“California as I Saw It”: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900 documents the formative era of the state of California. Eyewitness accounts record the turbulent history of the pioneer experience and the Gold Rush. It includes complete works by Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Tecumseh Sherman, as well as a rich array of journals, diaries, and letters illustrating everyday life of the period. The descriptions of the development of urban centers such as San Francisco and Los Angeles are also a highlight of this collection.
These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.
These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.
- The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
- Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
- Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930
Related Collections and Exhibits
- American Life Histories, 1936-1940
- California Gold: Folk Music from the Thirties
- Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920
- Great Earthquake and Fire: San Francisco, 1897-1916
- Panoramic Maps, 1847-1929
- Touring Turn-of-the-Century America, 1890-1920
- Words and Deeds in American History
Recommended additional sources of information.
- Further Reading About California's Early Years - Bibliography
Specific guidance for searching this collection.
To find items in this collection, search by Keyword or browse by Author or Title listings. You can Search the "Descriptive Information" about the items (bibliographic records), or the "Full Text" of the materials.
There is no searchable index of the illustrations which are embedded in the texts of California as I Saw It. One way to look for illustrations is within the Book Navigator, which is the online table of contents for each item.You can access the Book Navigator by clicking on the "full text of the document" link on the bibliographic record for the item. If the book contains engravings or illustrations, they will most likely be listed in a separate section. You may also choose to do a full text search which includes the search terms illustration or captions in its scope, but the yield of hits will be very large.
The California as I Saw It collection covers the history of California in the pivotal years of 1849 to 1900 during the exploration, settlement, and eventual statehood of the territory. The collection can be used to explore key history content such as westward expansion, the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and immigration/migration.
1) In the mid 1800s, pioneers from different parts of the United States migrated to the California territory, which was already populated with Native Americans and peoples from Spain and Mexico. Most traveled the overland route through the plains and across the Rockies, and recorded the details of their journey. The collection contains diaries, letters, and recollections of these travelers who wrote about the hardships they faced and the natural beauty of the landscape through which they rode.
General John Bidwell, traveling from Kansas City to California, described an evening on the plains during his crossing:
I think I can truly say that I saw in that region in one day more buffaloes than I have seen of cattle in all my life. I have seen the plain black with them for several days' journey as far as the eye could reach. They seemed to be coming northward continually from the distant plains to the Platte to get water, and would plunge in and swim across by thousands--so numerous were they that they changed not only the color of the water, but its taste, until it was unfit to drink; but we had to use it. One night when we were encamped on the South Fork of the Platte they came in such droves that we had to sit up and fire guns and make what fires we could to keep them from running over us and trampling us into the dust.
Addresses, Reminiscences, etc. of General John Bidwell, A Journey to California, p. 21
Search on overland journey, travel, and pioneer to read the accounts of many different people taking the risk to venture west.
2) Many diaries and accounts in the collection contain rich details of the Mexican-American War. Students can trace the history of the battle through these first-person narratives.
Search on war with Mexico and military to find excerpts such as this:
SATURDAY, AUG. 1. The Congress has sailed today, with all her marines and full complement of men, for San Pedro. Com. Stockton intends to land there with a force of some three hundred, march to the Pueblo de los Angeles, capture that important place, and fall upon Gen. Castro, who, it is now understood, has posted himself with some eight hundred soldiers, in a pass a few miles below. The general will find his southern retreat cut off by Col. Fremont's riflemen and the sailors of the Cyane, his western route obstructed by the Colorado, while the forces of the Congress will bear down upon him from the north. He has seemingly no escape, and must fight or capitulate.
