Turning Stones ~ George McKale

George McKale George McKale is a practicing archaeologist and Sonoma’s City Historian. He has excavated throughout California ranging from Native American sites thousands of years old to Gold Rush era locations. His passion and specialty in archaeology is the study of human remains.


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Patwin Chief Solano

Posted on September 18, 2009 by George McKale

Sonoma’s original Miwok inhabitants were flanked to the south and east by the Patwin. Their native word for “people” was Patwin and late 19th-century anthropologists applied this term to the groups living along the lower Sacramento River south to Benicia and extending to the lower reaches of the Napa River. Mariano Vallejo held military control of this region and attempted to maintain a friendly relationship with the local Indians. Many Wappo and Southern Pomo people were quite weary of their new Mexican neighbors and hesitant to initiate trade for the unusual new beasts introduced to their lands. A Navajo expression regarding raids by their Apache neighbors, “If they can’t trade, they raid,” applied to Wappo and Southern Pomo who often stole cows and horses for food. Vallejo eventually sent troops consisting of Mexican and Indians, to find the raiders, and encouraged them through violence to stop the raiding of the livestock.
Vallejo knew with whom to ally himself, and quickly made friends with Patwin Chief Solano. Chief Solano was given the Spanish Christian name Francisco Solano; his native name was Sem-Yeto which meant “brave or fierce hand.” He was born in the Suisun Bay region and by most accounts was considered to be a charismatic leader. One of his most striking and imposing characteristics was his height, topping off at 6 feet and 7 inches! Many Patwin people, particularly from Solano’s group known as the Suisunes, moved to the mission in San Francisco around 1810, where they were baptized. It was here that Solano learned to speak Spanish.
When our mission in Sonoma was established in 1823, Solano, along with many of the Suisunes, moved from San Francisco to Sonoma, to assist in the construction of the new mission. It was in Sonoma where Solano began to receive the respect of his fellow tribesman and became their headman or chief. Vallejo first met Solano at a Rancheria near present-day Schellville, where he was greeted by over 3,000 Indians, all led by Chief Solano. Uprisings by both the Wappo and the Southern Pomo created havoc for Vallejo, who, with the aid of Solano and his warriors, conducted numerous expeditions to quell these neighboring tribes. Solano was instrumental in keeping relations between the Mexicans and the Indians peaceful and a treaty was signed in 1836 between Vallejo and Wappo and Southern Pomo leaders.
Archaeologists are always searching for distinctive qualities to better understand differences between the native peoples of the San Francisco Bay region. For the Patwin, this may be found in their religion known as the Kuksu cult. The Kuksu cult was practiced by many north central California Indian groups, but was much more elaborate with the Patwin. The disproportionate elaborations, when compared to other native groups, led some archaeologist to believe the Kuksu cult may have originated with the Patwin. One of the primary features of the cult was the occurrence of secret societies.
Membership into the societies was accomplished through initiation rites. Boys between the ages of 8 and 16 were ritually captured by and isolated from the group. They then received instructions on secret medicines and knowledge of the particular society. Women were generally not allowed to participate. Some societies focused on teaching as a way to enlighten young initiates, while others used dance to transmit the information. The Patwin used a variety of musical instruments in their ceremonies. Two of the most common were the clapper stick and flute, both made from elderberry. Foot drums made from sycamore logs 8 to 10 feet long were also used. The constant repetition of clappers, flutes and drums often induced trances or altered states of consciousness for the participants.
There were only two Native Americans to receive land grants from the Mexican government, Camilo Ynitia and Chief Solano. Ynitia’s land grant was due west at Olompali State Park and Solano’s near Suisun known as Rancho Suisun. Solano was not able to retain his rancho, and after the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, he fled to the north. Rumor has it that he died around 1850 and was buried beneath a large oak tree near Fairfield.
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