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I’m a historian by trade – though I don’t study California history – but I don’t normally publish reviews of historical or other non-fiction here on the blog. Since the editor of such a work was kind enough to provide me with a collection of first-person accounts of life in California in the middle and late 19th Century, I thought I’d bring it to your attention here.

The collection contains seven accounts, most fairly lengthy, though the last few are relatively short. To my knowledge these memoirs have not been previously published, and are transcribed and made readily available here for the first time. The accounts are as follows:

(1) Jose del Carmen Lugo’s “Life of a Ranchero” – This is an account of the life of a wealthy rancher in the Los Angeles area from around 1813-1890. It provides some fascinating accounts of various skirmishes that took place, as well some fascinating details about daily life.
(2) Benjamin Davis Wilson’s “My Life in Early California” – Wilson was a white settler who came to California in 1833. Interestingly enough, he was also the grandfather of General George S. Patton.
(3) Alexandre Holinski’s “California Gold Rush Days: A Contemporaneous Account of a Visit to Northern California in 1851” – Provides some fascinating details on what life was like for gold miners who came to California to make their fortunes in the early 1850s.
(4) The Autobiography of Mark Lafayette Landrum – This account had some great details on life as a farmer in California in the 1870s. The author became a fairly prominent populist politician in this period, and for those interested in the history of Populism, especially in the West, this account can provide some valuable details. I have read a bit on the history of populism in the South and Midwest, but this was the first account I read of West Coast populism.
(5) The Statement of Alexander H. Todd – This is a short account that describes some of the trials and tribulations experienced by those just trying to travel around California and the Pacific Northwest.
(6) The Adventures of William T. Ballou – Another short account; this one provides some good details and life as a prospector as well as various troubles with Indians in the Pacific Northwest.
(7) The Letter of Amos Carpenter Rogers – Another short account, this one too describes the entrepreneurial efforts of a man who settled in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

The book closes with a detailed index that would seem to be especially useful for genealogists or others looking for mentions of specific individuals.

If I have any complaints about the collection, it’s that I wanted more contextualization for the primary source documents. Maybe a longer introductory essay that provides more background for the pieces and puts them in historical context. A map or two showing the relative locations of the events described in the various accounts would have also helped (yes, I know maps of California area available everywhere online, but I’d like one that specifically calls out the key locations cited in these specific accounts).

I give this one 4 stars out of 5 and recommend it to anyone interested in early California history or historians seeking published first-person accounts of the period.

Buy the book on Amazon

Review copyright 2011 J. Andrew Byers