Before there was Boom or Sunset, there was Overland Monthly. From 1868 to 1875 and from 1883 to 1935, this San Francisco-based regional periodical published writers such as Jack London, John Muir, Mark Twain, Ina Coolbrith, and Bret Harte, entertaining readers on both coasts with poetry, travelogues, short fiction, and political commentary. But the Overland Monthly aimed to do more than entertain—its early editors hoped it would help transform the social landscape of California itself by aiding in the state’s material development—a process they figured would ultimately expand the magazine’s own readership. The Overland Monthly often portrayed California as sophisticated and civilized—a far cry from its earlier reputation as a lawless, rough-and-tumble outpost—and thus contributed to the construction of some of the enduring, foundational, cultural myths of California. As Mexal writes, “The magazine’s auxiliary pose—dedicated to ‘development’ of both country and reader—meant that its literary output engaged certain master narratives about liberal selfhood and land use and then localized those narratives in California.” The Overland Monthly helped tame the cultural imaginary of the “wild West” by coloring California’s frontier land past with shades of romantic nostalgia. But, as Mexal’s incisive book points out, the magazine’s writers also engaged critically with discourses of wilderness and civilization at a decisive moment in California’s history as the state began to take the form we now recognize as home.
Illustration of Bessie Love and Douglas Fairbanks from the Overland Monthly.
Sam Lubell and Greg Goldin, Never Built Los Angeles (Metropolis, 376pp, $55)
Never Built: Los Angeles, an exhibition at A + D Architecture and Design Museum, Los Angeles, July 28 – October 13, 2013.
Reviewed by Eve Bachrach
Never Built Los Angeles—based on the Architecture and Design Museum’s exhibit of the same name—is many books in one: art book, history, criticism, and choose your own adventure. The meat of the book is a collection of 100 or so unbuilt buildings, master plans, transportation projects, and parks proposed for LA over the past century, complete with drawings and descriptions. So many of the projects leave one with either eyes wide with wonder or head shaking in disbelief that flipping through the pages too quickly is liable to cause dizziness and discombobulation.
Greg Goldin and Sum Lubell curated the Never Built exhibition and wrote the essay and project blurbs here. The book allows us to imagine a thousand different what-could-have-been Los Angeles, and they deftly cover LA’s (admittedly brief) history of development in just a few engaging pages. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne, who is based in LA, writes in his introduction that the city’s reliance on private owners and donors to build so much of the city has enabled much of our important, if idiosyncratic, experimentation in building. But he indicts our failures in civic architecture and coherent planning. Goldin and Lubell agree that our civic architecture makes a pretty poor showing, and blame the city’s infrastructure and politics, weak central government, conservative developers, NIMBYish citizens, and some terrible ideas for many of the unbuilt proposals in the book. Where the city lacks the ability to muscle through grand municipal plans, private developers are too often interested only in how a project pencils out.
This diagnosis isn’t new, but it’s striking to see it made in the context of all these fabulous (in all senses of the word) projects. There’s Pierre Koenig’s unlikely design for a mosque in Hollywood funded by the Kuwaiti government, AC Martin’s helicopter buses from downtown’s Union Station to LAX, and Lloyd Wright’s Twentieth Century Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral—which could have been LA’s answer to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. A proposal from John Lautner could have provided a new model for high-density living, if building it had been technologically possible. And thousands of miles of highways, train lines, and monorail could have either freed us from our cars or locked us in them forever.
The book is arranged by project type, not chronologically, so it can be difficult to see the march of time and trends throughout the proposals; Goldin and Lubell’s essay provides the necessary narrative. But taken cumulatively, the proposals here reveal a city brimming with ideas, but a city that still hasn’t figured out what it wants to be—horizontal or vertical, beautiful or functional.
The book and exhibit come at an interesting time. Los Angeles recently kicked off a five-year program to rewrite the city’s zoning code for the first time since 1946. The current code, which governs what buildings can be built where, is a 600-page doorstop full of confusing, unintelligible, and contradictory rules. While the new code will undoubtedly put rules in place that will reshape the kinds of neighborhoods we live and work in—will they be more walkable and more vertical, or preserve the urban-suburban character?—one of the chief goals of the code reform is to make it easier to build.
