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How the city of Vacaville got its name in California

No, it doesn't come from the Spanish translation for "cow town."

VACAVILLE, Calif. — It might seem like Vacaville’s name explains itself, but, contrary to some beliefs, it actually doesn’t originate from the phrase “cow town."

“It’s a family name – it’s a surname of a family that owned the property and then sold it so that it would be named 'Vacaville',” Cricket Kanouff, President of the Peña Adobe Historical Society, said.

The city’s namesake came from Juan Manuel Vaca and the Vaca family, one of the first two settlers on the land along with the Peña family. While the city’s name doesn’t actually have any connection to cows, the origin of the Vaca family name does tie-in with historic efforts of farmers and ranchers in Spain during the Moors invasion of Spain.

During the invasion, Kanouff said those farmers and ranchers would set cow heads on safe pathways as a signal of safe passage for the Spanish and as a deterrent for the Moors. Families who did this ended up receiving a coat of arms called the “Cabeza de Vaca.”

“That where the name originated way back then, so it does have something to do with a cow, I guess. But not ‘cow town’,” Kanouff said laughing. “It’s a surname. It’s an actual family name that lived here – Mr. Vaca and his eight children.”

Kanouff explained that Vaca and Juan Felipe Peña traveled to California from New Mexico because of political reasons. Upon reaching the Los Angeles area, they made their way to Solano County, as some of the first settlers of the area. 

They ended up getting a 40,000 acre Mexican land grant that stretched from modern day Davis to Fairfield. Vaca sold the land, believing a city would make the property more valuable, but he did it on the condition that the city be named after him.

Kanouff said that Vaca never told Peña about the decision, and it created a rift between the families that never really repaired itself. While the Vaca family has mostly left the area, Kanouff said there are still fifth generation members of Peña family in the area.

Why did people come to Vacaville in the beginning

Political reasons pushed people like Vaca and Peña into the area initially, but, the people who settled there were ranchers with livestock, according Kanouff. This made up the population until the agricultural resources were used.

“Most of them were all ranchers when they were up here, so that’s what they did. They were ranchers, but the Peña family was one of the few families that actually made that transition [to agriculture],” Kanouff said.

Kanouff said since there was no railroad to transport crops, it was a bit of waiting game for that transition until the railroad came through.

The area eventually reinvented itself from livestock to agriculture, even being known as the fresh fruit capital of California at one point. 

According to Visit Vacaville, development increased after World War 2 with improved highways and transport technology and a demand for new buildings and business. The city even saw its population boom by thousands between 1941 and 1961.

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