Human history

Native Americans.   For thousands of years, Cold Canyon and the surrounding foothills and valleys were home to various Native American groups, most recently the Southern Patwin people. Until the first European settlers arrived near Cold Canyon, the Southern Patwin lived in semi-permanent villages and camps constructed of dome-shaped, subterranean thatch and mud houses.  Common buildings in a settlement included a dancehouse, a sweatlodge, and an elevated granary to store preserved food.  Individual homes were built for families, which consisted of a married couple and their unmarried children, as well as their married daughters and their husbands and children.

The Southern Patwin was a hunter gatherer society and used Cold Canyon to hunt rabbits, black bears, mule deer, tule elk, antelope, geese, ducks, and other game.  They did not eat the feared but abundant grizzly bears of the area.  Hunting practices were well developed and included setting low fires to encourage fresh plant growth, which, in turn, attracted more animals.  In addition, they constructed long stone fences with a single opening to herd game so they could more effectively shoot at it.  Although some of these now dilapidated and moss-covered stone walls can still be found in the hills nearby, none have yet been identified in the reserve.  Arrowheads, another remnant of their hunting practices, have been found in the vicinity of Cold Canyon along Putah Creek.  These arrowheads are important clues to the canyon’s history and should not be removed.

The Southern Patwin did not farm but instead relied on the tremendous variety of edible plants found in the region, most of which can be seen from the trail as you hike through the canyon. The acorns from oak trees were the primary community staple.  They ground these acorns into flour using mortars that they carved into boulders and using a bone or a rock as a pestle.

Records kept by settlers indicate that as recently as 1838, the Patwin still lived along Putah Creek in large numbers. In 1848, with the end of the Mexican American War, California was ceded to the United States. California received statehood in 1850, and in 1852 the area that included Cold Canyon was legally defined as unappropriated unreserved public land.  By 1877 the Southern Patwin were gone, forced out by Mexican and Spanish settlers who raised stock on their land-grant ranches.

The Homestead.  The Homestead Act of 1862 defined the region as stock raising land in 1916, and in 1938 John Vlahos was granted land in Cold Canyon for goat and cattle grazing. In order to raise collateral for his mortgage of $2500, he made 2000 pounds of goat cheese and built a cold storage building in a cool grove by the creek to store it. The cold storage building, whose brick foundation still stands and can be found at the terminus of the homestead trail, serves as the origin of the Cold Canyon name.  The cold storage, the stone foundation of the Vlahos’ house, a well, and some rusted remnants of an old vehicle are all that remain of the homestead.

Monticello Dam.  Immediately upstream of Cold Creek’s outlet to Putah Creek stands the massive wall of Monticello Dam.  In the early 1900’s, Berryessa Valley (the area now underneath Lake Berryessa) was a flat, fertile valley bisected by Putah Creek.  In the center stood the town of Monticello, with a population of 250, and surrounded by 12,000 acres of farmland.  Like the rest of Napa and Solano counties at the time, Berryessa Valley was farmed without the aid of irrigation.  As farmers in many parts of the Central Valley constructed massive irrigation systems for their crops, dry-farmed produce quickly became uncompetitive in the market.

The farming interests in the region began championing dam construction to make local produce competitive.  The construction of a dam at the narrow point of the Putah Creek Canyon, known as Devil’s Gate, was first proposed in 1916, but several other dams were proposed on both Putah and Cache creeks in the ensuing decades.  A proposal by the Solano Water Council to build a 304-foot dam at Devil’s Gate became increasingly populara and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation took over control of the project in 1945.  The purposes for this dam were (1) to store water in Berryessa Reservoir for agricultural, urban, industrial, and military uses, (2) to reduce flooding of lands along lower Putah Creek, and (3) to provide recreational benefits.  As construction of Monticello Dam became increasingly likely, the Winters Farm Bureau Center, the Yolo County Chamber of Commerce, the Winters Service Club, and the Yolo County Board of Supervisors each raised opposition to the project. Such opposition might today be phrased in terms of altered water regimes or disrupted plant and animal communities.  However, in the mid-1940’s, concerns about the dam centered around water prices and fair distribution of water to various groups.  Local groups also opposed both the displacement of Monticello residents and the building of a dam in an earthquake zone.  At the last minute, opposition by Solano County farmers and state authorities caused the height of the dam to be reduced from 304 to 270 feet, which correspondingly reduced the resevoir capacity from 2.2 to 1.6 million acre feet of water.  The Secretary of the Interior approved the Solano Project, as the dam construction was known, in 1948. By 1957, the dam was complete, and by 1963, Lake Berryessa had filled completely.

Construction of the dam has probably affected use of Cold Canyon by animals. A dam and highway across Devil’s Gate effectively barred stream-associated animal species from dispersing between Cold Canyon and regions upstream.  No good records of vertebrate populations in the region exist before construction of the dam, but it is possible that construction of the dam, the reservoir, and Route 128 has isolated Cold Canyon from regions to the north and west.

It is also possible that low flows created by limited water releases from the resevoir have eliminated some of the aquatic species that may have seasonally used the creek.  Until recently, Putah Creek below Solano Dam  (further downstream) was provided with just a small amount of water during the dry season.  As a result, most of the creek dried up in the summer of 1989 (a drought year), killing thousands of fish and withering riparian vegetation.  Similar events may have eliminated some species that swam into Cold Creek during the winter.

Creation of the Reserve.   John Vlahos sold part of his land to Paul Leiter in 1968.  The Leiters sold this portion of the reserve to the University of California in 1979, and Petro and Virginia Vlahos sold the remainder to the University in 1984. Named in honor of Dr. G. Ledyard Stebbins, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Genetics at U.C. Davis, the reserve was appropriated to preserve the land for teaching and research