Benicia’s Spanish Roots
“Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures.”
National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 to October 15 in the United States, and recognizes the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans to the history, culture and achievements of the United States. Local place names like Benicia, Vallejo, the Carquinez Strait, San Pablo and El Cerrito all were named by the Spanish. The art and architecture, the plazas, wineries, and even the patios were influenced by the Spanish who ruled Alta California from 1769 until 1821, and then Mexico reigned until 1848 when California became the 31st state of the United States after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed.
When we attempt to understand the history of a place, we end up looking at events that occurred during a continuum of time: one single event does not define a place. We know that the explorer Cabrillo claimed California for Spain in San Diego in 1542, and that the first Spanish explorers made their way to Northern California by the late 1500s. At that time, the area that we know as Solano County was inhabited by the Karkin Ohlone, Suisun, and Bay Miwok Native American tribes. Over the next 160 years or so, the Spanish steadily began to settle the southern and then the northern sections of California. Junipero Serra and other religious leaders established missions and outposts in their attempt to convert the natives to Christianity, to give up their way of life, and to work on behalf of the missions.
But many of the native tribes resisted the attempt to be colonized, running away to the mountains and high deserts. Thousands more died of diseases like smallpox, measles, influenza and syphilis, brought by the Spanish. Native Americans were driven away from their homes and many were forced to work on the huge ranchos that had emerged.
In the 1780s, Spain began giving land grants as rewards to individuals for military service, or as incentives to settle in remote areas. Mexican General Mariano Vallejo was one of these individuals and once owned a vast quantity of land between Vallejo and Petaluma. Although Vallejo was a Mexican general, he proved to be a savvy politician by siding with the Americans after the U.S. won the Mexican-American War. Vallejo convinced his fellow Californios not to resist the U.S. takeover of California. Further bloodshed and fighting was probably averted, thanks to Vallejo’s actions.
“Benicia, the jewel of Solano County, was named in 1847 after Mexican General Mariano Vallejo sold the land from his vast land grant to Robert Semple and Thomas Larkin. General Vallejo asked that they name the city after his wife Francisca Benicia. It is said that first word of gold found at Sutter’s Mill was leaked at a Benicia tavern, thus starting the Gold Rush.” (Benicia Historical Society) Accordingly, Benicia became a way station on the way to the Sierras, a place to prepare for the rigors of prospecting for gold, a place where the contagion of gold fever motivated seekers of wealth from all corners of the world.
When we are enjoying our idyllic town with its natural beauty and astounding vistas, it is easy to forget the historical events and blending of cultures that ultimately led to the founding of our town, the greater Solano county, and beyond. Our environment is peppered with reminders, the names of our streets, cities, and counties influenced by both Spanish and indigenous languages. Spanish style architecture can be found throughout the Bay Area, as can exquisite Mexican influenced cuisine. Let us remember the injustice and suffering that brought us to this relatively peaceful time in history. But let us also celebrate the blended traditions and cultures that make up our Hispanic heritage.
Benicia Carillo de Vallejo