Books for Christmas

Something they want,
Something they need,
Something to wear, 
Something to read.

I don’t recall that recommendation being around when my kids were little, but it fits my long-established philosophy of Christmas gift-giving. And as a librarian and devoted book reader myself, the last injunction was particularly important. Everybody needs a good book (or many good books) for Christmas!

So if you are shopping for books this holiday season, please consider my books as gifts for children or adults. You can find them on Amazon or at At the ANCHR website you will find a host of other titles about Northern California history. History makes great gifts!

There’s more information about where to buy and how to order my books on the My Books tab at the top of this page.

Happy holiday reading!!!

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California Emigrant Letters

Feather River, Sept. 29, 1849

Now I will tell you what we have done since we got here; we have worked eight days and have made $16,000 — we have had extremely good luck, are on the Feather River, and pretty well up at its head, about 600 miles from Sacramento City. This is no farming country . . . I would not bring a family here for any consideration, for many reasons too tedious to mention, but you will do well to leave your family and come yourself for I believe there is a fortune for everyone who will come and get it . . .

So wrote Robert and Charles Springer, forty-niners, to S.W. Springer (probably their father). The letter was printed in the St. Joseph Adventure newspaper on February 1, 1850.

Editor Walker D. Wyman collected letters that were sent home and printed in local newspapers, mainly from newspapers in Missouri. Newspaper editors were eager to print news from the goldfields, and many a letter written to parents and friends ended up being published in newspapers for all to read. California Emigrant Letters was published in 1952 — you can buy a used copy for around $10 or find it in many public libraries in California.

The book quotes from numerous letters and collects the extracts under such chapter headings as “Overland in 1849,” “Life in the Mines,” and “Law, Order, and Religion.” The letters are lively and packed with colorful detail.

What has broken loose in the States? [writes a resident of Ft. Laramie] About every five minutes during the day, a white top wagon with a pick-axe slung to its side, rolls in from the frontier, stops for a few minutes, while the driver, with the “want of gold” stamped upon his appearance, enquires for the shortest cut to California.

Not all forty-niners were as lucky as the Springer brothers, but all seem to agree that the gold was “inexhaustible,” a word that shows up over and over in the letters.

In regard to the extent and richness of the mines, there is but one opinion here, that is, that they are inexhaustible.

“M.M.” Missouri Republican, March 22, 1850

The labor attending digging is of the most unpleasant character, and well calculated to try a man’s constitution and see of what material it is composed. About the time the mines were first discovered, persons could, with but little labor, go along the margin of the river and make far more than they can now by laboring all day. The cream has been taken off, in short, yet there is an abundance, of gold here and will be for years.

Anonymous, Missouri Statesman, March 1, 1850

For the emigrant seeking advice on how to outfit himself for the overland journey, M.M. explains in his letter what kind of wagon to select (“new, or as good as new, and made of the very best timber”), how to select your team of oxen, what staples to pack (“125 pounds of bacon and 125 pounds of flour”), and how to cook beans. The letters were full of good advice to the emigrant, so that as one man wrote, they will not “be caught in the same snap I was.”

Not all the correspondents are men. A woman running a boarding house writes:

We have now been keeping house three weeks. I have ten boarders . . . We think we can make seventy-five [dollars] clear of all expenses, but I assure you I have to work mighty hard — I have to do all my own cooking by a very small fireplace, no oven, bake all my own pies and bread in a dutch oven, have one small room about 14 feet square and a little back room we use for a store room about as large as a piece of chalk.

Another woman boasts, “I have made about $18,000 worth of pies — about one third of this has been clear profit.” But it was hard work — she had to drag her own firewood off the mountains and chop it herself.

I’d love to see a fuller version of these kind of letters published anew. They are endlessly fascinating and full of the rich flavor of the Gold Rush.

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Hellacious California

What is a California prayer book? Would you drink tarantula juice? Would you go in for pedestrianism? What was the Egg War? Would you invest in a Patent Hydro Electro Magnetic Goldometer that promised to find gold and water? (Save your money.)

Find all the answers and more in this third book from California historian Gary Noy. Focusing on the vices of 19th century Californians, Hellacious California! tells “Tales of Rascality! Revelry! Dissipation! and Depravity! and the Birth of the Golden State“. If you like history that is both authentic and entertaining, this is your book.

