California as an Imagined Place

th One of the angles I am working as I begin this project is the idea of California – specifically Southern California – as an imagined place. I find it necessary to determine what people thought of this western land as they were pondering a possible move. Sure – they were well versed in the Ramona story. But there were a number of images from which they could draw to hopefully envision the landscape that they would soon call home.

Today I offer one vision – an ocean/arboreal scene by one of the great California Impressionists of the late nineteenth century, Guy Rose. Could this be the quintessential California landscape? One might observe the colors and the light playing on the leaves and water and suggest that the work is amiss to a degree. Born in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1860s, Rose trained in Europe and New York before returning to his native land – and he brings a visitor’s eye to his work on the Pacific coast. But would this have struck a familiar chord with migrating easterners trying to imagine and accept as their own a place so seemingly foreign? That question is certainly worth asking. So I will be asking it frequently. Because that’s what I do.

With compliments,


The Least Heroic Migration in History

pullman-travel-ideas-800x800Charles Fletcher Lummis, the great nineteenth and early-twentieth century advocate for Indian rights and historic preservation, once spoke of the migration to Southern California as the “least heroic migration in history, but the most judicious.” He was speaking of the first wave of course – those that came in the 1880s and 90s to set up housekeeping.

The panic of 1873 had stymied some of the earliest migratory efforts but by the end of that decade, and especially with the completion of the Sante Fe line to the region in 1886, Americans began pouring into Southern California from the East.

And what was particularly conspicuous about these newcomers? They were the well-to-do. In sharp contrast to the northern California settlers who first arrived in the gold fields of the 1850s with little more than a pack mule and their wits, these newly crowned great men of Southern California were white, rich, and extremely ambitious. They arrived in palatial trains, enticed by citrus groves and a perfect climate, they brought with them their families and built luxurious homes. They did not rough it in the least.

And what of Lummis? Well, he walked from Ohio to Los Angeles in 1884 to begin working at the fledgling Los Angeles Times. So he didn’t have it quite so easy.

But despite Lummis’s personal taxing trek, the migration to Southern California represents an interesting reversal of westward migration in general. The first wave of Americans were the most prominent (by nineteenth-century standards) both socially and economically. Not until the early twentieth century did the middling ranks appear in great numbers. And they were followed by the lower middles classes and the working poor in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. But it was the prominent individuals that in some ways set the tone,  created many of the institutions, and first began to think of themselves as Easterners in the West…or if you like Southern Californians. As Carey McWilliams noted in 1946, “whenever a man comes into a new region, he promptly modifies the natural landscape, not in a haphazard way, but according to the culture system he brings with him.” How did these new wealthy immigrants make such modifications? How did their life experiences determine how they saw themselves in the West? And how would they impart this identity to newcomers?

The topic of becoming a “Southern Californian” is the focus of the earliest part of this study. It is indeed an distinctive identity and ones with roots in the East and West United States. What they chose to incorporate in this new identity and who would be included (remember – there were already plenty of people in Southern California when the Americans got there) will unfold in future posts. So stay tuned.

With compliments,


PS – for more on Charles Fletcher Lummis and his adventurous life, have a look at this book by Mark Thompson.

Southern California and the Confederacy

HD_TheUnionisDissolvedYou hear tell from time to time from academic circles and elsewhere that the southern counties of the state of California leaned toward the southern states during the secession crisis and sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War. The logic is simple, really. 1) The 1860 voting returns clearly show that while the Republicans could claim California as a whole, the southern counties voted decidedly against Abraham Lincoln – and instead, returned a respectable vote for John C. Breckinridge – the state rights/Southern Democrat candidate. 2) Land holders, profiting from a labor system held over from the mission years that in many ways resembled southern chattel slavery, could relate to the southern master class and their efforts to keep their institutions intact in an independent nation.

While both of the points are unquestionably accurate, did they make Southern Californians rebels? I am not convinced.

I am beginning to sense a pattern forming as I read through much of the literature on Southern California during the 1850s. There is another possible reason why Southern Californians would have looked favorably on a state rights effort that had more to do with internal issues rather than national ones. Southern Californians had independence on the mind, as it were. Influential individuals recognized that Southern California was indeed a distinctive region and had been, for at least a few years since California gained admittance to the Union, been pushing for a separation from the northern part of the state (along the Tehachapi Range north of Santa Barbara). In fact, the issue was set for a vote and a petition to Congress –  and it looked as though Southern California was heading for statehood…until the Civil War broke out and put the issue off for a while.

Could Southern Californians (few that they were in 1860) have been localizing a national crisis to fuel a secession movement of their own? Perhaps. But I do not think that the region ever solidly backed the Confederacy or the Confederate War effort beyond a few isolated examples of rebel revelry. We’ll see. I am sure I will have much more to report on this subject as my research continues. N.B. The push for statehood never really regained the momentum it had lost in 1861 – but more on that later. Your thoughts are, as always, more than welcome.

With compliments,