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

Conclusion: Reading California's Early History

This summary of events in California in the last half of the nineteenth century does not pretend to be a complete survey of the state's history in this period. Instead, it attempts to provide a basis for understanding the major themes of the texts included in this collection. These texts reflect the nation's contemporary changing attitude toward California, and they are a sign of what people of the day considered interesting and unusual, not discussions of themes and movements that modern historians have concluded were important and influential.

Illustration XX: Yosemite. Photograph by Carleton E. Watkins, 1860. Lot 6731. LC-USZ62-47091. #47248]

Most of the books dating from the 1840s and 1850s contain the experiences of people who went to California to live, if only for a year or two. The state was so exotic that everyday life was interesting to the outside world. After 1860, more of the published books about California contain the experiences of visitors to California or the words of promoters trying to entice Americans to buy land and settle down in the western state. Everyday life in California was becoming too familiar to be interesting, and we are denied access to later firsthand accounts of family life and business practices.

There are few examples of books trying to alert Americans to the less happy side of life in California. Some writers of the late nineteenth century like Helen Hunt Jackson might continue to protest the treatment of native peoples, but most Americans chose to ignore such protests wherever they occurred. Other authors discussed attempts of railroads and other business interests to control California's government and economy, but this was an age of trusts and monopolies. California's problems were not unique or exotic.

This is the lesson of these books and this period in California's history. By the era's end, the Chinese "Mountain of Gold," the miners' "Eldorado," the legendary land on the Pacific Ocean had become a part of the nation to which the state was admitted in 1850. The texts in this collection tell the story of that process in the words of the men and women who helped shape it.