Just across the street from the A+D Museum, and the Never Built exhibit, is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, site of an unbuilt 2001 project by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas which would have demolished much of the mishmash, mid-century (plus worse—mid-80’s) campus and replaced it with a single, unified design above a central plaza. Nervous donors killed the radical plan, but LACMA’s current director Michael Govan is now trying for a do over. This time he’s brought in Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, who has also proposed demolishing much of the existing museum campus in favor of a single structure, this time a free-form shape inspired by the adjacent La Brea Tar Pits. Time will tell if the proposal will transform Miracle Mile or kick off volume two of Never Built Los Angeles.
Images from Never Built Los Angeles top to bottom: SKY-Arc, Coop Himmelb(l)au, 2005; Santa Monica Offshore Freeway, John Drescher and Moffat and Nichol,1965; Hollywood Mosque, Pierre Koenig, 1963; Los Angeles Civic Center, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1925.
When a man dies hanging from a tree, is that tree an accessory to the act or a witness? In legal terminology, a “witness tree” is a boundary marker, whereas in popular culture, a “witness tree” is an arboreal survivor at a historic site. At Gettysburg National Military Park, for example, the National Park Service has made an inventory of all of the battlefield orchard trees still standing; these living relics function as markers of collective memory. When Californians think about floral witnesses, they reflexively turn to sequoias or their cousins, the redwoods, and wish that they could speak. The impulse to personify them goes back a long time. “Could these magnificent and venerable forest giants of Calaveras County be gifted with a descriptive historical tongue, how their recital would startle us,” wrote James Hutchings, the pioneering promoter, in 1865. From his generation to ours, people have imagined the Big Tree’s perspective on ancient Old World events. “Are you as old as Noah?” inquired the clergyman Thomas Starr King to one of the “vegetable Titans” in 1861. “Do you span the centuries as far as Moses? Can you remember the time of Solomon?” Sequoias are estranging: they take our imaginations to distant times and faraway places; they offer a bridge between the shallows of historical time and the unfathomable depths of geological time. There is value in that. But California has much better candidates for local witness trees—namely, “hang trees” that force us to think about the state’s violent history of uprooting amidst its countervailing history of putting down roots.1
View of the “Hanging Tree” in Calabasas, Los Angeles County, 1939. Photograph by Dick Whittington. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
In 1847, even before the end of the US-Mexico War and the discovery of gold, the governor and general of Alta California capitulated to an emissary of Col. John C. Frémont outside of San Fernando. Supposedly they made treaty beneath an oak—a tree later commemorated by Anglo-Americans as the “Oak of Peace.” In fact, the transition following the Gold Rush brought discord and violence, as witnessed by certain native plants, mainly oaks and sycamores. A postcard, printed circa 1900, shows a knotted oak near Julian, in San Diego County, and a rhyme in the tree’s voice:
The American tradition of lynching transcended the white-black milieu of the Deep South. Two social historians, William Carrigan and Clive Webb, have made a strong documentary case that the “lynching rate” for Mexican-Americans was comparable to that for African Americans.3 California led the way in anti-Mexican and anti-Chinese vigilantism. According to legend, Joaquín Murrieta—one of the great figures in Gold Rush and Chicano history—chose his second career in banditry in response to the hanging of his half brother. Even after the placer gold petered out, Californians of Mexican descent, Californios—often called “greasers,” a word on a par with “niggers”—continued to be lynched at a rate wildly disproportionate to their overall population. (As for Indians, settlers were more likely to murder them without any pretense of legality). Occasionally, Californios killed in common cause with Anglos. In 1867 a volunteer militia under the command of Andrés Pico captured and hanged two outlaws, associates of the bandit Juan Flores, for the murder of the sheriff of Los Angeles. It took much less provocation for white Angelenos to attack their Chinese neighbors. According to one witness of the 1871 “Chinese Massacre,” enforcers erected all kinds of impromptu gallows; “trees, awnings, lamp posts, even farmer’s wagons were thus utilized, until eighteen ghastly corpses—one that of a mere child—dangled about the street.”4
Commemorative plaque, Orchard Hills, Irvine, Orange County, 2008. Photograph by Chris Jepsen.