Gary Noy digs deep into primary sources — letters, journals, memoirs, and early newspapers — to find the stories that bring the great bachelor party that was Gold Rush California to rip-snorting life. He has chapters on gambling, drinking, tobacco, dueling, entertainment, sports, and swindles. In the chapter on eating and dining he illustrates the difference between getting a meal at a stagecoach stop and dining in style at The Poodle Dog in San Francisco. Here is J. Ross Browne describing mealtime on the road:

At the first tinkle of the bell the door was burst open with a tremendous crash . . . The whole house actually tottered and trembled at the concussion, as if shaken by an earthquake. Long before the main body had assaulted the table the din of arms was heard above the general uproar; the deafening clatter of plates, knives, and forks, and the dreadful battlecry of “Waiter! Waiter! Pork and beans! Coffee! Beefsteak! Sausage! Potatoes!” . . . It was a scene of destruction and carnage long to be remembered.

If this whets your appetite, take a look at the book trailer for Hellacious California!

By the way, a California prayer book was a deck of cards. Tarantula juice, as you probably guessed, was one of the many names for liquor. Pedestrianism was the popular sport of endurance walking. The Egg War was the competition for murre eggs from the Farallone Islands. With chickens in short supply, food suppliers turned to seabird eggs.

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John Bidwell in 1850

One reason I like to write about John Bidwell is that he makes such a good lens for looking at the history of California. He was involved with many aspects of early California (politics, mining, agriculture, education), he knew everyone, he saved his letters and kept a journal. Information about Bidwell’s life is abounding, while such information can be hard to find about many other men and women.

An article by myself has just been published in The Diggin’s, the quarterly journal of the Butte County Historical Society. The genesis of the article was a short piece I wrote commemorating Bidwell’s participation in California statehood. When Congress passed and President Fillmore signed the act making California the 31st state of the Union, Bidwell was the man who brought the news and the documents to California.

sc 17336 John Bidwell photograph ca 1850

The more I looked into Bidwell’s activities in 1850, the more there was to see. He had just bought Rancho Chico and was working to establish a ranch. At the same time he was winding up his survey of Sutterville, seeking to get his land title confirmed, serving in the state senate, escorting a block of gold-bearing quartz for the Washington Monument to D.C., promoting statehood in the halls of Congress, and visiting family and friends that he hadn’t seen for nearly a decade. He seems to have done a little unsuccessful courting along the way too.

Daily Alta California September 9, 1850

In New York he had his portrait taken at Mathew Brady’s photography studio. He also had a daguerreotype done of Raphael, the Maidu boy he had brought with him as his valet.


I have written before about the ladies he escorted back to California, Mrs. Maria Crosby and her daughter Mary Helen Crosby. For years afterward Helen Crosby Hensley loved to tell the tale of her blue silk umbrella and how it helped to safely bring the statehood papers to California. For my Diggin’s article, I was able to get a photo of the famous umbrella, which is in the Sutter’s Fort archives. It looks to be in fine condition for its age.

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November 6, 1841 — The End of the Journey

Saturday, 6th. Fifteen of the Company started for a Spanish town, called the Pueblo of St. Joseph (which is situated about 40 miles from Marsh’s) to seek employment.

Members of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party didn’t waste any time sitting around at Marsh’s rancho, relaxing and recovering from their long and strenuous journey. They were made of tougher stuff than we are.

They arrived on November 4th, and on the 6th half the men set out for San Jose to look for work. The other half of the men went back to the San Joaquin Valley to hunt for game. John Bidwell decided to stay at Marsh’s for the time being, keeping an eye on the Company’s effects, and doing some local exploring.

The men who left for San Jose soon ran into trouble. They were arrested two miles from the pueblo and spent six days in the “calaboose” before they were released. Because of the “Graham Affair” of 1840, in which a few Americans fomented a rebellion against the Mexican governor, the authorities were understandably suspicious of any uninvited Americans coming into the territory.

The adobe jail at Monterey. The one at San Jose would have been similar.

The November 6th entry concludes John Bidwell’s overland day-by-day diary. It is not, however, the end of the journal. Bidwell added several pages of “Observations about the Country” detailing the vegetation, climate, and resources of California, including wages and prices. He gives his opinion about the Mexican government and outline the route to California. In conclusion he writes:

To all my acquaintances and friends who may be in bad health I would recommend a trip to California. All whom I have heard speak of the climate as regarded their health say its effects have been salutary.