Rev. Walter Colton, Three Years in California [1846-1849], Chapter I, p.20
3) When a nugget of gold was pulled from a stream on Mr. Sutter's property in the California territory in 1848, the word spread rapidly through the region and across the nation. Thousands of people, from the United States and around the world, came to California. This massive influx of people came to be known as the Gold Rush. The collection contains many colorful tales of the mining camps. For example, search on miners for text such as this:
Leaving all thoughts of gold digging and its prospects, is a curious sight to look around at the end of the day and watch the different pursuits of the miners. As soon as evening closes, all commence straggling back from the golshes, at which they have been working during the day. Leaving their picks in the holes, they carefully bring back the pans, for the wash bowl is a valuable article, serving more uses than one; the least of which is the share it occupies in the preparation of the different meals. It is no uncommon thing to see the same pan used for washing gold, washing clothes, mixing flour cakes, and feeding the mule.
Leonard Kip, California Sketches, with Recollections of the Gold Mines, Chapter VI, p. 35
Students can also find tales of the hardships miners faced:
...we had over nine pounds of gold dust in our pan. But it was the hardest work I had ever done. My back ached, my feet were wet and cold and my hands were numb. I realized then, that, while there was plenty of gold in the ground, it could not be picked up with ease. Hard labor and often poor results to many, with lucky finds to the few, I could then look into the future and see. A pang of pity passed through my mind as I thought of the many physically weak men I had seen rushing through Sacramento to the mines and of the many I had seen on my tramp to Columbia and journey to Jackson, who were totally unfit to cope with the conditions of hard work, exposure and privation it required to mine in the placers for gold.
The Autobiography of Charles Peters, Preface, p. 11
Search on mines and minerals and gold discoveries to find more examples of the mining life.
4) Marshall's discovery of gold set the world ablaze. Ships from every port in the world poured their living flood upon the golden shore of California. At one time more than a thousand ships rode at anchor in our grand bay. Very few could get away, owing to the crews' leaving for the `diggins.'
Henry Hiram Ellis, From the Kennebec to California; reminiscences of a California pioneer, Chapter IV, p. 43
The possibility of wealth from gold enticed people from all over the world to make the hazardous journey to California. Some came only for a short time and then returned to their homeland, but many settled in the new state and became citizens.
Within the collection are references to various immigrants coming to seek their fortune. For example:
Troops of newly arrived Frenchmen marched along, en route for the mines, staggering under their equipment of knapsacks, shovels, picks, tin wash-bowls, pistols, knives, swords, and double-barrel guns--their blankets slung over their shoulders, and their persons hung around with tin cups, frying-pans, coffee-pots, and other culinary utensils, with perhaps a hatchet and a spare pair of boots. Crowds of Chinamen were also to be seen, bound for the diggings, under gigantic basket-hats, each man with a bamboo laid across his shoulder, from both ends of which were suspended a higgledy-piggledy collection of mining tools... .
J.D. Borthwick, Three Years in California [1851-54], Chapter III, p.54
For more text describing the variety of people settling in the new state, search on ethnic groups or on specific groups of immigrants, such as chinese, german, and french.
By studying the life narratives and journals in the collection, students can construct sequences of events within individual's lives. Comparing these writings, students can then understand the larger picture of the history of the state and the development of the cities within it.
1) Nearly all the narratives in the collection are "remembrances" of some kind, and, therefore, span a specific amount of time -- from a few months to 75 years. Students can explore a timeline within a life narrative or can compare narratives on the same subject written in different eras.
Search on memoirs and narratives for writings in the collection which illustrate lives over time.
2) The collection is filled with materials that recount the relatively quick sequence of events of California's movement from a "foreign" territory to a U.S. territory to a state. For example, students can compare these two texts to understand the rapid growth of the small town first known as Yerba Buena into the bustling city of San Francisco:
 This tent was the first habitation ever erected in Yerba Buena. At the time, Richardson's only neighbors were bears, coyotes and wolves. The nearest people lived either at the Presidio or at Mission Dolores. The family lived under that tent about three months, after which Richardson constructed a small wooden house, and later a large one of adobe on what is now Dupont (Grant Avenue) near the corner of Clay Street.
