Changing the Course of Wildfire Management in California: Highlights from the Harold Biswell Papers
The Harold H. Biswell papers are now open to researchers at the Bancroft Library. Harold H. Biswell (1905-1992) served as a faculty member in the School of Forestry from 1947 to 1973. Biswell was a researcher, teacher, and advocate of the use of prescribed burning for fire management. Prescribed burns are intentionally-set fires for purposes of forest management, fire suppression, farming, prairie restoration or greenhouse gas abatement. The Biswell papers include photographs and slides of controlled burns and survey images of California forests, chaparral, and ranches. The collection also contains articles by Biswell and others, reports, booklets, survey and research material, School of Forestry theses, and other material related to controlled burning and forest ecology.
Indigenous peoples were the first to use cultural burning for managing vegetation and wildlife habitats. “Cultural burning” refers to the Indigenous practice of intentionally setting fires in alignment with traditional belief and knowledge systems to revitalize habitats or provide a desired cultural service, such as promoting the health of vegetation and animals that provide food, clothing, ceremonial items and more. These practices were disrupted by European colonization and forced relocation of Indigenous communities from the lands they had been maintaining for centuries. In 1850, California passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which outlawed intentional burning. These bans, guided by a strategy of fire suppression, led the way for a rapid increase in destructive wildfires, as well as the inability for Indigenous people to practice traditional cultural burning practices.
Despite opposition and direct criticism, Biswell continually advocated for developing new policies for prescribed burning. Biswell staked his academic reputation on demonstrating that prescribed burns improved ecosystem health and reduced wildfire threats. The Forest Service began to examine its fire exclusion policy in the early 1970’s, and in 1978 the national policy was changed to encompass total fire management including prevention, suppression, and use. Prescribed burns are now recognized as a critical tool to reduce the severity of wildfires.
Newly-processed additions to the Sierra Club Records at The Bancroft Library are the latest highlight of an NHPRC grant-funded project to make available 13 archival collections relating to environmental movements in the Western U.S.
Happy Birthday to the Sierra Club – turning 128 years old this month
And many more! Now one of the oldest and largest conservation organizations in the world, the Sierra Club was founded on May 28, 1892 in San Francisco by John Muir to promote conservation of the natural environment through public education, legislation and citizen action. Since then, the club has achieved a number of notable victories, including establishing and protecting national forests, parks and monuments; stopping dam construction in the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Park; fighting to keep the Antiquities Act intact; and campaigning for the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and the Wilderness Act.
Fortunately, the significance of this non-profit organization’s unparalleled history of conservation was recognized early on, even before the modern environmental movement truly took off. In 1958 The Bancroft Library became the official repository for the Sierra Club. The first series of records from the organization came through Bancroft’s doors in the 1970s. Over the decades the collection has grown with periodic installments as more recent records are added to the archives. The Sierra Club collection is a significant part of what has evolved into a major collecting theme within Bancroft’s curatorial umbrella of Western Americana: environmental movements of the 20th century.
Project wrap-up: NHPRC grant makes available newly-opened environmental collections and additions to ongoing collections
The Bancroft Library is pleased to report the completion of a two-year National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant project resulting in the processing of 13 collections totaling 384.25 linear feet of records. These newly-accessible resources include the latest additions to four collections of Sierra Club records, along with nine other archival collections relating to environmental movements in the Western U.S.
The collections processed for the project — selected by Theresa Salazar, Bancroft’s Curator of Western Americana — were chosen because of high demand and their likely benefit to multiple areas of scholarship. Topics in these collections include a wide range of ecological issues related to protection and conservation of the environment via legislation and greater transparency and accountability in the wake of environmental damage. The research value of these collections is potentially wide and diverse, especially for scholars in fields such as history, environmental and forest science, natural and renewable resources, environmental and social justice, indigenous rights, human rights, animal rights and endangered species.
