Top of page

Collection California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900

About this Collection

The collection covers the dramatic decades between the Gold Rush and the turn of the twentieth century. It captures the pioneer experience; encounters between Anglo-Americans and the diverse peoples who had preceded them; the transformation of the land by mining, ranching, agriculture, and urban development; the often-turbulent growth of communities and cities; and California's emergence as both a state and a place of uniquely American dreams. The production of this collection was supported by a generous grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

How the Collection was Assembled

"California as I Saw It:" First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900 is the Library of Congress's first digital collection building on the exceptional holdings in the Library's General Collections and Rare Book and Special Collections Division in the area of state and local history. It has been several years in the making, sustained by a generous grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, which has a focal interest in the state of California.

After project researchers searched the Library’s catalog for historical California works, a bibliography of about 250 of the Library's works was sent to six outside reviewers with expertise in history, librarianship, and California book collecting.   The reviewers suggested additional books, bringing the total under consideration to 320, and evaluated all candidates according to whether or not (for example) a work was especially well written or represented a less frequently encountered perspective on California history.  An additional factor was the percentage of California content, with preference going to books in which more pages were devoted to being in the state than, say, traveling there.

Finally, three factors conspired to limit the number of books digitized: first, the high cost of full text conversion, second, consideration of the stress that scanning would bring to bear on books in poor physical condition and, third, the determination that several books were still protected by copyright. Thus the collection was rounded at slightly more than 180 works, representing approximately 40,000 pages and including more than 3,000 illustrations. This collection's note on Related Resources in the Library of Congress lists some of the works originally considered which could not be included in the final collection.

The Collection's Final Form

The books in this collection are first-person accounts from the time of the Gold Rush and California statehood through the turn of the century. They provide detailed information about localities and people important to the state during the latter half of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of English-speakers flowed into the far West, encountering a variety of Native American groups and the Spanish-speakers who had preceded them to the region. The accounts convey a sense of America's westward movement in the post-pioneer era and offer the emigrants' reactions to the wilderness environment they traversed and settled.

For the period 1849-1860, the Gold Rush and the variety of new settlers it attracted to California overshadowed all else. Newspapers in New York and London sent reporters to the Pacific Coast of North America to send back their reports, and even a fairly ordinary man or woman who participated in the rush to settle California might expect to find his or her letters home published in a local newspaper in Ohio or Massachusetts, perhaps collected and published as a book not long after.

As the Gold Rush ended, California began to attract people for reasons unrelated to mining and overnight wealth. Climate and natural beauty drew a new generation of "pioneers" hoping to recover their health and to explore the picturesque terrain of the still-wild West. By the 1880s, California had become the romantic destination of choice for thousands who came to "take the waters" at mountain resorts or to tour Yosemite and other natural wonders. Settlers also continued to arrive, hoping to take advantage of the state's continuing development. Later writers tended to focus on California's advantages as a vacation spot or a place for making a new home far from the harsh winters of the East and Midwest.

Voices Included, Voices Absent

Throughout the half century covered in this collection, observers recorded their thoughts in diaries, descriptive accounts, guidebooks, and later reminiscences. Most of the writers represented here, like most published American authors of the day, are white, well-educated male Americans--those with the leisure or professional standing to write for publication. Lack of formal education, public encouragement, or interest prevented many women, members of minority groups or of the working class from recording their personal stories for publication. And in the years after 1860, tales of "ordinary" life in California became so much like those of life in other parts of the country that they were largely ignored.

Readers are encouraged to consult additional works in order to compensate for this collection's tilt toward male Anglo-American voices. Some of these additional works were omitted because they did not fit the collection's guidelines: for example, they may not have been mostly about California, first-person accounts, or in the public domain.