Retributory violence could also cut across race and ethnicity. This was especially true in the early years of the Gold Rush, when, according to a forty-niner from France, “It seemed as if every prison in every civilized country had sent the elite of its inmates out here to colonize this country.”5 In a high-stakes, all-male atmosphere, in the absence of regular law enforcement, vigilance committees meted out punishment to accused criminals of every background—Anglo-Americans, Irishmen, Australians, Frenchmen, Belgians, Chileans, Sonorans, Californios, Miwoks. Death by hanging wasn’t the only extralegal remedy in the gold camps. Lynch courts also dictated banishment, branding, whipping—or a combination of all three. In many cases, vigilantes relieved the accused of his shirt, tied him to a tree, or forced him to hug its trunk, and administered the rawhide.
“Hangmans Tree” (with supporting guy wires) along Big Oak Flat Road (State Route 120), Second Garotte, Tuolumne County, 1951. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.
A tree allowed two methods of killing. Most commonly, the accused stood on a movable object—a bench or a horse—with the tree-bound noose around his neck. In the absence of such a removable platform, he might be convinced to climb the tree and jump off. All too often, the branch’s height was insufficient for the force of gravity to snap the poor man’s neck. Desperately, he grabbed at the rope as he choked to death, while onlookers tried to restrain his hands. To avoid excessive unpleasantries, careful vigilantes pinioned the victim’s arms in advance. The second method of tree hanging inflicted even crueler agony. The executioner jerked the roped person up and down, like a piñata, until the neck finally broke. Sometimes a kangaroo court strung up the accused, then let him down temporarily for the purpose of extracting a coerced confession, and finally killed him with the satisfaction of justice served.
“Hangmans Tree” (view from the road). Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.
Public executions attracted large audiences. Gathered under a tree, the community of spectators gave tacit approval to lynching. Petty property crimes like raiding a sluice box or rustling a horse could lead to summary death penalties in the gold fields. Occasionally, a softhearted bystander tried to intercede. A Methodist missionary urged a lynch mob to take pity on its prisoner, a teenaged thief, a “mere tool and victim of the older criminals who had made their escape.” Send him back to his dear old mother in the States, pleaded the man of the cloth. Momentarily rebuffed, the vigilantes dispersed. They reorganized in the night and dragged the accused from jail. “The tree on which the boy was hanged was a healthy, vigorous young oak, in full leaf,” wrote the preacher. “In a few days its every leaf had withered!”6
Gold Rush executioners did not mark their gallows; eyewitnesses typically only mention “a convenient oak tree.” In a few mining camps, the tree of convenience earned its own name through repeated use. Most famously, the town of Jackson, in Amador County, fussed over its “Hangman’s Tree,” located on Main Street next to a saloon. At least ten men died here—seven Mexicans, one Chilean, one European (variously identified as German, Swiss, and Swedish), and one indigenous man. In 1854 a French-language newspaper announced—ironically, one assumes—that it had opened a subscription to purchase the notorious tree to make a carved statue of Judge Lynch. After a town-wide conflagration in 1862, residents of Jackson cut down the blackened bough; in response, a regional newspaper opined that California’s “most remarkable tree” should have merited preservation. A pioneer-era historian informs us that this plant (an interior live oak) was “never very beautiful, but was a source of so much pride to the citizens” that they engraved a likeness of it on Amador County’s first seal. Similarly, when the namesake tree of Placerville—known popularly as Hangtown—withered and died, residents turned its wood into souvenir canes. In 1941 a donated heirloom piece of the Hangtown Oak found its way into the handle of the specially made shovel used to lay the cornerstone of Bank of America’s headquarters in San Francisco.7
Neon sign for the Hangmans Tree Historic Spot tavern, Placerville, El Dorado County, 2006. Photograph by Thomas Hawk.
