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.
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:
The Freedom to Marry Oral History Project
In the historically swift span of roughly twenty years, support for the freedom to marry for same-sex couples went from an idea a small portion of Americans agreed with to a cause supported by virtually all segments of the population. In 1996, when Gallup conducted its first poll on the question, a seemingly insurmountable 68% of Americans opposed the extension of marriage rights. In a historic reversal, fewer than twenty years later several polls found that over 60% of Americans had come to support the freedom to marry nationwide. The rapid increase in support mirrored the progress in securing the right to marry coast to coast. Before 2004, no state issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples. By spring 2015, thirty-seven states affirmed the freedom to marry for same-sex couples, with a number of states extending marriage through votes in state legislatures or at the ballot box. The discriminatory federal Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996, denied legally married same-sex couples the federal protections and responsibilities afforded married different-sex couples—a double-standard corrected when a core portion of the act was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 in United States v. Windsor. The full national resolution came in June 2015 when, in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution’s guarantee of the fundamental right to marry applies equally to same-sex couples.
The Oral History Center is thrilled to release to the public the first major oral history project documenting the vast shift in public opinion about marriage, the consequential reconsideration of our nation’s laws governing marriage, and the actions of individuals and organizations largely responsible for these changes. The Freedom to Marry Oral History Project produced 23 interviews totaling nearly 100 hours of recordings. Interviewees include: Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry; Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights; James Esseks, director of the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV project; and Thalia Zepatos, the movement’s “message guru” who worked at Freedom to Marry as director of research and messaging. Read on for video clips of the interviews and links to complete interview transcripts.
At the center of the effort to change hearts and minds, prevail in the courts and legislatures, win at the ballot, and win at the Supreme Court was Freedom to Marry, the national campaign launched by Harvard-trained attorney Evan Wolfson in 2003. Freedom to Marry’s national strategy focused from the beginning on setting the stage for a nationwide victory at the Supreme Court. Working with national and state organizations and allied individuals and organizations, Freedom to Marry succeeded in building a critical mass of states where same-sex couples could marry and a critical mass of public support in favor of the freedom to marry. This oral history project focuses on the pivotal role played by Freedom to Marry and their closest state and national organizational partners, as they drove the winning strategy and inspired, grew, and leveraged the work of a multitudinous movement.
Freedom to Marry Oral History Project Interview Transcripts:
Amy Mello, “Amy Mello and Field Organizing in Freedom to Marry.” (forthcoming)
Marc Solomon, “Marc Solomon on Politics and Political Organizing in the Freedom to Marry Movement.” (forthcoming)
Treasures from legendary professor Leon Litwack’s African American history and culture book collection are on display through February in the Bancroft Library Gallery. Browsing “The Gift to Sing” exhibit offers viewers a chance to revisit milestones in the long journey of African Americans in this country towards full equality, freedom, and cultural expression.
Slave narratives and autobiography, drawings and photography, collections of spirituals, newspapers, novels and poetry, historical and sociological works — all with rich significance outlined in curator David Faulds’ captions — are among the works included.
Litwack’s collection, most of which will come to the Bancroft as a bequest, originated in his teenage years in Santa Barbara in the 1940s, when the young Leon haunted a used bookstore called the Book Den. Langston Hughes volumes purchased then for a dollar or two are on display in the exhibit.
Over six decades of continued collecting later — informed by his celebrated scholarship in African American history and culture — Litwack’s library is considered one of the best in private hands.
On display in the Bancroft exhibit are Harlem Renaissance first editions in strikingly illustrated dust jackets; Bobby Seale’s copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which Litwack had the good fortune to pick up for $5 at Moe’s Bookstore near campus; a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave inscribed by famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; and Ida B. Wells’ rare and important pamphlet on lynching, The Red Record.
Exhibit visitors can also see the first book by an African American, Phyllis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was published in 1773. This edition is one of the treasures from the Bancroft’s current collection which are also exhibited in “The Gift to Sing.”