One noteworthy example is the fascinating memoir of Mifflin W. Gibbs, one of the many African Americans who participated in the Gold Rush. His autobiography Shadow and Light (Washington, 1902) includes a brief but vivid account of his eight years in California, 1850-1858. This work has been twice reprinted, most recently by the University of Nebraska Press in 1995. Beyond this first-person work, readers interested in the African-American experience during California's first half century may also consult Rudolph M. Lapp's Afro-Americans in California (San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser, 1979), a pamphlet in the "Golden State" series. For more detailed treatment of the role of African-American settlers in California before 1860, see the same author's Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). Kenneth Goode's California's Black Pioneers: A Brief Historical Survey (Santa Barbara: McNally & Loftin, 1973) is a good one-volume study of the subject through the mid-twentieth century.

Only in recent decades have books relating to the Hispanic experience in California received publication in English. The first-person account of a Chilean miner may be found in California Adventure (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1947), the English translation of the chapters of Vicente Perez Rosales's Recuerdos de Pasado that record his experiences in the California Gold Rush, a rare chronicle of this critically important national group in the gold fields. Readers with an interest in this area are urged to consult David J. Weber's Foreigners in their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973), a collection of English-language texts drawn from the writings and speeches of Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and Anglos.

This collection includes but one work by a California visitor or resident of Asian background: Joseph Heco's The Narrative of a Japanese. Interesting as this two-volume study is, it could not be less typical of the Asian experience in California, 1850-1900. Heco came to California as a shipwrecked sailor and spent nine years in the United States under the sponsorship of wealthy California businessmen as a student and pampered tourist. And in the years 1850-1900, it was Chinese immigrants, not Japanese, who played a significant role in California history. There was no substantial immigration of Heco's countrymen until the 1890s. In addition, China's immigrants came as laborers, sometimes rising by their industry and intelligence to become storekeepers or proprietors of small farms, never sharing Heco's access to the world of white America.

No first-person memoirs of the Chinese experience in nineteenth-century California are known to survive. There is always hope that further research in the United States and the People's Republic of China will produce such a narrative, but for the time being, readers must content themselves with studies such as Robert McClellan's The Heathen Chinee: A Study of American Attitudes toward China, 1890-1905 (Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1971) or Betty Lee Sung's Mountain of Gold: The Story of the Chinese in America (New York: Macmillan, 1967).

It is little wonder that there are no known book-length first-person narratives by California Native Americans for this period: none of these indigenous groups had a written language before the introduction of European culture, and many of the clans and family groups were wiped out so quickly that there was no chance for a record to be made of their experience. However, students may compensate for this gap in the historical record by turning to the works of Robert F. Heizer. The beginner might start with the edition entitled The Destruction of California Indians: A Collection of Documents from the Period 1847 to 1865 in Which are Described Some of the Things that Happened to Some of the Indians of California (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1993). While this anthology is based on the writings of white observers--missionaries, army officers, settlers--it presents a valuable contemporary picture of the process by which California's rich indigenous cultures were lost. More advanced students of Native American history will profit from a book compiled by Heizer in collaboration with M. A. Whipple: The California Indians: A Source Book (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951). This volume contains nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussions by scholarly observers, historians, anthropologists, and archeologists. Heizer helps fill other gaps in this collection with an anthology formed in partnership with Allan F. Almquist: The Other Californians: Prejudice and Discrimination under Spain, Mexico, and the United States to 1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971). This study of attitudes toward Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, African Americans, and women draws heavily on documentary sources and offers generous extracts from contemporary accounts of historical attitudes.

Although somewhat under-represented in this collection, white women fare better than non-European ethnic groups. The works presented here include the letters home written by the female Gold Rush pioneer Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, who saw her correspondence from California published and read widely in the 1850s; and the works of post-1860 female travel writers and activists on behalf of native peoples and the environment, like Helen Hunt Jackson and Mary Hunter Austin. In later years, women like Luzena Stanley Wilson had their day in print as their descendants uncovered their diaries or handwritten memoirs and made them available to the public. Readers can supplement the women's books in this collection with Christiane Fischer's edition of Let them speak for Themselves: Women in the American West, 1849-1900 (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1977), which offers extracts from books not included in this collection and transcriptions of unpublished manuscript letters and diaries.