William Heath Davis, Seventy-five Years in California, Chapter III, p. 12
PIOCHE BAYERQUE had their store on the north side of Clay street, just below Kearny. Davidson's bank was just below them. Then came Bennett Kirby's store; William Hobourg was a partner in their house. Bagley Sinton were adjoining. Cross, Hobson Co. were opposite. The Adelphi Theater was about half way between Kearny and Montgomery streets, on the south side of Clay, and was used for theatrical performances, concerts, balls, etc. W. H. Lyon kept the bar of the theater.
T.A. Barry and B.A. Patten, Men and Memories of San Francisco, in the "Spring of '50", Chapter III, p. 35
Search on San Francisco history for more documentation of the rapid growth of this city during the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Students can investigate the travel narratives in the collection for their compelling expressions of human thought and emotion in the face of hardship, hope, danger and separation. These personal records also provide straightforward glimpses of the daily life and material culture of the period. Search on frontier and pioneer life to find writings which illustrate the lives of those who made the crossing. For instance:
The traveler who flies across the continent in palace cars, skirting occasionally the old emigrant road, may think that he realizes the trials of such a journey. Nothing but actual experience will give one an idea of the plodding, unvarying monotony, the vexations, the exhaustive energy, the throbs of hope, the depths of despair, through which we lived. Day after day, week after week, we went through the same weary routine of breaking camp at daybreak, yoking the oxen, cooking our meagre rations over a fire of sage-brush and scrub-oak; packing up again, coffeepot and camp-kettle; washing our scanty wardrobe in the little streams we crossed; striking camp again at sunset, or later if wood and water were scarce.
Luzena Stanley Wilson, '49er; Memories Recalled Years Later for Her Daughter Correnah Wilson Wright, Chapter I, p. 3
Historical Analysis and Interpretation
Students will find a wealth of materials that will prove useful in the historical analysis of the period. With so many items covering the same time and place, the collection is well suited for comparitive consideration of different journals, diaries, and books. Students can choose any number of topics to compare and contrast, such as early settlement of the state, success or failure in the Gold Rush, or overland travel from the point of view of women as compared to men.
For example, students might compare the experiences of people making a living in very different ways. By searching on occupations such as farmer and missionary, they can find texts such as:
We always had chickens on our farm, not penned up as they are now on chicken ranches, but free to wander, except inside the picket-fence that surrounded the house and flower garden. Coops of fryers were taken to market in the spring, and many dozen eggs were sold through the year. When Mother made more butter than was consumed at home, the surplus was taken to market. There were no creameries to furnish butter, as there are today.
Lilian A. Cross, Appreciation of Loved Ones Who Made Life Rich for Many, Chapter XV, p. 54
Saturday was spent, as usual, in visiting members of the congregation, and particularly one young man who was lying at the hotel, in the last stage of consumption. ...There is something indeed dreadful in thus dying, away from home, without a friend or relative to stand by the bed-side--to feel the longing for "old familiar faces" in that last hour of nature's feebleness, as, in this case, where, resigned to all that should befall him in the coming world, the sick boy declared his only regret to be that he could not see his family. And yet, how many die in this way in California--without even a friend to close their eyes,--abandoned to servants--or more frequently, in the interior, without any attendance at all. How many thousands, for whom friends at home are anxiously looking, have died without leaving even the record of a name behind them, and now are lying in nameless graves on the hill-sides or river banks!
Rev. William Ingraham Kip, The Early Days of My Episcopate, Chapter XII, p. 113
Historical Research Capabilities
The array of different types of materials in the collection allows students to compare and question the credibility and authority of the writings, as well as analyze the nature of its historical data. Who was writing the piece, and what was the intent? For example, by searching on letter students can find this excerpt from this series of letters which were printed in a newspaper:
As I look up from my paper I see, from my open door, this falling water, thirty feet wide, falling down 2,600 feet, and hear the roaring as the water leaps down, simulating an avalanche of snowy rockets that seem to be chasing and trying to overtake one another. Of it all I can say, it is simply indescribable. Just a word about the valley as a whole. Yo Semite, an Indian word meaning large grizzly bear, is a granite-walled chasm in the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, 150 miles from San Francisco, seven miles in length by half a mile to a mile in width, and bounded by frowning cliffs.