The exhibit is organized in seven sections including the arts; California, society; literature and history, modern and early 20th century; slave narratives; and racial uplift (1890-1910).
The oldest book in the exhibition dates from 1744 and reports on the execution of thirty blacks and four whites for their role in the Conspiracy of 1741, a supposed insurrection by slaves and poor whites. Like the Salem witch trials, this event is now seen by some scholars as a case of mass hysteria, in which a number of acts of arson were attributed to a criminal conspiracy.
A 1919 history of African Americans in California took shape through research at the Bancroft itself. Author Delilah Beasley spent many years in Bancroft poring over California and black newspapers and archives to research her book.
Less well-known materials are displayed alongside famous items such as the most popular novel of the 19th century — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 1852 anti-slavery classic by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved.
The range and depth of the collection reflects Litwack’s lifelong quest to uncover and to teach the history of race relations in America and the experiences of people long absent from the historical narrative. He has authored four major books and countless articles, and has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
Litwack retired from Berkeley in 2007 after forty-three years. His final lecture on America’s racial divide was entitled “Fight the Power.”
Litwack has long been a passionate advocate for the importance of the Library, an advocacy which dates back to his undergraduate years at Berkeley, starting in 1948. “What I coveted more than anything else was a job in the UC Library,” he said. “And I was fortunate enough to get one . . . That was just fabulous.”
“The Gift to Sing: Highlights of the Leon F. Litwack and Bancroft Library African American Collections” is on display in the Bancroft Library Gallery through February 17, 2017, from 10 am to 4 pm.
The next Bancroft Library Roundtable will take place in the Lewis-Latimer Room of The Faculty Club at noon on Thursday, November 17. Ferd Leimkuhler, professor emeritus, Purdue University, will present “The Ingenuity of Lillian Gilbreth.”
In 2004 the U. S. Academy of Engineering published its vision of engineering in the new century and concluded that the engineer of 2020 will aspire to have the ingenuity of Lillian Gilbreth, the problem-solving capabilities of Gordon Moore, the scientific insight of Albert Einstein, the creativity of Pablo Picasso, the determination of the Wright brothers, the leadership capabilities of Bill Gates, the conscience of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. The leading person in this distinguished list is UC Berkeley alumna Lillian Moller Gilbreth (Bachelor of Letters, 1900; Master of Letters, 1902; honorary doctorate, 1933, and Outstanding Alumna, 1954). This talk will discuss her ingenuity and the need to remember her bravery in a man’s world.
We hope to see you there.
José Adrián Barragán-Álvarez and Kathi Neal
Bancroft Library Staff
The Library attempts to offer programs in accessible, barrier-free settings. If you require disability-related accommodations, please contact The Bancroft Library at (510) 642-3781 — ideally at least two weeks prior to the event.
The next Bancroft Roundtable will take place in the Lewis-Latimer Room of The Faculty Club at noon on Thursday, October 20. Michael Helquist, public historian, will present “Whose Story Gets Told? Constructing a Biography When Sources Seem Too Limited.”
Public historian Michael Helquist argues that we lose an essential part of our history and a deeper sense of who we are by not knowing the life stories of marginalized people. He includes in that group women, racial minorities, working class and poor people, immigrants, political radicals, and LGBTQ people. His talk will feature an early woman physician and political radical, Marie Equi, who is little known, although she was one of the most prominent activists on the West Coast in the WWI era, a heroine after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and one of the first publicly known lesbians on the West Coast. Mr. Helquist will consider why her full story had not been told and will recount his discovery of troves of primary sources. He will present images of Dr. Equi and her life, from working in a textile mill to doing time in San Quentin. His biography, Marie Equi: Radical Politics and Outlaw Passions, published by Oregon State University Press in 2015, was named a 2016 Stonewall Honor Book for Nonfiction by the American Library Association.
We hope to see you there.
