John Reid Wolfskill

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Undated portrait

John Reid Wolfskill (September 16, 1804 - May 27, 1897) was a California pioneer who helped establish development of California's agricultural industry in the Sacramento Valley in the 19th century. In 1842, Wolfskill was the first settler to plant vineyards and fruit trees there.[1] Born in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky and a pioneer of Solano County, "he was the first English speaking man to settle in the area around what is now Winters, California".[2]

His brother, William Wolfskill, had migrated earlier to California and also contributed to its agricultural development. After they were settled, their younger brothers Milton, Mathus, and Sarchal Wolfskill joined John on his land grant Rancho de los Putos, later renamed as the Wolfskill Ranch. In 1935 Wolfskill's descendants donated 100 acres of the ranch to University of California, Davis for use as an experimental orchard.

Early years[edit]

Wolfskill was born near Richmond, Kentucky on September 16, 1804. He was the son of Joseph and Sarah Reid Wolfskill. His paternal grandfather, Joseph Wolfskill, was a native of Germany, who immigrated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He lived in North Carolina a while, and then moved to central Kentucky. His maternal grandfather, John Reid, after whom Wolfskill was named, was a native of Ireland and immigrant to the British colonies. He was taken prisoner by the British at Charleston, South Carolina, in the American Revolutionary War. He later settled in Kentucky.[3]

The Wolfskill family were among early migrants from Kentucky to Missouri in 1809, where they settled at Boone's Lick near the Missouri River west of St. Louis, which was developing rapidly based on the lucrative fur trade.[3] John and his siblings grew up on the frontier.


In 1828, Wolfskill set out for Santa Fe, New Mexico, which was part of Mexico. His older brother William Wolfskill had gone there some time before and worked as a fur trapper in the area for ten years. From there John traveled to Paris, Durango, Colorado also part of Mexico, and to Chihuahua, Mexico. He worked as a guard in Mexico for the transport of silver treasure between Chihuahua and Matamoras, a total of eleven expeditions during the next four years.

After some time, Wolfskill took passage from Matamoras by ship to New Orleans, and thence up the Mississippi River, returning to his former home in Missouri. He lived and worked there for two or three years. In 1836, he returned to New Mexico. Planning to buy mules to sell in Missouri, he went to Oposura, Sonora. Indians stole all his mules during his journey. He was trying to raise money to join his brother William in Los Angeles, California, from where John had last heard of him. Wolfskill determined to set out from Santa Fe for California.[3]

Wolfskill's brother William, who had become a naturalized Mexican citizen, was able to own land under the Mexican government rules, and received a large land grant in May 1842 in that area that developed as Winters, California in what is now Yolo County.[4] He and John named the property Rancho Rio de los Putos, after a nearby creek.[4] The name was derived by Spanish colonists from Lake Miwok puṭa wuwwe, meaning "grassy creek." [4]

John was later joined here by three of his younger brothers; Milton, Mathus, and Sarchal.[5] A 1987 history of Yolo County identifies Wolfskill as the first settler to plant fruit trees and vineyards in this area, in 1842.[1]

According to a biographical note by the University of California, Wolfskill began to cultivate a few crops in 1851 along Putah Creek (formerly called Rio de los Putos by Spanish colonists),[6] along with an orchard and vineyard in the Sacramento Valley. He bought fig, pear and English walnut trees, and grape cuttings in Los Angeles.[6]

Initially he had devoted the rancho chiefly to stock-raising, selling meat supplies to the many mining camps which were booming in the late 1840s and early 1850s during the early mining period. In the 1860s, he and his brothers switched to wheat-growing, and enclosed their land with fences to keep animals out. Wolfskill and his brother, William, divided their interests in the rancho, each taking one-half. John devoted most of his rancho to fruit-culture. A branch railroad was built to cross the ranch not far from Wolfskill's old home, the nearest station being Winters.

Personal life[edit]

In 1858 at the age of 54, Wolfskill married Susan Cooper, a daughter of Maj. Stephen Cooper. They had been with the Donner Party, but had pushed on before getting trapped in the Sierra Nevada (U.S.) by winter. They had four children together: a son Edward and three daughters, Melinda, Jennie, and Frances.

Wolfskill ultimately divided his ranch among his children. In his last years he lived with his married daughter Frances and her husband Samuel Taylor.[3] Wolfskill died in 1897.[3]


-In 1935, Wolfskill's heirs deeded 100 acres of the Wolfskill Ranch in Winters to the University of California, Davis, which had been founded in 1908. The land was to be used for an experimental orchard.[7]


  1. ^ a b Larkey, Joann Leach; Walters, Shipley; Wellings, Marjorie; Yolo County Historical Society; Yolo County Superintendent of Schools (October 1987). Yolo County: Land of Changing Patterns : An Illustrated History. Windsor Publications. p. 18.
  2. ^ "Historic Winters". Winters Express. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  3. ^ a b c d e Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles (1898). Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles (Public domain ed.). The Society. pp. 274–.
  4. ^ a b c Gudde, Erwin G.; Bright, William (2004). California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names (4th rev. and enl. ed.). University of California Press. pp. 304–305. ISBN 978-0-520-24217-3.
  5. ^ O'Neil, Dorothy M. (2009). Winters. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 7–. ISBN 978-0-7385-6914-7.
  6. ^ a b "John Wolfskill - History". Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of California. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  7. ^ "Olive harvest and walking tour at Wolfskill Ranch in Winters Part of UC Davis centennial celebration". Daily Democrat. 8 October 2008. Retrieved 12 August 2014.
  • This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles's "Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and Pioneer Register, Los Angeles" (1898)

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