Re-rooting followed uprooting; commemoration followed violence. In the post-pioneer period, “Hangman’s Tree” became a generic place-name and the subject of fakelore. Many towns boasted of having one, and invented or exaggerated the number of people killed. In 1896 a San Francisco paper repeated the legend that over forty people “passed into eternity” from the largest limb of Hangman’s Oak near Copperopolis. The next year, newspapers across the nation printed a syndicated story—a fond and plainly racist obituary—about the “famous gallows tree of San Bernardino.” From its branches, supposedly, more than fourteen men had “swung into eternity,” and in its shade “some of the most thrilling events in the history of the wresting of the golden state of California from Indian half breeds and Mexican domination have been planned.” In the 1930s the Native Daughters of the Golden West erected plaques to commemorate the genuine lynching trees in Jackson and in Placerville, seat of El Dorado County. A generation later, a second plaque erected beside Placerville city hall asked for empathy for the executioners: “let us not judge them too harshly for those were the rough days of the great gold rush.” The official state historical landmark sign stands in front of the shuttered Hangman’s Tree bar on Main Street; according to the placard, the stump of the tree lies beneath the building. Until 2008, as an added effect for tourists, a dummy on a noose hung above the tavern’s neon sign.8
Long before, tourism boosters in Gold Country placed unofficial signs on a massive oak tree along the main access road to Yosemite National Park near the ghost town evocatively named Second Garrote. In 1932 the California Department of Public Works severely pruned this decaying tree to prevent falling limbs from killing automobilists. Supported by guy wires, the amputated framework of “‘Hangmans’ Tree” stood as a roadside attraction (next to the falsely advertised “Bret Harte Cabin”) through the sixties. In 1942 some xenophobe pinned to its trunk the US military’s relocation order for all persons of Japanese ancestry living in California.9
Eucalyptus “Hangman’s Tree” with noose, Ghost Town, Knott’s Berry Farm, Orange County, 2012. Photograph by Loren Javier.
The “Hanging Tree” in Calabasas, Los Angeles County, 1939. Photographs by Dick Whittington. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
Legendary trees occasionally appeared in suburban settings, too. In 1930 Outpost Estates in Los Angeles invited prospective buyers on a guided tour to the “Hollywood hangman’s tree,” a California sycamore at which “more than thirty persons” met their maker. As whimsically reported by the Los Angeles Times, the property developer dedicated this arboreal landmark in conjunction with the unveiling of five Mediterranean model homes.10 In Orange County, on the side of Highway 39, the wildly popular Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant added an adjacent “Ghost Town Village”—the beginnings of the Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park—in 1940. This simulacrum of a Gold Rush camp included a eucalyptus ornamented with a noose.
Sign for “Hangman’s Tree,“ Ghost Town, Knott‘s Berry Farm. Photograph by Loren Javier.
The folkloric hang tree achieved its final incarnation at Calabasas, a wealthy suburban enclave at the edge of the San Fernando Valley. For decades residents attached nooses to a coast live oak on the main road; the chamber of commerce used a likeness of the “Hanging Tree” as a logo. According to doubtful town tradition, members of Tiburcio Vásquez’s outlaw gang died here. In the postwar years the massive tree, located next to a Union 76 gas station, declined and died—possibly due to a gasoline leak. It was pruned down to its core and festooned with a larger noose. In 1965 this emblem of the Old West made way for the Space Age. Los Angeles-based Rocketdyne, a division of North American Aviation, designer of the second-stage launch vehicle for the Saturn V, needed to transport a prototype rocket through Calabasas to its testing facility in Simi Hills. Even in its amputated state, the landmark tree created a bottleneck for the oversize load. To solve the problem, a crane operator carefully transported the lifeless 30-foot trunk down the road to Leonis Adobe, a Calabasas house once owned by a prominent nineteenth-century Basque rancher. Preservationists subsequently restored the adobe and converted it to a living history museum that became a cornerstone of “Old Town,” a shopping and restaurant district. Here the beloved mock gallows, concreted into place, stood until 1995, when a winter storm toppled it. The desiccated wood shattered instantly, and in the aftermath, someone absconded with the decorative noose. Some old-timers insisted that a still-standing live oak across the street, by another bell-shaped sign marking the historic El Camino Real, was the real Hangman’s Oak.11
The multiple second lives of the frontier “hang tree” reveal something unsettling about the Golden State. Beauty, violence, and heritage share the same scene. In the span of one century, Californians progressed from lynching fellow fortune-seekers from stately trees to making up stories about such trees to preserving the remnants of pseudo-historic lynching trees. If these “witnesses” could be compelled to give testimony, what florid untruths we would hear—along with haunting true accounts of expulsions from Eden.
1. James M. Hutchings, Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (London, 1865), 13; Thomas Starr King, A Vacation among the Sierras: Yosemite in 1860 (San Francisco, 1962), 35–36 (originally published in Boston Evening Transcript, 12 Jan. 1861).