Archival processing of environmental collections
Processing archival collections entails intellectual and physical arrangement and description of the papers or records in a finding aid and catalog records published in library catalogs. When processing, archivists look for evidence of archival value in the materials to justify their continued preservation and storage. This is generally defined as the ongoing usefulness and significance of the materials in regards to the administrative, legal, fiscal, evidential or historical information they contain.
The processing of the Sierra Club records has proven to be especially complex. Because the organization’s records comprise a large and complex body of material, the Library determined early on that the material would be divided into more easily processed sub-collections, each of which would be further organized according to the conventional archival hierarchy of series and sub-series. These sub-collections include the general Sierra Club records, the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter and the Sierra Club California Legislative Office records, among many others.
Types of records found in the Sierra Club and other environmental collections at Bancroft may include correspondence and notes, grassroots organizing, outreach and educational campaigns, membership and promotional materials, program and subject files, reports and studies, lobbying letters, testimony, legislation and legal briefs, newsletters, clippings, maps, photographs and posters. Numerous Sierra Club oral histories, audio-visual materials and related pictorial collections can also be found at Bancroft.
Bancroft a leading repository for U.S. environmental documentation
Environmental collections are among the most frequently used materials at Bancroft. As is reflected in the material selected for the NHPRC grant, The Bancroft Library holds the records of many important environmental organizations and the papers of a range of influential environmental activists. Collections of other environmental organizations currently available for research at The Bancroft Library include the records of the Jenner Coastside Conservation Coalition, Save the Bay, Save-the-Redwoods League and Urban Habitat. Also available are the papers of environmental educators, leaders and activists such as David Brower, Newton B. Drury, Mark Evanoff, Aldo Leopold, Robert Marshall, Sylvia McLaughlin and Margaret Wentworth Owings. The Bancroft Library also holds pictorial collections pertaining to Ansel Adams and the Rainforest Action Network, and many collections of photographs showing degradation of the environment caused by deforestation and logging, wildfires, toxic substances and pollutants, floods, drought, and war.
Collection guides and further reading
Descriptions of The Bancroft Library’s archival collections can be accessed by searching Oskicat for catalog records and at the Online Archive of California for more in-depth finding aids. Selected digitized material from these collections is available via Calisphere and the UC Berkeley Digital Collection. In-person access to Bancroft’s collection material can be requested by the library’s online request service Aeon and by visiting the library’s Heller Reading Room during open hours.
Within many of the environmental movements there are overlapping figures and groups, such as Berkeley’s own David Brower who was the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club and co-founder of Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute. It is therefore advisable that researchers look for information pertaining to “related collections” and “materials cataloged separately” when consulting collection guides. Such notes are usually presented in the catalog record and among the introductory information of the finding aid for any given collection.
Finding aids for the environmental collections recently made accessible by the NHPRC grant project are linked here:
- Arizona Toxics Information records
- Earth Island Institute records
- Friends of the Earth records
- Friends of the River Foundation records
- Kenoli Oleari records of the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides
- Rainforest Action Network records
- Small Wilderness Area Preservation records
- Trustees for Conservation records
- Thomas J. Graff papers
- Sierra Club records
- Sierra Club California Legislative Office records
- Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund records
- Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter records
Previous UC Berkeley Library Update posts from the past two years delve deeper into the histories, activities and records of some of the organizations whose collections were made accessible via the NHPRC grant project. In addition to the collection descriptions found in each collection’s finding aid, these Library Update articles offer helpful overviews and are illustrated with images of noteworthy collection material.
To learn more about Arizona Toxics Information and their fight to promote transparency and the right-to-know about pollutants and toxics along the Arizona-Mexico border, go here.
For an article on Earth Island Institute’s role as a Berkeley-based incubator network for conservation groups, including the Marine Mammal Institute, follow this link.
To find out more about the Friends of the River Foundation and their river protection campaigns, including their lengthy battle to halt construction of the New Melones Dam along the Stanislaus River, read this article.
A post about the Rainforest Action Network and their international campaigns to protect forests and promote environmental justice can be accessed here.