Loraine Immen, Letters of Travel in California, At Yosemite Point, p. 31
By searching on tourist, students will find this book which was written as a tour guide for visitors to the state. How does it compare with the excerpt from above?
FIRST, purchase your tickets of parties most popular in business. The railroad company are reliable and responsible, and as they run nearly everything in this State, must have a share in the pecuniary interests of the Yosemite. In getting your ticket have a fair understanding placed in writing; for if one fails to mention the fact that guides are to be furnished, extra charges will be made in the valley. This little matter has caused much annoyance among tourists; finding that they had paid the price, including guides, but not having the fact stated upon the ticket or in writing, were obliged to pay extra. There is nothing right or just about this mode of transacting business, but it is what some business men term "smart."
Caroline M. Churchill, Over the Purple Hills, Going to Into [sic] the Yosemite Valley, p. 118
Students can use the collection to explore the issues of race relations and citizenship issues in early California history. The core of these materials is the Report of the Debates of the Convention of California, which includes the California Constitution as well as a record of the proceedings which shaped that document. Students can study the debates regarding who would be represented by the new government. For example, the proceedings report Representative Kimball H. Dimmick's argument:
As to the line of distinction attempted to be drawn between native Californians and Americans, he knew no such distinction himself; his constituents knew none. They all claimed to be Americans. They would not consent to be placed in a minority. They classed themselves with Americans, and were entitled to be considered in the majority. No matter from what nation they came, he trusted that hereafter they would be classed with the American people. The Constitution was to be formed for their benefit as well as to that of the native born Americans. They all had one common interest at stake, and one common object in view: the protection of government.
From the Report of the Debates of the Convention of California, p. 23
Students can search on ethnic groups to find accounts of the relationships and prejudices amongst the different inhabitants of California. For example, these opposing opinions concerning the Chinese immigrants in the early history of the new state can be found in the collection:
...they are trustworthy and skilful in whatever they engage, and strive to give their employers satisfaction. In this they seldom fail.
Harvey Rice, Letters from the Pacific Slope, Letter IX, p. 74
Will they discard their clannish prepossessions, assimilate with us, buy of us, and respect us? Are they not so full of duplicity, prevarication and pagan prejudices, and so enervated and lazy, that it is impossible for them to make true or estimable citizens?
Hinton R. Helper, The Land of Gold, Chapter VII, p. 92
The diversity of materials in the collection gives teachers the ability to cover a wide range of reading and writing skills. Stories, sketches, journalism, autobiography, and other forms of personal expression can all be found in California as I Saw It. The narratives offer an exciting view of history through the filter of life stories, from many different points of view.
1) Descriptive Writing
The natural beauty of California inspired many of the narrators in the collection to write descriptions of the region.
Search on travel and natural history for text such as:
A little further, and we struck to the left up a mountain road, and for two hours threaded one valley after another, green, tangled, full of noble timber, giving us every now and again a sight of Mount Saint Helena and the blue, hilly distance, and crossed by many streams, through which we splashed to the carriage-step. ...
But we had the society of these bright streams--dazzlingly clear, as is their wont, splashing from the wheels in diamonds, and striking a lively coolness through the sunshine. And what with the innumerable variety of greens, the masses of foliage tossing in the breeze, the glimpses of distance, the descents into seemingly impenetrable thickets, the continual dodging of the road which made haste to plunge again into the covert, we had a fine sense of woods, and spring-time, and the open air.
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters, Chapter I, p. 13
The new state of California aroused the curiosity of many living in the Eastern and Midwestern states of the U.S. Several authors wrote detailed descriptions of their travels in the region for tourists and the curious.