2. Postcard, ca. 1900, San Diego History Center, available for view online at Calisphere.
3. William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb, Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848–1928 (Oxford, 2013). See also Warren Franklin Webb, “A History of Lynching in California since 1875” (M.A. thesis, UC Berkeley, 1935); Robert W. Blew, “Vigilantism in Los Angeles, 1935–1974,” Southern California Quarterly 54 (March 1972): 11–30; David A. Johnson, “Vigilance and the Law: The Moral Authority of Popular Justice in the Far West,” American Quarterly 33 (Winter 1981): 558–86; Christopher Waldrep, The Many Faces of Judge Lynch: Extralegal Violence and Punishment in America (New York, 2002), 49–61; Paul R. Spitzzeri, “Judge Lynch in Session: Popular Justice in Los Angeles, 1850–1875,” Southern California Quarterly 87 (June 2005): 83–122; and Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West, 1850–1935 (Durham, N.C., 2006). Gonzales-Day has also exhibited his artistic photographs of hang trees.
4. L. Vernon Briggs, California and the West, 1881, and Later (Boston, 1931), 122. On violence against indigenous peoples, begin with Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln, 2012). On violence against Chinese, see Scott Zesch, The Chinatown War: Chinese Los Angeles and the Massacre of 1871 (Oxford, 2012); and Jean Pfaelzer, Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans (New York, 2007). On banditry, see Lori Lee Wilson, The Joaquín Band: The History Behind the Legend (Norman, 2011); John Boessenecker, Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez (Norman, 2012); and Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York, 2000). In 2007, fire crews battling a blaze in the Santa Ana Mountains—part of the Irvine Ranch in Orange County—stumbled upon a historical marker, erected in the centennial year 1967, that had been overgrown by weedy black mustard (picture on p. 73). See Mike Anton, “A Gnarled Reminder of California’s Past,” Los Angeles Times, 12 May 2009.
5. Marguerite Eyer Wilbur, trans., A Frenchman in the Gold Rush: The Journal of Ernest de Massey, Argonaut of 1849 (San Francisco, 1927), 171.
6. O. P. Fitzgerald, California Sketches, 4th ed. (Nashville, 1880), 161–67. Italics in original.
7. “A Memorable Tree Destroyed,” Stockton Daily Independent, 6 Nov. 1862, quoted in Larry Cenotto, Logan’s Alley: Amador County Yesterdays in Picture and Prose, vol. 1 (Jackson, Calif., 1988), 156; Jesse D. Mason, History of Amador County (Oakland, 1881), 171. French-language newspaper reported in Daily Democratic State Journal (Sacramento), 6 April 1854. See also Richard Ferber, “Natural History of A Hanging Tree,” True West (April 1998): 39–43. Placerville information from L. A. Norton, Life and Adventures of Col. L. A. Norton (Oakland, 1887), 293; and “Piece of Hangman’s Tree Presented for Bank Ceremony,” Mountain Democrat (Placerville, Calif.), 20 Feb. 1941. In addition to the above sources, I found many accounts of lynching in period newspapers available through the website of the California Digital Newspaper Collection.
8. “A Natural Gallows,” San Francisco Call, 8 March 1896; “The Gallows Tree: Famous Live Oak of California That Is No More,” printed in outlets as widespread as Philadelphia Times, Saturday Journal (Lewiston, Me.), Daily Times (New Brunswick, N.J.), Daily Tribune (Bismarck, N.D.), and Daily News (Des Moines, Iowa) in 1897.
9. H. Dana Bowers, “Doctor’s Operate on ‘Hangman’s Tree’ by Bret Harte Cabin,” California Highways and Public Works 12 (March 1933): 35. Anti-Japanese photograph in John W. Winkley, “The Sage of 49 Flat,” Ghost Town News 2 (Dec. 1942): 12. Ghost Town News was a bimonthly western history magazine published from Ghost Town Village at Knott’s Berry Place.
10. “Home Exhibit Visitors to See Hangman Tree,” Los Angeles Times, 25 May 1930.
11. “Shoved Aside for Rocket,” Los Angeles Times, 4 Feb. 1965; “Gallows Toppled,” Los Angeles Times, 11 Feb. 1965; “Calabasas: Old ‘Hanging Tree’ Felled by Storm,” Los Angeles Times, 27 Jan. 1995.
Surfers will be stoked to read The World in the Curl: An Unconventional History of Surfing—as will anyone who has, at some point, felt the allure of the sport, if only from the shore. The authors, both surfers and professors of history in southern California, offer a wide-ranging study of the sport, which “shows how surfing, at every point in its history, reflected—and shaped—the world around it.”