Information about the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (renamed Earthjustice in 1997) and why “the earth needs a good lawyer” can be found in this post.
Additions to the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund Records Now Open at The Bancroft Library
A two-year grant project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to make available a range of archival collections relating to environmental movements in the West has enabled The Bancroft Library to process additions to its already significant holdings of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund records.
The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund was established in 1971 in San Francisco as a not-for-profit public interest group dedicated to litigating environmental battles for the Sierra Club and groups and individuals affiliated with the organization. The Fund works with community partners to fight for clean air and water and to protect wilderness and wildlife through litigating cases and preparing friend of the court (amicus curiae) briefs that provide information and expertise on numerous environmental issues. In 1997, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund changed its name to Earthjustice and the group continues to fight cases on environmental issues into the 21st century. The Earthjustice motto, “Because the Earth needs a good lawyer,” has been cited as one of the best non-profit taglines to clearly convey an organization’s solemn mission with emotion and humor.
The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund records additions range from 1967 to 1995 and include environmental litigation cases from more than 30 states and the District of Columbia as well as amicus briefs for numerous cases, including some for the Supreme Court of the United States. A leading repository for the documentation of U.S. environmental movements, The Bancroft Library is home to the records of many significant environmental organizations and the papers of a range of environmental activists.
The Power of Water: Friends of the River Foundation Records at The Bancroft Library
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
— John Muir (1838-1914) from My First Summer in the Sierra
On October 2, 1968, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed by Congress, creating a system of rivers throughout the country to be preserved for generations to come. For the environmental movement gaining momentum in the 1960s this was an important turning point for water protection – although the waterways deemed valuable enough to conserve did not include the Stanislaus River in Northern California, already slated for a large, new dam to be built by the Army Corp of Engineers. The impending filling of the reservoir would cause a 13 mile unimpeded stretch of the river to rise, bringing about the destruction and loss of numerous cultural resources and a highly accessible white water rafting area. Supporters of the dam argued that the New Melones Dam project would create construction jobs, increase the state’s water supply, help with flood control and generate hydroelectric power.
In 1973, a small group of individuals including Gerald “Jerry” H. Meral, Rob Caughlan, David Oke and David Kay decided to form a grassroots conservation organization called Friends of the River to gather signatures to put the Proposition 17 initiative on the ballot thereby adding the Stanislaus River to the list of protected rivers. Though the initiative was placed on the 1974 ballot in California and received significant support from river rafters, environmentalists and others who valued the river as it was, the initiative ended up failing in the election. This defeat didn’t suppress the spirit of the Friends of the River and the group was incorporated in 1975 as the Friends of the River Foundation, a non-profit membership based organization dedicated to river protection under the leadership of Mark Dubois and Jennifer Jennings.
By 1978, the New Melones Dam construction was completed and the spillway and powerhouse were in place in 1979. In May 1979, when the lake was about to be filled with water, Mark Dubois sent a four paragraph typed, signed letter to Colonel Donald M. O’Shei, the Army Corps of Engineers’ Sacramento District Engineer, warning of his impending action to attempt to halt the filling of the New Melones reservoir by hiding in the canyon and chaining himself to a rock in the river. This act of defiance by Dubois brought considerable attention to the already well publicized project and the filling of the lake was halted temporarily.
Though the New Melones reservoir was eventually filled in 1982, one of the campaign’s most influential achievements was to crack open the debate about the cost effectiveness and benefits to society of large dam projects around the globe. No other dams of this magnitude have been constructed in the United States since the completion of the New Melones Dam and the struggle to save the Stanislaus River from the construction of the New Melones Dam remains one of the greatest examples of citizen involvement in American history to stop a dam from being built. The Friends of the River Foundation continues to push for water protection legislation in California through grassroots organizing, public outreach and education.
The Friends of the River Foundation records are now open to researchers at The Bancroft Library. The processing of the Friends of the River Foundation records is part of a two-year grant project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to make available a range of archival collections relating to environmental movements in the West. A leading resource in the documentation of U.S. environmental movements, The Bancroft Library is home to the records of many significant environmental organizations and the papers of a range of environmental activists.
