“He was of gigantic stature, standing six feet seven inches–without his stockings, for he had none. And he was large all over in proportion, with the strength of several men. His name by baptism was Francisco Solano, and by that name he was best known.” – Platon Vallejo
Joining the Mission
When young Sina was baptized at Mission Dolores in 1810, he received the name Francisco Solano. Sina probably didn’t know much about his patron saint, a Franciscan missionary in 17th century Peru, and he likely didn’t know that some day people would call him “Chief Solano.”
Sina/Francisco Solano was born a member of the Suisun people. The Suisun were a Patwin-speaking community whose traditional homeland was on the edge of the San Pablo Bay, northeast of San Francisco. His fate was the result of a battle between the Suisuns and troops commanded by Gabriel Moraga, the Spanish officer who explored much of northern Alta California.
Moraga’s troops were a force of Spanish soldiers and Native Americans known as "auxiliaries." Indian auxiliaries were a central part of Spanish military strategy since the time of the conquest of Mexico. At that time, thousands of native warriors helped Cortez defeat the Aztecs. In California, Native auxiliaries were mission Indians who accompanied soldiers on expeditions or in battles.
After some time at Mission Dolores, Francisco moved to the newly-founded Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma. At Sonoma, his status grew. He rose to become an alcalde or native leader of the mission community. Alcaldes were responsible for maintaining order in the mission, working with the padres to make sure tasks were accomplished.
Commander and Friend
The young man eventually caught the attention of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Vallejo was the Mexican military commander of the northern frontier. The commander was particularly impressed with Francisco Solano’s leadership as a member of the auxiliaries.
Auxiliaries played a key role in Gen. Vallejo’s strategy in Northern Alta California. His goal was to keep the Russians from moving any further south than Bodega Bay and to incorporate local Indian tribes into the Mexican republic.
Solano seems to have excelled in his military duties and numerous native troops were put under his command. According to his widow, Isadora Filomena, Solano commanded 8,000 warriors, “armed with flint daggers, flint lances and flint arrows” (Testimonios, p.11). It was even said that Solano was commissioned a captain in the Mexican army.
Solano’s auxiliaries made up the bulk of the troops in Vallejo’s expeditions. But he was also a political leader, a key figure in establishing peace between Native groups and Vallejo. One of the most famous cases was that of the Satiyomi people of northern Sonoma county, who had been implacable foes of Vallejo.
With Francisco Solano’s help both in and out of battle, the Satiyomi were convinced to make peace in 1837. Over the years, as Vallejo sought to consolidate Mexican rule north of San Francisco he often turned to Solano for aid in bringing different native groups into alliances or submission.
An Impressive Reputation
Solano’s reputation grew not only among indigenous people, but among Californios. Dorotea Váldez, who grew up in Monterey in the 1800s, recalled seeing Solano and his auxiliaries in her city:
"When Solano visited Monterey, I was living with Señora Prudencia Amesti… Solano and his Indians all rode fine horses. They all had jáquimas, but few of them had saddles. Their hair was long and they carried bows and arrows. Their looks inspired fear in everybody – Testimonios, pp. 36–37.
Another Californian who described Solano’s impressive appearance was Platon Vallejo. Platon was son of Gen. Mariano Vallejo and as a young man knew Solano. Platon described him as tall and robust, “savage in some things,” but also a “keen, clear-headed thinker.” According to Platon, his father “always held Solano, not alone as a an ally, but as a personal friend and equal.”
Platon’s recollections were particularly colorful. He gives his own version of how Solano and Vallejo met.
As Platon relates it, there was a battle between the Suisuns led by Francisco Solano, and Mexican troops led by Gen. Vallejo. In Platon’s story, Vallejo’s forces routed Solano’s warriors, but the two “entered into an alliance and treaty of good will.” His account, however, seems to be at odds mission records that register Solano’s baptism at Mission Dolores in 1810 and later service at Sonoma.
The Mystery the Later Years
Solano’s reputation among Mexican Californians offered benefits in his later years. In 1842, likely as a reward for his military service, Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado granted Solano 4 square leagues (approx. 17,000 acres), known as Rancho Suisun. Solano had been occupying the land as early as 1837, located on the traditional territory of his people.
In 1842, he seems to have sold the rancho to Gen. Vallejo, who later sold it to an American ship captain, Archibald Ritchie. The city of Fairfield, California eventually came to occupy much of Solano’s old rancho.
What became of Francisco Solano in his later years is something of a mystery. Platon Vallejo’s memoirs state that after Vallejo’s capture during the Bear Flag revolt in June of 1846, he left Sonoma. Reportedly filled with grief at his friend’s fate, Solano wandered far and wide, possibly as far as Alaska.
Platon tells that Solano resurfaced in 1858, arriving at the Vallejo home in Sonoma. He spent several days visiting with his old friend and ally the general, then continued on to his homeland in Cordelia, California. He died soon after, according to Platon.
Other sources report that Solano died as early as 1850. In Solano, The Crossroads County, an Illustrated History, author Frank Keegan offers an alternative to Platon Vallejo’s account. He states that Samuel Martin, an American who had come to California during the Gold Rush, met Solano in 1850 at Rancho Suisun. Martin claimed that the aged warrior passed away soon afterwards and that his family buried him under a nearby buckeye tree.
Whether he died in 1850 or 1858, we know that Solano did not live long into the era of U.S. California. When historian Hubert Howe Bancroft sent researchers to to interview his widow Isidora Filomena in 1874, her husband had been dead for many years.
It was Platon’s father who spread Solano’s fame among English speakers. In 1850, Mariano Vallejo wrote a report to the California State Senate on the origin of California’s county names. In it, he described Solano County as the home of as “the great Chief of the tribes originally denominated Suisunes.” According to the general, “Before receiving the baptismal name of Solano, the chief was called Sem-yeto, which signifies the brave or fierce hand.” The legend of Chief Solano, originally Set-yeto, was born.
With time, the legend surrounding “Chief Solano” grew, fueling early 20th century attempts to locate his grave. Researchers focused on finding the remains of his supposedly 6’7” frame, but to no avail.
In 1934, a 12 foot tall statue of Chief Solano was unveiled in front of the Solano County Library. It still stands there today, although the library is now the Solano County Events Center.
In 1971 the Native Sons of the Golden West installed a plaque to commemorate Chief Solano’s burial place. It is located on the campus of Solano Community College in Fairfield California, where local lore says the buckeye tree used to stand.