Robert Henry Sterling, who built Stone House, was a nephew of Capt. Robert Henry Waterman, to whom Ritchie had sold one-third of his Suisun property on the same day he bought it. Both a business partner and friend, Waterman eventually became co-executor of Ritchie’s estate.
Waterman seems to have had less trouble with squatters at Suisun than Ritchie. He established on his acreage the town of Bridgeport, renamed Cordelia in honor of his wife when a post office was sought. His intent was to develop a shipping port for produce and other items from the Sacramento valley. The town by now has been absorbed into the city of Fairfield, which Waterman initiated a year or two later specifically to wrest the title of county seat from Benicia, naming it after his birthplace in Connecticut and donating land for public buildings. His effort succeeded and Fairfield became the county seat in 1858.
Waterman is still honored as the founder of Fairfield. He is also credited (or blamed) by some for introducing eucalyptus into America on his ranch; after 30 years at sea, he told a friend, he “wanted to plant a whole lot of trees.”
Waterman’s is a colorful history, and much has been written about him. Often called “Bully Bob Waterman,” his biography reminds one of Dana’s tales of shipboard mayhem.
Waterman had run away and gone to sea at the age of 11, on a ship captained by young Sterling’s grandfather, Capt. John Sterling — the Sterling and Waterman families were intertwined over many generations. Over the next twenty years as he quickly became a captain, Waterman became renowned for his ability to bring in trips ahead of schedule, under the worst of weather and circumstances, setting records, reveling in the acclaim.
Waterman’s name is inevitably linked with the clipper ship Sea Witch, which was built especially for him, under his supervision. Sea Witch was noted for both her beauty and her remarkable speed. Her third return trip home from Hong Kong to New York in 74-days remains unmatched and widely marveled over in maritime circles.
By 1849, Waterman purchased land from A.A. Ritchie, acquired a herd of cattle and started building a home and farm. But, how could such a man refuse an offer of a $10,000 bonus, a pretty nice figure in 1851, for bringing the brand-new ship Challenge into San Francisco ahead of schedule?
He made the wrong decision. The rush to California in search of gold had filled every ship, and employed every experienced seaman. Waterman took on a suspect first mate and the two of them corralled every willing hand they could find, even from skid row. So, when the Challenge arrived weeks late in San Francisco in 1851, several crewmen were dead, others in leg irons or sick bay. Eight were charged with mutiny; the remainder spread stories in the city’s bars of Waterman’s and his first mate’s brutality. The first dozen or so cases heard by the U.S. District Court Ninth Circuit in San Francisco revolved around Capt. R. H. Waterman. The accusations of cruelty and even murder were judged “necessary maritime procedures,” and he was modestly fined.
Once the trials were over, he sent for Cordelia, who boarded a steamship bound around The Horn to San Francisco. A lady as intrepid as her husband, she decided to cut a month off the journey by trekking across the Isthmus of Panama with two men she had befriended on the trip. For one reason or another, she wandered away by herself and eventually awoke, alone, in a military hospital in Panama City, bag and valuables intact. The Watermans were finally reunited in Panama City and soon settled happily on their Suisun ranch, and the captain remained an active force in the growth of Fairfield. Both seemed content never to go to sea again. Nonetheless, R. H. Waterman is noted as captain of the steamer Active and other small ships on the Sacramento River through the 1860s.
And we know that he was involved in settling the affairs of the Collayomi and Guenoc ranchos from 1856 to 1882.
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