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[Detail] Emigrants Crossing the Plains. 1869.

U.S. History

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.

mt. shasta

Mount Shasta, from Castle Lake, p. 122 Californian Pictures in Prose and Verse, Benjamin Parke Avery, 1878

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:

fort at monterey

Monterey, p. 75 Personal
Adventures in Upper and Lower California, in 1848-9
, William Redmond Ryan, 1850

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.

chinese camp

Chinese Camp in the Mines, p. 265 Three Years in California [1851-54], J.D Borthwick, 1857

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.