José Adrián Barragán-Álvarez and Kathi Neal
Bancroft Library Staff
The Library attempts to offer programs in accessible, barrier-free settings. If you require disability-related accommodations, please contact The Bancroft Library at (510) 642-3781 — ideally at least two weeks prior to the event.
In September, Charles Faulhaber, former director of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, was elected to join 100 scholars and researchers as a foreign corresponding member of the Royal Spanish Academy, or Real Academia Española. Below are excerpts from a Q & A with Faulhaber.
1. What is it that fascinates you most about your work with medieval Spanish literature? How does it fit into the overall arc of your life as a scholar?
It’s the thrill of the hunt. I never know what I am going to find when I sit down in a library and ask to see a manuscript. I may find a text that is utterly unknown. I may find a manuscript of a text previously known only in printed form. When I look at a manuscript I am not looking for anything in particular. What I find is due to pure serendipity.
And I think that serendipity and chance have played major roles in my life as a scholar. It was pure chance that led me to spend junior year in Spain. It was pure chance that the first class I took in graduate school at Yale was on medieval Spanish literature. It was pure chance that one of my professors at the University of Wisconsin would become the director of the Hispanic Society of America and later ask me to catalog its medieval manuscripts.
2. After your busy and productive years as Director of the Bancroft Library, what are you relishing about retirement? What do you miss most about serving as Bancroft Director?
Retirement has given me the opportunity to concentrate on PhiloBiblon (a bio-bibliographical database of medieval texts from the Iberian Peninsula) with the kind of intensity that was simply not possible before. And, of course, it has made it possible to travel much more frequently, both for research trips to Spain and for pleasure, like my and my wife Jamy’s current trip to Greece.
What I miss most from Bancroft are the people, both inside and outside of the library. I still see most of my former Bancroft colleagues since I take a regular turn on the Reference Desk as a volunteer, but I do not see nearly as many of the Friends of the Bancroft Library as I would like.
3. Tell us about the work that earned you the honor of election to the Royal Spanish Academy.
Embarrassing as it is to admit it, part of this is sheer longevity. I have been studying medieval Spanish literature seriously for almost fifty years. I started out by examining the influence of Classical Latin rhetoric on medieval Spanish literature, but I became increasingly aware that my work was partial and incomplete because many important texts existed only as manuscripts that had never even been described, let alone transcribed. In order to study the literature you must first define the corpus.
I did not become fully aware of this until I was invited to catalog the medieval manuscripts of the Hispanic Society of America in 1978. The HSA, in New York, is the largest Spanish library outside of Spain. As a result of that work I was invited to take over the Bibliography of Old Spanish Texts, originally an in-house database of incunabula and pre-1500 manuscripts to provide lexical material for the Dictionary of the Old Spanish Language at the University of Wisconsin. That was in 1981. Since then I have been joined by a group of scholars whose collective efforts have created the PhiloBiblon database for the study of the primary sources of the medieval Iberian literatures — Spanish, Catalan, Galician, and Portuguese — and the individuals and institutions that created and disseminated them. PhiloBiblon currently has over 340,000 entries and has spurred a renewed interest in textual and manuscript studies.
4. What new or new-ish digital tools and resources in your field have opened up research possibilities that didn’t exist before? (And, are there any you’d like to see?)
For decades what used to be called “humanities computing” was practiced by a handful of scholars, but for most humanists the computer was simply a glorified typewriter. What changed it into the Digital Humanities was the explosion of digital resources, starting in the 1990s. The Berkeley Library played a pioneering role in this process under the leadership of former Berkeley librarians Daniel Pitti and Bernie Hurley. I became involved in it almost as soon as I came to Bancroft in 1995, with the Digital Scriptorium project to digitize medieval manuscripts.
However, my sense is that to date Digital Humanities is still more about potential than achievement. It is very difficult to point to a DH project and say, “This has really revolutionized our understanding of Cervantes or Shakespeare.” But DH is in its infancy. Of what use is a new-born baby?
