The Cache Creek watershed supported Native American tribes for centuries before nineteenth-century European and American explorers and trappers began to move through the area in the 1830s. By the mid-nineteenth century diseases took a heavy toll on the indigenous people, but some of the Southern Wintun Indian tribe continued to inhabit the upper reaches of the Capay Valley even after Mexican land grants appropriated most of the territory.
1840s In 1842 the Mexican government granted William Gordon two leagues of land (the Guesissosi grant) on both sides of Cache Creek from the western hills to the Sacramento River. In 1846 the nine-league Rancho Canada de Capay, extending from the western edge of Gordon's grant through the north end of the Capay Valley, was granted to the three Berryessa brothers. Livestock production became the principal economic activity of rancheros and their followers.
1850s and 1860s In 1858 the land speculators Arnold and Gillig purchased 13,760 acres of the Berryessa grant and began to subdivide the land into parcels of 200 to 3800 acres. Gillig planted grain, grapevines, and fruit trees northwest of Langville (the present community of Capay) and established the county's first winery in 1860. Other speculators, Rhodes and Pratt, each took title to 6800 acres in the northern valley and began to sell parcels to settlers. Scattered ranches and tiny settlements developed along the primitive road leading to the quicksilver (mercury) mines in the canyon country to the west.
1870s Livestock and grain farming were the mainstays of the region's developing agricultural economy, although several small vineyards and orchards offered promise. The Orleans Hill Winery in the Lamb Valley area north of Esparto gained recognition until disease destroyed its vineyards. Several small schools were established in the Capay Valley. After the Central Pacific Railroad established a line from Elmira in Solano County to Winters in Yolo County, five investors incorporated the Vaca Valley and Clear Lake Railroad in 1877, planning to extend the line north from Winters to Cache Creek and thence through the Capay Valley on to Clear Lake. Although financing for the line was not soon secured, the town of Madison was established where the railroad was to curve north toward the valley. Most of the village of Cottonwood to the south was moved to the new town, which became a center for grain shipping.
1880s In 1887 several San Francisco investors incorporated the Capay Valley Land Company, composed chiefly of officers of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The company planned to divide several large land holdings into 10- to 40-acre parcels for fruit farming and to establish town sites along the length of the coming railroad. That same year local farmers formed the Rumsey Ditch Association to build and operate an eight-mile irrigation canal (later shortened) from Cache Creek above Rumsey to the vicinity of Guinda. In 1888 the new town of Esperanza (renamed Esparto, after a native bunch grass, in 1890) was laid out, and railroad track was laid up to Rumsey (named for a local landowner) at the north end of the valley, with the first passenger train running in July. At the terminus of the railroad were railroad sidings, a manually operated turntable, a section house, and a planned 23-room hotel (never built). Guinda had a house for the section supervisor and a bunkhouse for workers. In 1889 a three-story hotel was completed in Esparto, featuring gas lights, a pressurized water system, and electric bells. (The hotel was damaged in the 1892 earthquake but repaired; after a succession of ownerships, the building was torn down in 1935.) Postmasters were appointed at Guinda (the Spanish word for the wild cherry tree) and Rumsey, and Langville was renamed Capay.
1890sThe Guinda store (still in use) was built in 1891, the Guinda Hotel in 1893 (torn down in the 1990s). Both were busy and successful during their early years, and the Guinda Hotel supported a popular bar until the 1950s. A substantial two-story elementary school building was erected at Guinda. Fruit packing sheds began to operate in Guinda and Rumsey, making daily seasonal deliveries to two trains with ice cars. Other land company plans were short-lived. A community four miles west of Capay called Cadenasso (after local landowners) never really developed, and six miles to the north a colony near Tancred (named for a hero of the First Crusade) lasted only until a hard frost killed many of the young fruit trees in 1896 and the colony went bankrupt. Tancred had a post office from 1892 until 1932 but never became a functioning town. In 1893 Yolo County's second high school was established in Esparto. In the early 1890s a single-wire grounded telephone line between Guinda and Rumsey was laid and a phone placed in a store in each town, to be used by the public when the stores were open. 1900sIn 1900 the population of the Capay Valley was recorded at 1,381. Rumsey residents built a hall for a local women's group about 1903, and Guinda built a community hall in 1909 (now the Western Yolo Grange Hall). The small band of local Wintun Indians was relocated from its old village site northeast of Rumsey to a federally purchased rancheria on the other side of the valley (later (1942) some of the band moved to a new site near Brooks, while others moved to Colusa County). Plans to extend the railroad through the Rumsey canyon were abandoned. A low-water wooden bridge crossed Cache Creek from County Road 53, and several families lived in the hills on the east side. Constables and judges were elected for each judicial district, and small jails were erected in Guinda and Capay. For a time a doctor living in Capay made house calls in the valley.