The story they tell is ambitious and compelling: a narrative of world history recounted through the lens of surfing’s own evolution. The authors capture the inherent paradoxes of the sport: the tensions between its global appeal and fierce history of localism, between its iconic image as a “natural” pursuit and its institutional history of environmental apathy (or worse, exploitation), and between its cultivated image as a nonconformist counterculture and its perennial trendsetting status in mainstream marketing. The World in the Curl challenges its readers to appreciate the fine points of the sport’s development at the same time that it holds a mirror up to its seedy and even violent historical moments and its deeply-suspect history (in Western manifestations of the sport) of ingrained racism and sexism.
The book is at its best when it conveys the voices of those individuals whose stories intersect with that of the sport itself as they pioneered its growth and development. Some of the most compelling of these voices emerge from the margins of the narrative, and none more so than those of women surfers who faced obstacles more daunting than the crest of a high wave for a place of their own in the lineup. In its final chapters, the story moves deeper and deeper into the postwar twentieth century, becoming dense with the details of military technology and chemical manufacturing, until it is entirely drawn into the whirlpool vortex of contemporary corporate culture. As climate change continues to affect our oceans’ coastlines, the intertwined histories of surfing, environmentalism, and social change, which the authors so deftly tease apart in their early chapters, will only become more powerfully important in the future of the sport.
Cartographers and historians have long mapped the vast body of water inside the Golden Gate that enabled San Francisco to become a major port connecting California to the world. However, few authors have looked as closely as Matthew Morse Booker looks, in “Down by the Bay,” at the fascinating frontier where land meets sea. Moreover, no one has demonstrated as clearly as he the operation of the law of unintended consequences in our own backwaters and backyards.
For example, Booker shows that the planting of Atlantic oysters in San Francisco Bay altered the bay’s ecology. He also argues convincingly that hydraulic mining for gold in the Sierras sent millions of tons of soil and rock rushing down streams and rivers, such as the Sacramento and San Joaquin, then into the bay, where habitat never recovered.
Booker is certainly familiar with his subject. An associate professor of history at North Carolina State University, he also leads the Between the Tides project at Stanford’s Spatial History Lab.
From beginning to end, his colorful yet unsentimental history delivers a dire message: For almost every action that humans have taken in and around the bay, there have been equal and opposite reactions, usually detrimental to fish, fowl and the fecundity of the environment. “What seemed like good ideas in the nineteenth century created a cascade of consequences in the twentieth century and impossible choices in the twenty-first,” the author writes in a chapter titled “Reclaiming the Delta.”
Dredged and polluted, its shape and depths altered by the hands of men and machines, the bay has shrunk in size while streets, sidewalks and malls have spread. Commuters who cross by bridges and ferries take our greatest treasure for granted, the author suggests, and rarely realize that it’s a construct of both nature and human beings. With ocean levels rising rapidly, time may be running out, Booker warns, for communities that crowd our damaged waterways.
By focusing on the waterfront and on the tidelands, marshes and swamps, Booker gives the city a fresh face; the familiar becomes strange and wonderful. Early on, he traces the demise of sleepy Yerba Buena, a distant outpost of Mexico, and conjures up the rise of raucous San Francisco as the commercial heart of an empire within an empire. Booker allows facts and stories to speak for themselves.
In 1835, he explains, President Andrew Jackson tried to buy the port from Mexico for $5 million. Two decades later, when California was part of the United States, the banker, William Tecumseh Sherman – who would lead Union troops through Georgia – noted of San Francisco, “Everybody seemed to be making money fast.”
Not everyone – as Booker shows. Chinese laborers dredged rivers, constructed levees and carved farmlands from swamps. They didn’t make money fast. The land speculator George Roberts, who hired 3,000 Chinese men to build his levees, observed, “I do not think we could get the white men to do the work. It is a class of work that white men do not like.”
Perhaps because he’s an academic with an eye on learning, Booker sums up his main points as though getting students ready for finals. Then, too, prejudices occasionally interfere with his story. “The symbol of the West,” he writes, is “the pile of tin cans in front of a shanty or the extravagant imported items on the menu of a gold rush restaurant.” Surely, the West is also the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge, Golden Gate Park, the Golden Gate itself and the San Francisco Wildlife Refuge that Booker touts as a “precious island of waterfowl habitat in the midst of one of the world’s great urban areas.” Indeed, in the superlative and inspiring penultimate chapter, he recounts the dramatic rise of the ecology movement that helped save the bay for future generations.