Additions to the Rainforest Action Network Records Now Open at The Bancroft Library
At first I thought I was fighting to save the rubber trees;
then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest.
Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.
– Chico Mendes (1944-1988)
The Bancroft Library is pleased to announce that a series of additions to the ongoing Rainforest Action Network records is now open and accessible to researchers. The processing of the Rainforest Action Network records is part of a two-year grant project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to make available a range of archival collections relating to environmental movements in the West. A leading resource in the documentation of U.S. environmental movements, The Bancroft Library is home to the records of many significant environmental organizations and the papers of a range of environmental activists.
Rainforest Action Network was founded in 1985 by Randy “Hurricane” Hayes and Mike Roselle as a San Francisco based non-profit grassroots environmental group with a mission to protect and preserve the world’s forests and defend the human rights of indigenous people and others affected by unjust land grabs and the depletion of natural resources. Rainforest Action Network’s direct action, education and marketing campaigns apply pressure to governments and corporations to halt illegal logging, manufacturing, selling and use of old growth trees and tropical forests.
The global breadth of Rainforest Action Network’s activities range from Old Growth campaigns in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest and Canada to Tropical Timber campaigns to protect forests and indigenous rights in Central and South America, Africa, Tasmania and Southeast Asia. They also include the Global Finance campaign which organized and supported civil disobedience during the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, Washington in 1999.
The Bancroft Library has been collecting Rainforest Action Network records since 2006 and the newly opened additions document the group’s campaigns primarily in the 1990s-2000s. Future additions to the records are expected.
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: This is Not a Fish Story , This is a Fish Story
What would it be like to fly halfway around the world on a non-stop flight from Newport, Oregon to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland aboard a C-17 Air Force transport plane with a small crew of environmentalists, veterinarians, and an internationally famous 21-foot long, 10,000 lb. orca “killer whale”?
Detailed answers to that question and much, much more can be found in the Earth Island Institute records, a newly processed collection now open to researchers at The Bancroft Library.
Earth Island Institute is a Berkeley based non-profit conservation group founded in 1982 by David Brower that acts as an incubator to support a global network of ecological and social justice projects working to conserve, protect and restore the environment. Born in 1912, Brower entered the University of California at Berkeley at age 16 with a plan to study entomology, but due to financial pressures had to leave school by his sophomore year.
Located in the David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley, you may have walked by or visited the LEED Platinum rated building, read the Earth Island Journal publication, or be familiar with Earth Island’s work going back to the late 1980s on the dolphin-safe tuna campaigns. Those campaigns helped to heighten awareness of dolphin by-catch mortality levels during purse seine net and drift net fishing practices for tuna fish, reform marine mammal protection laws and establish the dolphin-safe tuna labels.
One of Earth Island’s other major projects began in 1994 after the film Free Willy was released by Warner Bros. and brought worldwide attention to the plight of captive marine mammals everywhere, although especially for the orca “killer whale” known as Keiko who starred as Willy. First captured off Iceland in 1979, Keiko was owned by Reino Adventura, a theme park in Mexico City, Mexico during the film’s production. After Earth Island Institute, numerous animal welfare groups, environmentalists and children from around the world rallied to free Keiko, Reino Adventura agreed to donate him to the newly formed “Free Willy Keiko Foundation” for a program of rehabilitation at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport for eventual release back to the wild.
What happened to Keiko from then on is now in the historical record and up for research and debate. Although Keiko was released back into the wild, first into the Iceland sea pens in September 1998 and then into Iceland’s open waters, he died off the coast of Norway in December 2003 from pneumonia and possibly hunger, having lost the ability to fish for himself after being held captive so many decades. Since 1961, hundreds of killer whales, or orcas (actually a type of dolphin) have been captured and used in theme parks to entertain, and some would argue to educate, the public on the beauty and wonder of these magnificent beings.
