Americans and the California Dream by Kevin Starr–Chapter I: Prophetic Patterns 1786-1850

This doesn’t count as a resolution, but on New Year’s Day I finally embarked on reading Kevin Starr’s history of California which currently stands at six volumes, last time I checked.

A few years ago I read his single volume history California and loved it.  Entertaining and informative, a clear eye-ed history of the state written by a man who’s been in love with the place for years.  Kind of like me.

I admit it, I’m a chauvinist.  I love it here.  On my first trip to Europe, the first time I spent the night outside of the United States, a woman selling tourist maps in Dresden asked me if I was from America.  I reflexively corrected her, “I’m from California.” She laughed and pointed at the gray, drizzly sky above.  Why would you leave California for here?

However, like most people in California, I didn’t really know much about the state’s history until I dedicated part of my reading to it.  Quite a few books later, I’m more of an expert than I need to be at least until I retire, move to the gold country and start giving historical walking tours to tourists.  All of which I plan to do someday.

Meantime, I’ve many volumes of Kevin Starr’s history of the state to peruse.  He keeps on writing them, too.

This first chapter is focused on the period when California was part of Mexico. Basically post Mission Period to the Gold Rush. During this time some of the missions were still operating but they were all in their final days.

Some key things I learned:

What the Americans admired about California was also what they condemned about it. During this time there are about 1500 “Europeans” living in California. The Mexican government was never able to convince large numbers of people to immigrate here due to its distance and isolation.  The Californians lived an easy outdoor life according to the written accounts.  There was little work to do since agriculture was so easy. People spent most of their day outdoors, living a largely communal lifestyle.  Wedding parties and other celebrations went on for days.  Races intermingled freely. Class lines were fairly easy to cross.  One Black man, a sailor known only as Bob, jumped ship of the coast,  changed his name to Juan Cristobal, became Catholic, married a local woman and spent out his days as a prosperous land owner.

All of this was both admired and condemned by the Americans who visited California in the first half of the 19th century.  Condemned as a land full of lazy racial mongrels who did not have the enterprize necessary to make California as prosperous as it could be.  They lived comfortable lives along the coast, never bothering to settle the interior which was just waiting for New England farmers with a solid Puritan work ethic to move in and get to work.

Though this was only a brief period of time, a single lifespan is all you need to see the founding of the missions through to their closing, it remains a foundational part of the California mythos.  An agricultural paradise where the living is easy, the people friendly, and the celebrations last for days.

Very early on California figures in the ambitions of the young nation. Secure it and you’ll have a base for trade with Asia making the nation a continental power. Spain, France, Russia and Mexico are all interested as well, attempting to gain a foothold in California’s many harbors.

It’s America with its ethos of Manifest Destiny and its unending stream of migrants heading west that will win out.  The smart money would have bet on it even before gold was discovered.  The Bidwell party arrives in 1841, the first group to make the trip overland.  The Bidwell’s do very well, by the way, even without find gold.

Of course, we should ask about the Native American population.  What happened to the indigenous people is not one of Mr. Starr’s concerns here.  Perhaps this is because the book was first published in 1973, but that’s three years after Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was published. Perhaps this is because Mr. Starr’s book is cultural history based on written accounts and other cultural documents which tend to exclude the Native American point of view.  I suspect if he were writing this book today, more space would be devoted to this issue.  He does address pre-contact California in his more recent history California. 

He does point out that while the Mission period was far from an ideal one for Indigenous People, the Americans were the ones who openly put a bounty on Indian lives as a matter of government policy.  A mark of shame on our state and our country.

3 thoughts on “Americans and the California Dream by Kevin Starr–Chapter I: Prophetic Patterns 1786-1850

  1. This is an interesting post. I will look forward to taking one of your tours in the future. I am looking forward to hearing more if you get a chance to get through the books you mention. My mother was born in California in 1926. She said there are lots of people in California but they weren’t born there. She is now in Michigan at age 91 (March). However she never lived there except for about 3 months in 1960 when all of us were in Hayward while my dad did military training at Presidio. I always enjoy visiting California.

  2. I think she’s right. There’s always been this idea that you could come to California to get rich and then go back home. It’s still true. I was not born in California myself though I’ve lived here since third grade. My partner, however was born in California. His family has been here since the 19th century. I tell people they came over with the Donnor party which is not true, though they did know people who were traveled with the Donnor party. They also have quite a few family stories about the 1906 quake in San Francisco.

  3. Years ago I used to travel often to Pasadena for work and in my spare moments I repeatedly visited the Gamble House and the Huntington and their gift shops. It was in one of those that I picked up Americans and the California Dream, probably because I was taken with the cover. There were only two of them then, but I’ve read all eight of Starr’s California histories over the years. I have a note in this first one that I read it in 1988, 1997, and 2009. It’s a splendid book and your review catches it nicely.

    Happy new year, James, to you and your partner and your blog.

Comments are closed.