The story of Robert Waterman, Fairfield’s ‘Founding Father’

The story of Robert Waterman, Fairfield’s ‘Founding Father’

Inspired by 'Hamilton,' local historian Tony Wade envisions 'Waterman: The Solano County Musical,' based on the life of Robert Waterman, who founded Fairfield in 1856

The following “Back in the Day” column was originally published in the Fairfield Daily Republic Nov. 25, 2016

By Tony Wade

“Hamilton: An American Musical,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway show about Alexander Hamilton that weds history with hip-hop, inspired me.

I propose that some of the best/brightest local talent help me create “Waterman: The Solano County Musical’ based on the life of Fairfield founder Robert Waterman.

By “help me create,” I mean “write the whole thing and put it to music”–preferably hip-hop. My contribution? This column.

Besides Waterman and his wife Cordelia, other characters could include David Weir, the cigar-smoking publisher of the Solano Republican newspaper (precursor to the Daily Republic), who published a 1957 book entitled “That Fabulous Captain Waterman.”

As the gushing title suggests, Weir was a Waterman fanboy and later historians claimed he embellished quite a bit. Weir could perhaps be the narrator/anachronistic character that interacts with the 19th century ones.

Whomever tackles this project should read Weir’s book as well as excellent articles by Vacaville historian Jerry Bowen on the Historical Articles of Solano County Online Database (

But here’s some nuggets to work with:

Waterman was born in Hudson, New York in 1808 and his family moved to Fairfield, Connecticut after his father was lost at sea on a whaling ship eight years later. He begin sailing at 12 and by 21 was first mate on a ship.

As a clipper ship captain, Waterman was a speed demon. He helped design The Sea Witch, so named because his wife Cordelia purportedly once said: “To you she’s a wonderful ship, but to me she’s just a witch of the sea come to carry you away!”

In 1849, after heading to Hong Kong for tea, the Sea Witch reached New York in 74 days setting a record that no sail-powered vessel ever broke.

In 1851, Waterman was skipper of The Challenge that reportedly had a crew of cutthroats and well-known criminals who brought rum, whiskey, knives and guns on board.

While Waterman gave them them instructions topside, his second mates, Jim Douglass and Hugh Patterson, tossed their goodies and weapons overboard.

The Challenge was considered a “hellship” (possible song title). Waterman, nicknamed “Bully,” along with his second mates, were supposedly brutal to the crew–administering beatings and floggings–and they mutinied. They fell upon Douglass and would have killed him if Waterman hadn’t intervened.

On November 1, 1851 Captain Waterman and his mates were charged with “brutal and inhuman treatment of the ship’s crew” and later stood trial. They were acquitted. Also there were charges that during the melee, Douglass hit a crewman in the head with a belaying pin (used to secure the rigging) and he died (Douglass was acquitted). Patterson was charged with kicking a crewman resulting in his…ouch…emasculation. He was found guilty and fined $50.

Waterman retired and became a successful landlubbing farmer.

In 1856, Waterman settled in California and founded the town of Fairfield. His wife Cordelia traveled across the country to be with him and had a harrowing adventure filled with fatigue, mosquitoes and the constant fear of being robbed by her guides as she had to carry $20,000 worth of jewelry with her.

Other possible inspirations for songs:

  • In 1858, Waterman was instrumental in Fairfield wresting the county seat designation from Benicia by pledging 16 acres for the county buildings, plus four other blocks and $10,000.
  • According to Weir, Waterman beat up three guys at Suisun’s Oriole Saloon (where the Congregational Church now sits) who talked smack about him.
  • Waterman had a dog named Spanker which he at first planned to drown due to its yapping, but whom he adopted until the pooch died 14 years later. He marked Spanker’s grave with an Italian marble headstone.
  • While Waterman said he named the Fairfield street Great Jones for a New York judge he respected, his wife contended it was for Jones’ daughter Cynthia whom she suspected Waterman had a thing for (and maybe a fling with). Supposedly Waterman then renamed Bridgeport, his wife’s birthplace, to the town of Cordelia to appease her.

On August 8, 1884 Waterman died from peritonitis.

Look, I realize Waterman’s story lacks the dynamic scope of “Hamilton,” but I’m not shooting for Broadway. Perhaps Bay Area Stage Productions’ theatre on Broadway Street in Vallejo, but that’s it. Let’s do this!