As of 2018, there are approximately 60 captive orcas and countless dolphins and other marine mammals being held and used for entertainment at theme parks primarily in China, France, Japan, Russia, Spain and the United States. And yet, captive orcas are certainly not the only killer whales in harm’s way. As evidenced in a number of recent studies, films and news stories – orca populations in the wild are dwindling at rapid rates as declining fish stocks, marine pollution and other factors like increased shipping traffic have caused them to be at extreme risk for extinction. The time to learn about orcas, marine mammals, the greater ecosystem of our world environment and how we can improve life for all creatures of the land, air and sea is now!
The processing of the Earth Island Institute records is part of a two-year NHPRC-funded project to process a range of archival collections relating to environmental movements in the West. A leading repository in documenting U.S. environmental movements, The Bancroft Library is home to the records of many significant environmental organizations and the papers of a range of environmental activists.
Environmental Justice Grit in the Borderlands
Environmentalists make terrible neighbors, but great ancestors. – David Brower
It would be difficult not to notice a common thread of diligent, dogged persistence across the broad spectrum of environmental justice activism. This tenacity, coupled with a long view of the world and a whole lot of hard work, is what makes for some of the most successful environmental justice campaigns.
While success cannot be measured in one brief moment or win where environmental issues are concerned, each victory adds to the larger picture of global environmental awareness and health of the planet. Multiple stories of such environmental justice grit can be found in the collections at The Bancroft Library and one collection in particular is the newly opened records of Arizona Toxics Information.
Focused primarily on environmental concerns in the Arizona/Mexico border region during the 1970s through 1990s, Arizona Toxics Information was founded by conservationist Michael Gregory in 1990. The collection also includes materials collected by Gregory before Arizona Toxics Information was established when he worked with the Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter and grassroots environmental groups. Gregory had been employed by the United States Forest Service in the early 1970s and had witnessed the spraying of herbicide 2,4,5-T in national forests while he was stationed at fire outlook towers. 2,4,5-T is one of the main components of Agent Orange, which had already been banned for use in Vietnam due to its known harmful health effects and birth defects. From there, Gregory set about to research, collect information, write articles and lobby to end the practice of herbicide, pesticide and insecticide spraying in national forests and range lands.
In addition to the fight for pesticide use awareness and regulations, Arizona Toxics also ran several successful campaigns to shut down the Phelps-Dodge Corporation’s Douglas Reduction Works (copper smelter), the ENSCO hazardous waste management facility (PCB incinerator), and to improve the overall air and water quality of Arizona. As the Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Environmental Plan for the U.S.-Mexico Border Area and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were being drafted in the early 1990s, Arizona Toxics Information lobbied and organized grassroots groups on both sides of the border to share information and rally for a multitude of environmental commitments in the agreements. These commitments included providing the public the “right-to-know” about pollutants being released from factories on both sides of the United States-Mexico border, regulating maquiladoras (factories in Mexico that are generally owned and operated by foreign companies which assemble products often to be exported back to the country of that company), and developing emergency disaster plans to respond to hazardous waste accidents.
The current status of NAFTA casts some doubt on the future of these agreements. The opening of the records of Arizona Toxics Information provides timely documentation of hard-won environmental justice victories on the US-Mexico border.
The processing of the Arizona Toxics Information records is part of a two-year NHPRC-funded project to process a range of archival collections relating to environmental movements in the West. A leading repository in documenting U.S. environmental movements, The Bancroft Library is home to the records of many significant environmental organizations and the papers of a range of environmental activists.
NHPRC Supports Processing Environmental Collections at The Bancroft Library
The Bancroft Library is currently engaged in a two-year project funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission to process a range of archival collections relating to environmental movements in the West. A leading repository in documenting U.S. environmental movements, The Bancroft Library is home to the records of many significant environmental organizations and the papers of a range of environmental activists.