1910s Two blacksmith shops operated at Guinda. A Catholic Church was built in Guinda (demolished about 1930). In 1914 the Yolo Water and Power Company completed a concrete dam across the outlet of Clear Lake that feeds into Cache Creek, improving storage capacity for flood control and irrigation downstream. In 1915 the valley's first Almond Festival took place, with the crowning of an Almond Queen at Guinda's Methodist Church; thereafter the festival became an annual celebration of spring blossoms and local products. A new wooden bridge across Cache Creek was built near Guinda about 1916 (later washed out, it was replaced by an iron structure about 1959 on County Road 57.) In 1918 a new elementary school was built in Guinda, and a high school building in Esparto (later enlarged in a 1939 WPA project). A second general store opened in Guinda in 1919. The Capay Valley Almond Growers Exchange began to serve the area's growing almond acreage as farmers converted unprofitable fruit orchards.
1920s and 1930s In 1928 electric power came into the valley and was extended to outlying areas over the next decade. In 1929 the present Rumsey Bridge replaced an earlier bridge destroyed by flooding; a chair carrier bridge also spanned the creek to carry people and supplies across to the east side. Until the late 1930s there was also a cable suspension foot bridge south of Guinda. In the early 1930s the Victoria Land Company, owned by a Stockton man, farmed a large acreage in the Guinda and Rumsey areas, producing almonds, apricots and peaches and hiring mostly local people as required. The Great Depression discouraged local economic activity, but government projects provided some employment. Starting in 1931 State Highway 16 was cut through the Rumsey canyon, and by 1934 transportation was opened up to Highway 20. Six gas stations served motorists between Brooks and Rumsey (the last closed in the 1990s). By 1937 the railroad tracks were being taken out from Rumsey on down the valley, and rail service ceased north of Esparto in 1941 (passenger service continued between Esparto and Elmira until 1957). A daily motor stage service was available for taking passengers and freight from Rumsey to Woodland. Several families operated small Grade B dairy farms.
1940s and 1950s Major flooding occurred during the high-water year 1940-41 and again in 1955-56. During World War II many of the valley's young men served in the military, while remaining residents participated in various wartime activities. Several Japanese families who had operated fruit orchards in the upper valley were relocated to wartime internment camps and did not return after the war. In 1948 the original Capay Valley Telephone Company changed hands and began expanding services through a 10-line switchboard in Brooks, which later became a 30-line switchboard in Guinda. (The company was locally owned until 1988.) Efforts to convince voters to create a consolidated school district in Esparto were finally successful in 1959-60, and the small elementary schools dotting the valley closed down as school bus service expanded.
1960s and 1970s After a series of hard late freezes, walnut plantings began to replace old valley almond orchards. In 1975 the newly completed Indian Valley Dam in the mountains north of the Capay Valley began to store water for flood control and irrigation; the reservoir was not yet filled when the 1976-77 drought period began.
1980s Organic growers began intensive farming in the Capay Valley, gradually building markets and expanding acreage in a variety of crops. In 1982 Yolo County planning staff in consultation with residents prepared the Capay Valley Community Area Plan, which became part of the Yolo County General Plan in 1983. In 1985 the Wintun Tribe of the Rumsey Rancheria opened a bingo parlor near Brooks, which quickly became profitable.
1990s A series of drought years after 1987 ended in 1992. The Esparto General Plan was prepared. The Rumsey Rancheria bingo parlor became the Cache Creek Casino, which developed rapidly into a popular gambling venue. In 1994 the Yolo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District retrofitted the original Capay diversion dam with a "bladder" dam, at that time the longest inflatable dam in the world, to conserve water and enhance water management. In 1995 the County Agricultural Commissioner reported nearly a million dollars in revenue from the valley's organic agriculture, a figure that tripled by 2001. Vineyards were planted near Brooks. Winter floods in 1995 and 1998 caused severe erosion along Cache Creek. After years of fundraising the new Esparto Regional Library branch of the Yolo County Library opened in 1999.
2000 Capay Valley and Esparto residents began a two-year Capay Valley Visioning process to assess challenges for the future and to prepare a community action plan for efforts to improve regional quality of life.
2002Plans for a massive expansion of the Indian casino at Brooks drew extensive criticism. Yolo County supervisors, local residents, and tribal representatives sought ways to find common ground on approaches to growth and change. In late September the Board of Supervisors reached an agreement with the Wintun Tribe over terms of the expansion and mitigations on environmental impacts.