All posts by Keith Harris

Did Thomas Starr King Save California for the Union?

2-3-4Well, that’s the legend anyway. In reality – his efforts didn’t amount to the whole difference…but he certainly did what he could. For Californians, King’s popularity as a preacher and a lecturer made him the “moral tutor to the commonwealth.” According to one historian, King challenged Californians to “highmindedness” and to seek, as he put it, “Yosemites of the soul.”

During the Civil War he preached the Union – one and indivisible. And he did so when other preachers foresaw alternate futures for the Golden State. Charles Edward Pickett, for example, called for a independent Pacific Republic free from the colonial relations with the East. William Anderson Scott thought that California could be a great pluralist haven for northerner and southerner alike. Scott was run out of the state when he offered prayers for both Presidents Davis and Lincoln.

But King was all for the Union. He stumped for Lincoln in 1860 and Leland Stanford in 1861. He spoke up and down the state and inspired Californians to lead the nation in contributions to the Sanitary Commission. Imaging a reconciled future – he preached of the Pacific Slope in reconciliationist terms. “And they shall come from the east and the west, and from the north and from the south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God.”

In his efforts – he wore himself down. King died of pneumonia and diphtheria on March 4, 1864. “Keep my memory Green,” King said as he died, and Californians obliged. His statue, along with that of Junipero Serra, represent the state in the National Hall of Fame.

I recently read Kevin Starr’s Americans and the California Dream, in which he notes King’s enduring significance and the ecclesiastical side of California’s history. The earliest historiography was near silent on the religious history of the state – not until the 1880s did secular historians begin to take religion in California seriously. Check out Starr’s book – it is lively and engaging and well worth the read.

With compliments,


Where Have the French Gone?

More than one nation had territorial ambitions in California in the early 19th century. Spain, Mexico, Russia, Britain, and the United States all cast their eyes toward the Golden Coast at one point or another. And yes indeed, the French had ideas of their own. By the 1830s, clearly unimpressed with Mexican republican rule and the secularization of the Mission system, interested parties in France sought to establish a monarchical Catholic presence along the coast – and thus exploit what they considered wasted opportunity.

Their lofty ambitions did not amount to much in Southern California. Plans for a military invasion of San Diego (and elsewhere) settled in a Paris archive, where they would gather dust for a long long time. The only noteworthy presence in the 1830s materialized in the form of a Los Angeles French winery. Established by Jean Louis Vignes, known as Don Luis del Aliso by his Mexican friends, this winery endeavored to replicate the great wineries of the South of France. Vignes made quite a name for himself in the process. Apparently, his vino was better than decent. He continued to peacefully ferment for decades – the grapes, that is.

But while many cultures made a noticeable imprint on what would become Southern California identity, the French, at least in the Los Angeles area, didn’t make much of a splash once Anglo/Americans began pouring into the neighborhood after the Civil War.

It is interesting to see what cultural forms Americans would adopt in the ensuing years. Stay tuned.

With compliments,

Two Years Before the Mast

IMG_0328Hello all! I have been absent from the blogging world for the past few weeks while I put some finishing touches on my manuscript on Civil War veterans. I am pleased to announce that the work in now under contract with Louisiana State University Press – and once it has passed the reviewing stage, will be ready for publication (finally). It has been a long and storied road for this study, and I am quite happy that it is nearing completion.

Today I received Richard Henry Dana’s account of his two-year sea voyage along the coast of California, Two years Before the Mast. Published in 1840, this is among the several works available for eager readers in the East who were very much interested in the West Coast. People on the move later in the 19th century wanted to know what to expect once they reached the Golden Coast and this is among the selections that captured the imagination of a well-read public.

Part of my current study of California identity as seen through the eyes of the victorious Civil War generation is something of a history of popular culture. What did the authors using California as a backdrop have to say about the region? I want to know what folks in the East and Midwest thought of California before they got there and how these images contributed to their identities as new Californians. We’ll talk more about Dana shortly – but this is something to think about for now.

With compliments,


Los Angeles and the Election of 1864

election-of-1864-lesson-plan-2I will return once more to the notion of wartime voting and the shifting nature of allegiances in Los Angeles City and County. You will recall from a previous post that voters, while predominantly Democratic in 1860 and 1861, were likely to shift between northern and southern wings of their party depending on circumstances.

Well, they shifted once again in 1864 – in a few surprising ways. The contest between George McClellan, former commander of the Army of the Potomac turned Peace Democrat and Abraham Lincoln, now under the banner of the Union Party – a coalition of Republicans and War Democrats – heated to a fever pitch during the summer and early fall of 1864 in Los Angeles county. Except this time, the region’s voters returned against the Democratic Party. In the end Lincoln took the county with 872 votes to McClellan’s 593.

Federal soldiers, many of whom had been stationed just outside the Los Angeles city limits to quell any secessionist spirit, can account for a number of these votes….and they probably pushed Lincoln into the winner’s column.

But the more interesting figures come from Los Angeles city. Here the numbers are nearly dead even – McClellan besting Lincoln by a mere 42 votes. This, I believe, suggests a perceptible shift in loyalty over the course of two years. After a hard summer of Union losses, by election day enough had gone in the Union’s favor to secure Lincoln’s re-election. And perhaps enough had happened from an Angeleno’s perspective to shift the tide toward Lincoln and Union victory. A thus we can begin to see the seeds of Los Angeles city favoring a Union nationalist sentiment…what I believe would only grow to greater strengths later in the nineteenth century.

With compliments,


So Much Can Change in a Year

mcconnellMy last post promised to look a tad more closely at the shifting allegiances of the Democratic Party in Los Angeles. If you recall, in the presidential contest of 1860, John Breckinridge edged out his opponents for a victory in Los Angeles County. His 686 votes easily took care of Lincoln’s 352 and poor Bell’s 201. But his margin over the Northern Democrat, Stephen Douglass, was more on the narrow side. Douglas added 494 votes to his column – not enough to take the prize, but roughly even with his Democratic opposition.

Fast forward to the California gubernatorial election on September 4, 1861. Leland Stanford – Republican – took the state handily. But in the Democratic southern part of the state, The Southern Democrat, John McConnell (pictured), absolutely wiped the floor with his Union Democratic opponent, John Conness. In Los Angeles County, for example, McConnell tallied 1187 votes to Conness’s meager 216. How can we account for such a dramatic shift in the Democratic Party?

Perhaps Conness was simply unfit for the job, and everyone knew it. But there may have been more at work that could reveal shifting allegiances typical in a wartime democratic republic. Two things had happened between the elections that may have had a fragile party in Southern California – at least temporarily – look to the southern wing of their organization. First, the Confederacy had bested the United States at Manassas that July. Second, and perhaps more important in a western context, reports that Confederate armies had invaded New Mexico (also in July) with “thousands” of soldiers who were poised to annex New Mexico and Arizona any time (they did so in December without much fanfare or bite…then things really fell apart in 1862) stirred up secessionist feeling in the Southland. Rumors bolstered by the local anti-Lincoln press implied that Rebel troops disguised as miners were also gathering at the Colorado River in preparation to “liberate” Southern California. Nothing, of course, ever came of these highly exaggerated threats (or promises…depending on how you look at it). But such news, however fraudulent, might have been enough to sway the gubernatorial vote.

At any rate, the idea is worth looking into further. Thoughts?

With compliments,