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