Who is Harrison Gray Otis?

400px-Harrison_Gray_OtisYou didn’t have to search for long in late-nineteenth century Los Angeles to find a Union Civil War veteran. Sometimes, you would find one who had made quite a name for himself since the war. I give you Harrison Gray Otis – an Ohio native who left journalism to join the army in 1861 as a private, received two wounds in the conflict, and mustered out in 1865 as Captain Otis. Huzzah!

Otis went on in his journalistic career on the West Coast, first in Santa Barbara and finally in Los Angeles, where he took over the editorial position of the fledgling Los Angeles Times. During the war with Spain in 1898, he again left his career to serve in Union blue as General Otis, commander of volunteers in the Philippines.

Otis was a conservative nationalist his entire life. And his service in the Civil War and Spanish-American War reflected his attitudes toward subversives and those he deemed “un-American.” Thus his political stance against Socialism – a movement that was taking hold in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Los Angeles – was vehement. You were either “with me or against me,” he was known to say…leaving no room for fence-sitters.

I’ll be looking more into his career as this project unfolds. For starters we should know that he was instrumental in the promotion of Los Angeles, took part in the San Fernando Valley “land grab’ to benefit from the Owens Valley aqueduct, and was around to see his LA Times building dynamited as part of the battle between conservative “open shop” forces and those who wished to organize labor.  Fun times.

With compliments,

Keith

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,

Keith

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,

Keith

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,

Keith

An Island on the Land

en-carey-mcwilliamsFor my inaugural post, I thought it might be fun to take a little inspirational field trip to Echo Park to visit the former home of attorney/journalist/historian Carey McWilliams. It was not hard to find, I got the address from his Wiki page. And I am sure the current residents would be thrilled to know that their address is out there for anyone to see (then again, who is looking for McWilliams’s old house?). In 1946, McWilliams published an exceptional work on the history of Southern California called, oddly enough, Southern California: An Island on the Land. The subtitle he borrowed from Helen Hunt Jackson, the nineteenth-century novelist who created Ramona – a story that became among the most enduring Southern California legends. I am now elbow deep in McWilliams’s  Southern California. The book is both probing and insightful, despite a few tenuous presentist connections. For example, he compares the Franciscan Mission system to National Socialism. Of course, he was writing (presumably during and) on the heels of World War II, so the idea of totalitarian regimes would have been on his mind, to say the least. But as brutal as the Franciscans may have been, they were not Nazis. They came to Alta California to save souls, not eliminate a race of people. But my issue with McWilliams’s dubious comparison is just a quibble. I find the book extremely valuable for my purposes.

On the drive over to Casa McWilliams, I contemplated a number of things that might have inspired individuals from the Midwest and eastern states to head west. Economic opportunity, adventure, a salubrious climate. Each of these things was potentially a motivating factor. But the focus in McWilliams’s introduction is on an abstraction: the need to pursue a well-rounded life and to escape the drudgery of the ordinary.

Here it seems, is the place where harassed Americans come to recover the joy and serenity which their manner of life denies them elsewhere.

This makes sense – not only for those suffering troubles in the present but for those who had lived through them in the past. And it seems to me that the Civil War would be a striking example of trouble – perhaps, after a conflagration of such magnitude, one would want a fresh start. Perhaps. At least it is a question to consider at this point in the game.

The idea of simply looking for a better life – one of leisure and opportunity is certainly nothing new, but it is rarely qualified. The notion seems well worth pursuing. And so I will be combing the primary and secondary material looking for exactly this and other motivational factors as part grand project. Your comments and contributions are, as always, welcome.

With compliments,

Keith

 

 

Americana. Public History. Historical Memory.