And now it’s time for me to take a little salutary break from blogging, but I will be back soon with some book reviews and more explorations of life in Northern California.

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November 5, 1841 — At Marsh’s

Friday, 5th. Company remained at March’s getting information respecting the country.

And resting, one hopes. After their arduous trek, they deserve a day of recovery.

Feeling that Marsh had treated them generously by killing an ox and a hog to feed them, and even grinding some of his seed wheat to make tortillas, the members of the company repaid him by offering him what few items they had to give. Bidwell says in his 1877 Dictation:

In return for the kindness extended to us, we opened our treasures consisting of cans of [gun]powder, butcher knives, lead, and various other useful articles and made the doctor what we considered liberal presents in return. I remember one of the party presented him with a case of surgical instruments. As for money, we had little or none.

The Marsh Rancho, showing the stone house Marsh built in 1853. Painting courtesy of the John Marsh Historic Trust

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November 4, 1841 — Hurrah for California!

Thursday, 4th. Left the river in good season and departing gradually from its timber came into large marshes of bulrushes. We saw large herds of elk and wild horses grazing upon the plain. The earth was in many places strongly impregnated with salt — came into hills. Here were a few scattering oaks — land appeared various, in some places black, some light clay color, and in other mulatto (between black and white) sometimes inclining to a red soil, but all parched with heat.

Finally we arrived at Marsh’s house, which is built of unburnt bricks, small and has no fireplace — wanting a floor and covered with bulrushes. In fact it was not what I expected to find; a hog was killed for the company. We had nothing else but beef; the latter was used as bread, the former as meat. Therefore I will say we had bread and meat for dinner. Several of our company were old acquaintances of Marsh in Missouri, and therefore much time was passed in talking about old times, the incidents of our late Journey, and our future prospects.

All encamped about the house — tolerably well pleased with the appearance of Dr. Marsh, but much disappointed with regard to his situation, for among all his shrubby white oaks, there was not one tall enough to make a rail-cut. No other timber in sight, excepting a few cottonwoods and willows.

After the skimpy rations of the past few months, the men hungered for fat meat, and the pork was welcome, even if it came in a beef and pork “sandwich.” Bidwell might have been hoping for bread too. But he had no complaints about the food Marsh gave them that first night.

You can tell from this entry that Bidwell is very interested in the potential of the land for farming — the quality of the soil, the lack of rain, the availability of timber.

Considering the glowing reports of California that Marsh had sent back east, Bidwell was surprised at the primitive conditions he was living in. A small adobe house with a dirt floor and no fireplace -– hardly what Bidwell had envisioned. He was accustomed to cooking over a fireplace indoors, but in California the cooking was generally done outside in the courtyard.

Marsh’s adobe might have looked like this, without the chimney. Reading Adobe, courtesy of Special Collections, CSU Chico.

“Cheyenne” Dawson contributed a vivid account:

So we had reached California — the first truly distinctive American emigrant train to do so. . . . We had expected to find civilization — with big fields, fine houses, churches, schools, etc. Instead, we found houses resembling unburnt brick kilns, with no floors, no chimneys, and with the openings for doors and windows closed by shutters, instead of glass. There were no fields or fencing in sight — only a strong lot made of logs, called a corral. Cattle and horses were grazing everywhere, but we soon found that there was nothing to eat but poor beef.

Marsh was very kind and asked us what we craved most. We told him something fat. He had a fat hog. This he killed for us, and divided it among the messes. He also had a small quantity of seed wheat that he was saving to plant. A part of this he had made into tortillas for us.

He told us that if we wished we could sleep in the house. This novel experience some of us tried, but we were much disturbed by fleas, and sick-stomached men crawling over us to get out. They had eaten too much pork.

Below is a map of John Marsh’s Rancho. The adobe is at the bottom, by the creek. Take out the big house in the center, the barns, and the garden to get an idea of what Marsh’s home looked like in 1841.

Map courtesy of the John Marsh Historic Trust

The journey was over, but the adventure would continue. John Bidwell was now embarking on a new life, the life of a Californian. He would spend the next 59 years in his new home state.

Two more brief entries will conclude the journal.