Among the library’s environmental holdings are the records of the Sierra Club, including correspondence of naturalist and Club founder John Muir, the records of the Save-the-Redwoods League, and the records of Save the Bay. Among the collections already made available to researchers in this current NHPRC-funded project are the records of the Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, the records of the Small Wilderness Area Preservation group, the papers of environmental lawyer Thomas J. Graff, and the records of California-based Trustees for Conservation. Collections scheduled to be processed in the next eighteen months include the records of such major environmental organizations as Friends of the River, Friends of the Earth, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Earth Island Institute.
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow? The Value in Collecting Social Movement Ephemera
While surveying the Mark Evanoff papers recently during archival processing, it soon became clear that this collection includes a particularly rich array of social movement cultural ephemera about the regional and global environmental impact of the nuclear industry in California. Social movement ephemera is produced in a variety of formats to engage, transform and promote direct action toward a dynamic social cause. The content provides a unique glimpse into a time and place in the life of a socio-political movement and so can be of particular historical importance and value in research and instruction when available.
As objects of a temporary nature, ephemera is always at risk of disappearing once its initial purpose has been served. Accordingly, it usually must be saved by a participant or observer around the time of its creation. This is the case with the Mark Evanoff papers. Evanoff worked primarily with the Abalone Alliance and Friends of the Earth during the 1970s and 1980s to oppose the development and operation of nuclear power plants in Diablo Canyon and Humboldt Bay. He wrote articles for Friends of the Earth’s “Not Man Apart” publication, planned and participated in protest actions (and was arrested twice in the Diablo Canyon blockades), mobilized activists and prepared groups for non-violent civil disobedience training and legal defense.
Evanoff also collected and disseminated educational resources about nuclear power and disarmament produced by local and global pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear groups. The Evanoff papers provide substantial evidence of the anti-nuclear movement, community organizing, direct action and social movement participation at a grassroots level during this period through the correspondence, organizing notes, meeting minutes, legal testimony, public policy clippings, and ephemera contained within the collection.
Since adapting to communication trends is crucial in the progress of social movements, the choices made regarding the information, language, graphic design, artwork, printing and distribution of ephemera produced by these groups can profoundly affect the message. With just a few images and well positioned text, effective social movement ephemera opens minds, pulls at the heart-strings, and/or gets the viewer’s blood boiling and ready for action. It acts as a useful educational and marketing outreach tool to share information, promote ideas, publicize an agenda and provide talking points about a cause. Activist ephemera also usually presents logistical details as to the who, what, when, why, where and how of community organizing, grassroots public policy lobbying, protest marches, fund raising concerts and other actions.
Ephemera is most powerful when designed with eye catching, bold, trending or symbolic imagery, visual cues and creative use of text, colors and fonts. Many flier, poster and zine designs have a cut and paste, DIY (Do-It-Yourself) quality: utilizing photographs overlaid with other compelling graphics and text, including well-known historical quotes or humorous catchphrases, and self-published at home or printed at copy stores. While some other ephemera is professionally graphic-designed and printed on finer quality papers.
Although some materials are undated and may contain questionably reliable content, requiring additional sleuthing to fact check information and find accurate dates, much cultural ephemera can provide valuable incite to researchers long after the date of creation. Social movement ephemera may also act as a jumping off point for scholarly research when used in exhibitions, publications and instruction. The visual aspects and originality of content of this sort of cultural ephemera has the ability to draw a viewer in to study a topic they otherwise may not have known or thought much about previously.
Some of the qualities that make activist ephemera unique can also become challenges when preserving a collection of archival materials. Certain items may be difficult to stabilize and store long-term in their entirety when produced on acidic paper, fabric, metal, plastic or wood; or when they are found adhered to the pages of scrapbooks or attached to handles. There may also be questions as to how best to organize and catalog ephemera materials within a large collection, so that a potential researcher will be able to readily find relevant items. To highlight the research value of the ephemera in the Evanoff papers, it has been arranged so that anti-nuclear materials are separated for the most part from power plant information and nuclear power subject and technical files, and it has been described within the finding aid in a bit more detail than usual.
