more centrally located caught on and the fact that it ticked off Benicia-ites was a bonus. Eventually it was put up to a countywide vote.

Representatives from the candidate cities offered incentives to persuade voters. Robert Waterman, the founder of Fairfield, pledged 16 acres for the county buildings plus four other blocks and $10,000. Suisun City’s A.P. Jackson, by contrast, offered up $5,500 and a 100-by-120-foot space known as “Owen’s Tavern Stand.” Seriously, Suisun? A bar?

In the vote of Sept. 2, 1858, Benicia got stomped. Of 1,730 votes cast, Fairfield received 1,029 and Benicia got 625. Rockville received two measly votes, so I guess they didn’t even offer a bar.

Benicia didn’t take the news well. They deduced that Vallejoans who wanted some payback from having the county seat taken from them had thrown their votes Fairfield’s way. The Solano Herald, a Benicia newspaper and predecessor to the Daily Republic, subsequently printed this editorial lament:

“In the list of killed and wounded in Wednesday’s battle, our eye falls mournfully on the name of Benicia — Benicia! The long-suffering, mortally wounded, if not dead — killed by Vallejo’s unsparing hand!”

It went on to accuse Vallejo of conspiracy, used the Shakespeare “Et tu Brute?” quote and threatened vengeance.

What a bunch of drama queens.

By 1873, sentiments changed and Vallejo residents thought that they had made a major oopsie because Fairfield was a “dreary, treeless plain” with “meager accommodation for visitors.” They even went so far as to say they were ashamed of it.

I would counter that those observations were made well before we had a Chick-fil-A.

A plot to again move the county seat was hatched. I love how the book describes it: “On the sounding of Vallejo’s trumpet, the other towns and cities sniffed the battle from afar, champed their bits and tossed their flowing manes.”

Despite champed bits and tossed manes, the effort blew up when the state Legislature on March 28, 1874 flatly stated that Fairfield was the county seat. So there.

“History of Solano County 1879” also includes biographical sketches. Settlers paid to be interviewed and have their remembrances published in the book.

Vallejoan William Aspenall’s describes his trip to Jamestown with provisions on pack mules and his attack by American Indians and the resultant loss of his supplies. It then snowed for three weeks and food was scarce so they “contented themselves with mule’s flesh and sugar.” Yuck. I bet the only thing worse would’ve been unsweetened mule’s flesh.

The book doesn’t say if Aspenall suggested Sweet Mule Fleshville as the name for Benicia.