Search on description, surveys, and guidebooks for text such as:
The country is low and flat, much of it uncultivated, and all for sale. Some newly planted orange groves and apricot trees are seen, as well as vast fields of mammoth cabbage and beet gardens. The road leaves the main line at Saugus and descends through the lovely valley of Santa Clara until the coast is reached at San Buenaventura, and for thirty miles you run along the sea. How salty and bracing the air smells, and what a change from the flower-scented breezes we have left behind! The approach at night is a weird and beautiful sight. There is light enough to distinguish the overhanging presence of the Santa Ynez mountains. The harbor gleams with myriad lights, the town bristles with electric sparks, and opens eyes, arms and doors to give hospitable welcome to its best patron, the stranger.
Mary H. Wills, A Winter in California, Chapter IV, p. 48
2) Journal Writing
The journals in the collection offer poignant accounts of human emotions and strengths in the face of adversity. These journal entries document the difficulties of travel to California, and the further struggles of raising a family and making a living in the new frontier.
Search on journal, voyage, journey, and family for texts such as:
Sabbath Morning, April 21 st ...At seven o'clock I reached camp so exhausted, that I was compelled to go immediately to bed, when a feeling of sadness came over me. I thought of home, my mother, sister, and friends. Oh! how gloomy my thoughts ran. I could no more control them than I could hold the wild horse Mazeppa.
James Abbey, California. A Trip Across the Plains, 10 miles from St. Joseph, April 24, 1850, p. 10
March 29 . Lat. 29.42, long. 42. For the past four days we have not gone over 50 miles a day, and today we have not gone at all. That is, we have gone back just as fast as we have gone forward. I dislike these calms, for the ship rolls about and It makes me dizzy. I have had two seasick times, one pretty bad one, since I last wrote. A gale commenced on Tuesday at noon and lasted till Friday, and we tossed about in fine order. We could neither stand nor sit and of course must lie down. ...I went to the table once, and my tumbler turned over, and rolled down and upset the salt, and cavorted against a plate, and was at last caught by the steward. You can't keep hold of your things-they will move off. And you can no more walk, if you are on your feet and there comes a sudden lurch, than you can fly. Down, down you slide till you land against the wall, and there you are fast at last and must try it over again.
Records of a California Family; Journals and Letters of Lewis C. Gunn and Elizabeth Le Breton Gunn, The Voyage Around Cape Horn, p. 104
3) Tall Tales and Humor
The collection is strong in the presentation of local color sketches and vernacular forms, including the tall tale.
Search on humorist and sketches for texts such as:
The Platte was "up," they said--which made me wish I could see it when it was down, if it could look any sicker and sorrier. They said it was a dangerous stream to cross, now, because its quicksands were liable to swallow up horses, coach and passengers if an attempt was made to ford it. But the mails had to go, and we made the attempt. Once or twice in midstream the wheels sunk into the yielding sands so threateningly that we half believed we had dreaded and avoided the sea all our lives to be shipwrecked in a "mud-wagon" in the middle of a desert at last. But we dragged through and sped away toward the setting sun.
Samuel Clemens, (Mark Twain), Roughing It, Chapter VII, p. 61
CALIFORNIA is called the land of flowers, and the first fellar that called it so, was no liar. He must have been a native--a truthful man, and likewise a "Booster." You never heard a native knock California--no--sir--ree. They're always a boosting, and crowing, and swelling out like pouter pigeons, as soon as they begin to see us sit up and take notice. Huh! dont they love to see our eyes stick out, and our mouths come open, while we gap at some of the glories of California--the land of sunshine--the land of gold. And when we get homesick and say "Good bye, we're going home," they only laugh at us--and Bill, its a kinder mean laugh, too--and they'll say "Oh, you'll come back, they all do. I'll give you just six months at the most, and I'll bet you'll come back with all your relations, and stay next time for good."
Mina Deane Halsey, A Tenderfoot in Southern California, Chapter XVII, p. 147