After nearly 60 years of controversy since construction began on the Diablo Canyon Power Plant, PG&E announced plans for its closure in 2025. While it’s impossible to measure the effect that the activist ephemera produced by the Abalone Alliance and other anti-nuclear groups had on this result, it is easy to see the informational, evidential and aesthetic value in keeping these social movement materials for future researchers. What is important to the historians of tomorrow must be collected and saved today.
The Mark Evanoff papers are now processed and open to researchers at The Bancroft Library.
What’s In a Name? How One Bancroft Library Archivist Shed Light on a Gold Rush Era Gem
Background: Each year the Bancroft Library acquires a sizeable amount of new manuscript material. The sheer quantity of this material necessitates that the archivists who handle, process, and catalog these materials, exercise considerable judgment in balancing thorough and accurate descriptions that facilitate access with the need to make the materials available as quickly as possible. Archivists are trained to determine just the right level of description to allow for sufficient discovery. In the case of very large collections, an archivist rarely describes materials at the item-level.
But sometimes a single item merits closer examination and considerable research to render it truly accessible to the library’s researchers. One such item recently caught my attention–
The “Ship Capitol’s Log Book” is the account of a passenger aboard one of the first ships to head to California during the gold rush, arriving in San Francisco in July 1849.
At first glance, it looked like a typical gold rush era journal, with daily entries describing conditions and life aboard the ship as it made its way from Boston to San Francisco around Cape Horn. But this one stood out because it included several finely rendered pencil drawings throughout including ships, shorelines, and even an albatross at rest.
Unlike similar journals that have crossed my desk, this one came with a contemporary inscription inside the front cover identifying the ship and giving the date (and, incidentally, providing a neat title for the catalog record). The accompanying description provided by the vendor was also intriguing, noting that there was an additional inscription in a different hand: “Above this [title] is the inscription of Paul Maraspin, another passenger on the ship and the ancestor of the log’s most recent owner…. It is not clear who authored the journal.” However, upon closer examination, I determined that this might not be the case. It was clearly two initials followed by “Maraspin” but it didn’t look like either a “P” or “Paul.” I could not clearly make out the first initial, but the second one looked like an “L,” and below that a street address of “17 Court Street, Boston” and the date “Feb. 1917.”
The vendor also noted that the lettering of the captions of the drawings was in a third hand, suggesting that someone other than the author of the journal might be the source of those. Also noted was the composer of several songs recorded in the journal, B.F. Whittemore.
The clues from the vendor and my own initial assessment of the journal suggested that a bit more research might make the journal infinitely more discoverable and useful. I became intrigued by the name of the owner of the journal, and the information suggested by the vendor just didn’t seem to fit with the facts the artifact was presenting to me.
Archivists have at their disposal the same research tools many other people do…the internet and access to genealogical sites that hold various records. There is a tremendous amount of information out there that makes this kind of research much more efficient than it used to be. Of course, too much information can also be problematic and it is the skillful researcher who can quickly sort through large amounts information and surmise whether more research will yield tangible results or, lacking that, have to call the effort “good enough.”
In this particular case, I discovered information about the owner’s signature that led to the solution of numerous puzzles presented by the journal itself, including how he came into possession of it, its likely author, the identity of the illustrator, the history of the lyricist of several songs, the author of the final song in the journal, and the history of the ship and its captain, Thorndike Procter.
Because Maraspin struck me as an unusual name, my first step was a Google search on the name. This resulted in the discovery of a Maraspin Creek in Barnstable, Massachusetts. Assuming the creek was named after a prominent family in the area, the information gave me hope that I could find out more about them and explore those connections.
I switched over to Ancestry.com to do a direct search on Paul Maraspin from Barnstable, Massachusetts around the time period of 1849. Numerous records surfaced that indicated a Paul Maraspin from Barnstable had been married and had several daughters, but none of whose initials matched the inscription in the journal. But then I found an application to the Sons of the American Revolution from 1937 for Paul Maraspin that listed his wife, Mary Eliza Davis, and one child, a son, Francis Lothrop Maraspin. Paul Maraspin had this son rather late in life, at the age of 52, and some 16 years after he had sailed to California. Looking back at the inscription, I could see now that the autograph was, in fact, “F.L. Maraspin.”