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November 3, 1841 — Almost There

Wednesday, 3d. We waited till Capt. B. came up, and all started for Marsh’s about noon; arrived at the St. Joaquin and crossed it — distance 13 miles — found an abundance of grass here. The timber was white oak, several kinds of evergreen oaks, and willow — the river about 100 yds. in width.

Now it is just a matter of continuing across the valley and the Coast Range for a few more miles. “Cheyenne” Dawson recalled:

The next morning, under the guidance of Jones and the Indian, we left the river we had been following [the Stanislaus], struck northwest, crossed the San Joaquin river, and camped on the further side.

They probably crossed the river about five miles west of Tracy. Then the next day they can continue northwest towards Mt. Diablo until they reach March’s rancho.

Mt. Diablo from the east. Photo by Jim Leek
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November 2, 1841 — “Great Joy and Gladness”

Tuesday, 2nd.  Capt. B. with his 7 remained to take care of the meat he had killed — while the rest of the Company went on. We passed some beautiful grapes, sweet and pleasant.  The land decreased in fertility as we descended the stream.

Behold! This morning Jones, who left the camp to hunt on the 23rd ult. came to the camp. They (he and Kelsey) had arrived in the plains several days before us, and found an Indian, who conducted them to Marsh’s house, but he brought bad news; he said there had been no rain in California for 18 months, and the the consequence was, there was little breadstuff in the country. Beef, however, was abundant and of the best quality.

Thomas Jones and Andrew Kelsey (younger brother of Benjamin Kelsey) had gone on ahead to hunt for meat on October 23rd. Now they have reappeared with the exciting news that they had been lead by an Indian to the ranch of Dr. John Marsh.

“Cheyenne” Dawson recalled the same encounter:

We were traveling along, pretty comfortable on the whole, but casting glances of anxiety towards the mountains ahead, when we saw two men approaching transversely to our route. So rare a sight greatly excited our curiosity, and we stopped and waited. As they drew near, someone said, “Why, one of them looks like Jones! “No, it can’t be.” But it was Jones, and an Indian, come to find us and pilot us in, if found alive, to Marsh’s ranch.

Jones’ story was short. After getting lost from us he had struck westward, had killed with a rock a rabbit, and had subsisted on this until found by some Indians who took him to Marsh’s ranch. He had straightway put back, with an Indian guide, to find his comrades. Jones had some provisions, too. We all felt like hugging Jones. We didn’t, but those provisions! We must see them. So we camped right there and ate them.

Finding out about Marsh was good news indeed, for Marsh was the man who had set the movement in motion. His letters to Missouri, read by Bidwell and many others, had painted a glowing picture of California life and enticed them across half a continent.

As Bidwell said in the 1877 Dictation: “This settled the question that we had actually arrived in California, and were not far from San Francisco Bay. It was an occasion of great joy and gladness.”

John Marsh in 1852

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November 1, 1841 — “A Striking Contrast”

November, Monday 1st. The Company tarried to kill game; an abundance of wild fowl and 13 deer and antelopes were bro’t in. My breakfast, this morning, formed a striking contrast with that of yesterday which was the lights of a wolf.

“The lights of a wolf” being the lungs of a coyote.

Nancy Kelsey was not only walking barefoot and carrying her toddler, Baby Ann, but was also about six months pregnant. She collapsed in exhaustion when they reached the valley. She stated:

At one place I was so weak I could hardly stand, and I lay on the ground while Mr. Kelsey went out and killed a deer. We were then near Marsh’s ranch.

Bidwell tells it this way in his 1877 Dictation:

The eve of the next day found us surrounded by abundance; thirteen deer and antelope had been brought in. It was about the first of November, and there was no time to delay if we were going to reach California that fall. Most of the party were ready and anxious to press forward. Captain Bartleson and his men thought otherwise. They said we hadn’t yet reached California, we probably still had a long distance to travel, that such a place as we were in could not be found everywhere and they were going to stop and lay in meat for the balance of the journey.

Leaving them in camp and crossing the Stanislaus River, we proceeded down the north side of the same and camped. Early the next day the news came that the Indians in the night had attacked them and stolen all their horse. We remained till they came up, carrying on their backs such things as they were able.

John Bidwell never did get on with John Bartleson, and there is a note of satisfaction here that once again, Bartleson was wrong and got what he deserved.

The Stanislaus River

It seems strange that they still don’t know that they are in California, but all will be resolved tomorrow.

California mule deer
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