In 1991 I gave a paper at a conference on medieval Spanish literature on desiderata for its study, focusing primarily on digital tools and databases. In 2011 I gave a retrospective paper on the same theme at a conference in Barcelona. Not one of the tools I envisioned 20 years earlier had been created. Why not? Principally lack of money. Humanities scholarship simply does not receive the same level of funding, by several orders of magnitude, as scientific research.
I’m sharing this announcement of Bancroft’s new exhibit:
The Bancroft Library just opened its fall/winter exhibition, The Gift to Sing: Highlights of the Leon F. Litwack & Bancroft Library African American Collections. Leon Litwack is a historian and legendary professor who taught here from 1964 to 2007. He won the Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Award for his 1979 book Been In the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. He has been collecting books relating to African American history and culture since the 1940s and his collection is now perhaps the best in private hands. Ultimately, it will be coming to The Bancroft Library but highlights, along with related material from Bancroft’s collection, will be on display until February.
Highlights from Professor Litwack’s collection include Bobby Seale’s copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a copy of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave inscribed by William Lloyd Garrison and Ida B. Wells’ incredibly rare and important pamphlet on lynching, The Red Record.
Bancroft highlights include the first printing of Phillis Wheatley’s collection of poems from 1773 and early works printed in California.
The Bancroft Library Gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 10-4.
Curator of Rare Books and Literary Manuscripts
by Louisa R. Brandt, an undergraduate student at UC Davis who spent her Summer 2015 break processing manuscripts at The Bancroft Library (originally posted to the “What’s New” blog on 2016/04/20)
Gold Rush-era letters, and others like them, are open for research at The Bancroft Library. Visit the library to conduct your own inquiries into the experiences of Californians living through past booms and busts.
As the Eastern United States met the West in the months and years following the 1848 gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill, California’s shores and gold-filled hills became riddled with problems the eager prospectors might have thought they had left behind: racial tension, concern over rainfall, economic disparities between neighbors, overcrowding and high rent. These sound familiar, don’t they?
At The Bancroft Library, recent acquisitions of letters sent from California during this widely-studied era illuminate through the voices of young men, both optimistic and pessimistic, how they saw this “land of opportunity” and tried to explain it to their relatives and friends back home. Although many of the letter writers in this collection are not famous, and some even unidentified, the aggregate of their experiences and descriptions paint an honest likeness of this not-so-foreign past.
The influx of prospective miners into California after January 1848 brought the racist stereotypes regarding the native population already common in the East to the forefront of western social interaction. Common claims of the day deriding the character of the Indians are seen in the December 25, 1852 letter by Abram Lanphear to his brother in New York as he calls the native population a “poor indolent lazy set of mortals” (BANC MSS 2015/12). Similar ideas drove the state military’s pursuit of revenge for the death of one sergeant during an altercation that had already left eight native people dead, as explained by Brigadier General Albert Maver Winn’s July 21, 1851 letter (BANC MSS 2015/16). Some men were not so blindly willing to believe the prejudice against Indians, and asserted that this hatred was sometimes used to cover for violence between whites. A Virginian miner in Butte County tells a friend of the “band of robbers who committed such wholesale & fiendish murders in our neighborhood” leaving victims with their “throats cut & arrows stuck all over them.” Despite the attempt to make the murders fit the Anglo perception of native warfare tactics, the author does believe that the Indians are blamed “probably falsly [sic]” (BANC MSS 2014/19). This method of exploiting the new immigrants’ fear and ingrained ideas of native people attacking was also used in San Francisco, as carpenter Christopher Toole notes that “the great trouble is with the indians but….the fault is not with indians it is with the whites” (BANC MSS 2015/19). That some people saw through efforts to make them believe in the evil of the native people mirrors today’s concerns over racial profiling.
Due to the need for water to wash gold from the gravel pulled from mines, and the fact that too much water made it impossible to reach the ore-rich hills, the amount of rain and river water was an important subject for men in the fields and in the cities. Miners writing from their claims often wished for a “wet winter” in order to have the rivers filled throughout the spring and summer months (BANC MSS 2014/12). When the rains came at an inopportune time, however, as was the case during the late winter of 1850, it created chaos as a dry February caused “such rush for the mines you never see in your life,” and the succeeding wet March sent the prospectors flooding back into cities (BANC MSS 2015/19). This dependence upon the rain is familiar to today’s Californians, who daily hear about the prolonged drought, and the possible flooding that could occur if the projected El Nino winter proves to be as strong as predicted. Even though many people do not rely solely on water for employment, the concern over water is unabated, and remains as common a topic of conversation today as it was during the Gold Rush.
Like most new careers, digging for gold held its fair share of monetary risk and depended on luck. A man identified only as “Charles” observed in 1850 that “99 out of 100” men get not a cent from mining (BANC MSS 2014/53). While some men struck it rich upon arrival, many were not so fortunate and spent months in squalid conditions. The different financial outcomes between men who dug for gold in the same areas proves just how random success was, and can be reflected in today’s business environment in which one new technology soars while a similar one fails. Frank William Bye, a miner who spent at least a decade in California’s gold fields, noted in 1852 that he “cleared over one hundred dollars per month.” This success did not allow him to forget that he was one of the few, as he follows by conceding that “hundreds of men equally as competent as myself [who] have been here all summer spend the last dollar” (BANC MSS 2014/58). An unidentified miner digging at the Yuba River in the Sacramento Valley perfectly describes how big the difference a short distance can be in his assessment of a claim located less than a mile from his where “there was a company of 20 men making 20 to $30 a day while all around there was many not making their board.” (BANC MSS 2015/3). What are now entrenched issues of economic disparity were already at play in the 1850s.
Rent and the cost of food in California are prime examples of too much demand for not enough land and supplies. Even though there were vastly fewer people in gold rush San Francisco than there are today, numerous letters marvel over the enormous sums asked for rent, which were far larger than anywhere else in the country. Architect Gordon Parker Cummings, whose contributions to California include San Francisco’s “Montgomery Block,” and Sacramento’s capitol building, complains to a friend in Pennsylvania that his two “3rd story rooms” in San Francisco rent for $900 a month, a cost that “would sound extravagant in Phill [but] it is a cheap one here” (BANC MSS 2014/35). The cost of basic foodstuffs also was drastically more expensive in California thanks especially to the difficulty of moving provisions from the port of San Francisco to the mines. In an 1853 letter to a friend, Charles Stone, a miner in Columbia, California (now a state park), notes at the beginning of the letter that flour costs $0.38 per pound, and by the end of the letter, written after a rainstorm, it was raised to $0.75 per pound (BANC MSS 2014/36).
Despite all of the unexpected hardships, California still held its charm for some newcomers who boasted of its “handsome buildings” and health benefits that were “worth all the Gold in California” (BANC MSS 2014/13; BANC MSS 2014/3). Even today, California is a beautiful place to live and generally has salubrious weather. So maybe there is more than one reason that millions continue to call it home.
– Louisa Brandt
The fourth and final Bancroft Library Roundtable of the spring semester will take place in the Lewis-Latimer Room of The Faculty Club at noon on Thursday, May 19. John Suval, Gunther Barth Fellow at The Bancroft Library and doctoral candidate in history at University of Wisconsin–Madison, will present “Dangerous Ground: Squatters, Statesmen, and the Rupture of American Democracy, 1830-1860.”
Squatters were a persistent frontier presence from the earliest days of the United States, yet these illegal settlers emerged as political and cultural lightning rods in the Jacksonian and antebellum periods. Why? This talk explores how squatters in the expanding West came to occupy a central place in U.S. political culture, territorial conquests, and conflicts leading up to the Civil War. California was a particularly violent and disruptive proving ground of squatter politics, and a primary focus of the discussion.
We hope to see you there. The talks are free and open to the public.
Bancroft Library Staff