I then turned to confirming that this was, indeed, the Francis Lothrop Maraspin in the application form. Back to Google, I found an article from the Cape Cod Times lauding a Francis Maraspin’s 100th birthday in 1966. Back to Ancestry.com I found another Sons of the American Revolution application from 1935, this time for a Francis Lothrop Maraspin. I could see print coming through from the backside of the page and paged forward to see it. Right at the top was the statement identifying Paul Maraspin as his father. But the real clincher was at the bottom.The application was signed by Francis Lothrop Maraspin himself with his typed address, 17 Court Street, Boston.
And from the journal again:
As you can see, the signature and address matched the inscription on the journal cover perfectly and we now knew we had our owner and could assume, with reasonable certainty, that the likely author of the journal was Francis Lothrop’s father, Paul Maraspin.
I shared these initial findings with my supervisor, Randal Brandt, who directed me to a publication that would be key to figuring out the rest of the puzzles. The Argonauts of California, published by C.W. Haskins in 1890, is an invaluable source of information about the gold seekers who came to California. The passenger lists it contains were crucial in figuring out the names of people associated with the journal. We now knew who had written the journal but who had done the drawings? And what about the composer of those numerous songs recorded in the journal? A closer examination of the drawings proved fruitful. Of the nine drawings, two of them had the initials “CCH” in the lower right hand corner.
A quick perusal of the Capitol’s passenger list turned up only one possible match, a C.C. Hosmer. Now we knew the name of the illustrator. Back to Ancestry.com again, I went hunting for more information about him and found out his full name, Chester Cooley Hosmer (1823-1879). Because Chester Cooley Hosmer is also an unusual name, on a whim I Googled it along with the word “Capitol.” The very first result was a library catalog listing in the Special Collections of the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts for Chester Cooley Hosmer’s journal documenting the same trip aboard the Capitol. Describing it as a journal “illustrated throughout with his drawings,” the catalog listing included scans of two pages with drawings. Here is one of them.
One can readily see the style of these drawings match those in the Maraspin journal. Not only did we now know our illustrator but also the location of his journal from the very same voyage.
Turning to the name listed as the songwriter, B.F. Whittemore (sometimes spelled incorrectly as “Whitmore” in passenger lists), a search turned up another interesting character. The Wikipedia entry for Benjamin Franklin Whittemore states that he went on to become a minister in the Union Army and then elected to the state legislature of South Carolina and eventually the House of Representatives.
Others identified in this process included the composer of the final song lyrics in the journal titled, “A Song Dedicated to the Officers of the Ship Capitol,” and signed “W.T. old friend.” Again, the passenger lists were the key as only one person had those initials, W.T. Hubbard.
More research on the ship and lists revealed the full name of the captain, Thorndike Procter of Salem, Massachusetts.
As might be true with any group of persons traveling so far from home for so long, there is inevitable tragedy as well as triumph. Captain Thorndike Procter committed suicide in San Francisco Bay on October 17, 1849. It was reported in the papers that the captain “had been lately subject to occasional fits of derangement, during the last of which he jumped overboard, and was drowned….” Nine weeks later, Paul Maraspin’s young “old friend,” William.T. Hubbard, just 23 years of age, also died by drowning in San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve.
The work of improving access and discoverability to our collections is at the heart of what we do as library professionals. Unknown people become known, their stories and lives become real to us, and as you read this journal now you can see the intertwining of their lives. One hundred and sixty-eight years later, two journals from the same trip are virtually reunited because of the work of archivists and catalogers separated by time and a continent. In this way, library professionals contribute to a very large cultural jigsaw puzzle that, slowly but surely, becomes ever more complete.
To see the completed catalog record for this item please use this link: