Prior to the arrival of Europeans, a stretch of land along the Putah Creek (Patwin: Liwaito) was inhabited by the Puttoy, a tribe of the indigenous Patwin people. Although healthy and numerous in 1832, the tribe’s population was all but decimated, due, at least in part, to an epidemic of 1833. Some historians have speculated that this illness may have been a form of malaria introduced to the area by Hudson’s Bay Company trappers, who were among the first Europeans to thoroughly explore the area. By 1834, a small group of Puttoy survivors had abandoned their settlements, and some left for Mission Solano in what is now Sonoma County.
The site of “our town” lies north of the original streambed of Putah Creek (Rio de los Putas), which became the dividing line between Yolo and Solano counties in 1850. Formerly the home of a group of Patwin Indians, the immediate Davis area presented an abundance of plants and wildlife, sustaining both animal and human inhabitants before hunters, trappers, and the first pioneer agriculturalists brought drastic changes. During the early 1850s, livestock production and cultivation of the rich alluvial plains in the West Sacramento Valley were profitable enterprises, and a number of American and European immigrants sought title to portions of Rancho Laguna de Santo Calle, the unconfirmed Mexican land grant upon which most of the City of Davis and the University of California campus are located.
Prominent among the early settlers were Jerome C. and Mary A. Davis, the son-in-law and daughter of Joseph B. Chiles, one of California’s trail-blazing pioneers, whose cattle interests in the area began in 1849. The Davises’ holdings were expanded to include 12,000 acres by 1858; however, floods, drought, and disease, coupled with high interest rates, the Civil War and inadequate transportation facilities, caused financial hardship for California ranchers. By 1868, the Davises moved to Sacramento after selling some 7,000 acres of the Davis ranch for $80,000 to developers of the California Pacific Railroad.
Directors of this pioneer line surveyed a triangular railroad junction, which would play a major role in the future development of the town that was laid out around it. Residential and business construction was spurred when daily railroad service from Vallejo to Davis Junction was opened on August 24, 1868. The official town plat, covering a 32-block area that fronted on Putah Creek, was recorded November 24, 1868. By 1870, Davisville citizens numbered 400. Land was donated for a schoolhouse and churches; street trees were planted; a boomtown prosperity existed until subsequent extension of the railroad reduced the local volume of trade. During the later 19th century, the town’s economy was chiefly related to agricultural development in the surrounding area.
Only a few far-sighted citizens dared hope, in 1905, that the newly established University State Farm might be located near Davisville, but a determined seven-man committee of the first Chamber of Commerce succeeded where similar committees in some seventy communities elsewhere in California failed. Many local citizens subscribed funds for purchase of an option on the 779-acre Sparks-Hamel-Wright tract that was offered to the site selection committee, plus the option on water rights for irrigating purposes. When their offer was accepted on April 6, 1906, Davisites celebrated with flag flying and fireworks. The women’s improvement club quickly organized Cleanup Days, so as to make the community more presentable for its new role as a university town.
One of the lasting acts of that month, partly in celebration of the site selection of the University Farm, was that on April 14, 1906, the Davisville Enterprise renamed itself the Davis Enterprise, and started referring to the town generally as Davis. The editor’s stated reasons were (1) that mail was confused with Danville, (2) that the railroad schedules called it Davis at that time, and (3) that Davisville sounded provincial. The post office followed suit in January, 1907 (though the “ville” suffix adorns the names of several businesses as a nod to history). Construction of the first University Farm buildings commenced in mid-1907, and the first instruction began in October, 1908, with fifteen non-degree students in attendance. Short courses for farmers were also an important function of the new teaching and research institution that would remain under the administrative control of the College of Agriculture at UC Berkeley until 1952.
The City of Davis was incorporated in 1917 under a commission form of government. Fire, protection, sewers, sidewalks, and street paving were high on the list of badly needed civic improvements. In 1928, the mayor-council form of government was adopted. In 1950, the first city administrator was appointed, and in 1965, the position of city manager was instituted. A planning commission was established in 1925, and the city’s first General Plan was adopted in 1927.
Institution of a four-year degree program at the University Farm in 1933 resulted in unprecedented growth for both the campus and the community, and the first long-range development plans were initiated. The additions of the School of Veterinary Medicine in 1949, and the College of Letters and Science in 1951, were impetus for further growth and development, which was augmented after 1959, when the UC Regents determined that Davis was to become a general campus of the University of California, embracing all major academic disciplines. Subsequently established were the College of Engineering in 1962, the School of Law in 1964, the School of Medicine in 1968, and the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento in 1973. Davis is now the largest of UC’s ten campuses, at 5,300 acres.
Davis has always been a popular place to bicycle, but in the early 1960s Chancellor Emil Mrak and local residents took it upon themselves to make Davis a fabulous place for bicycling. Not only the best city in the country, but the best city possible. This led to a series of innovations, including wide, separate bike paths on campus (early 1960s) and bike lanes in the city (1967). The bikeway system quickly became fully institutionalized, and all new subdivisions since the late 1960s have been required to add to the existing system. This has given Davis one of its greatest claims to fame, often being referred to as “The Bicycle Capital of the U.S” and the only city to receive the League of American Bicyclists’ “Platinum” award. For over 50 years, bicycling has been a major means of local transportation.
In the late 1970s, Davis gained national recognition for community efforts in energy conservation. Several Davis builders have pioneered energy-efficient building and subdivision design. In addition, the city building code has since 1975 included mandatory energy conservation standards which cover all new construction.
* from the Davis Wiki