For those who remember legendary Chronicle reporter Harold Gilliam and his outstanding books about San Francisco and its waters, “Down by the Bay” is a genuine pearl in the sea of contemporary environmental writing.
Jonah Raskin writes regularly for Boom. He last reviewed two new books on the artist Richard Diebenkorn. This review of “Down by the Bay” originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Photo of oyster beds in the San Francisco Bay in 1889 courtesy of National Archives.
At their westernmost end, the Santa Monica Mountains scrape straight up from the Pacific, Highway 1 precariously strapped to their sides. Like the abyssal batholith of the Sierra, except on a smaller scale, these mountains are one mass of rock, thrust up and eroded above ground, deeply rooted, impervious below. Water does not flow past them.
At their eastern end the mountains seem to get smaller, shrink down to hills at Griffith Park, but in fact the ridge has sounded, diving underground. Bedrock lies only forty feet below the surface.
Say you are water. From mountains’ ridgelines, you flow down. From the San Gabriels, by which you were raked by snow from winter storms, from the Santa Susanas and the Verdugo Hills as spring rain, you flow southwards, toward the sea.
You erode and carry stone. You rush down. When you emerge from steep canyons, you lose your carrying power, leaving your offerings of boulders and other large stones at the feet of the mountain slopes, sweeping sand, clay, and silts farther along.
All the waters moving among the sediments of the San Fernando Valley floor come up against the mass of the semi-submerged Santa Monicas and are pushed upward to the surface, begin to move with greater force. Those waters are the Los Angeles River. When they come to the end of the bedrock that holds them from their progress toward the sea, they curve around it, moving faster.
Concrete cannot hold this upwelling.
Almost every late 20th century newspaper article you might read about the river refers to its use as a Hollywood movie set, but what is used in that way is not the river itself but the container made for it. Many other nouns used in place of the river—“sewer,” “sea of cement,” “storm drain”—also refer to this container. Writers who speak of the river being “crammed into a cement suit,” or “corseted,” separate the river waters from the structures of their containment, but don’t seem to agree about the river’s gender.
Engineers from the Army Corps contemplate their final solution in 1948.
Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
The more articles you read, the more you would learn about encounters in earlier centuries between humans and the river: how the Franciscans were fooled into establishing their mission next to what were placid, wide waters in the late summer of 1769; how Californios naively followed suit and built their pueblo near the riverbank two years later.
The Anglo Angelenos grew tired of replacing their washed-out bridges; how Progressive Era believers in the social benefits of parklands hired the sons of Frederick Law Olmstead in the 1930s to create a plan for seventy thousand acres of open space along the river. That plan was ditched after floods killed 130 people. You would read about the “final solution”—a loaded term for containment in the late 1930s—to enclose the waters in concrete. A photograph from 1948 shows businessmen with white shirtsleeves rolled up, ties dangling as they lean over what are called “models of proposed channel improvement.” In another photo, huge bulldozers diminish the men. Behind them, a channel is cut in sand for the river that, despite the conversion it is even at that moment undergoing, is flowing on in its own way.
A Studio City bridge washed out by the 1938 floods.
Courtesy of the USC Digital Library.
Along the three-mile reach called the Glendale Narrows that curves around the base of Griffith Park, where the waters come to the corner of the Santa Monican bedrock, the river is uncontainable. While walls were built to direct the river’s path, the waters come up through the sand and silt, cobble and gravel with such force that they displace any cement suit they might be corseted in.
Accounts agree that the Army Corps of Engineers went on enclosing the river and its above-ground tributaries in concrete through the 1960s and that even as the Corps built, runoff from development in the San Fernando Valley—paving, roadbuilding, homebuilding, freeway-raising—outstripped the system’s carrying capacity by twenty-five percent. To keep up with the river they created, the Corps began to develop plans to raise the walls higher to contain it.
When the rains returned at the end of the drought of the 1990s, waters raged through the channels at 35 miles per hour; storm drains backed up, trapping motorists; lives were lost. In 1996, a writer at the London Guardian, who has the river beginning in the San Gabriel mountains on the east side of the basin (the hydrological story) and emerging 20 miles away on the west side, in Canoga Park (the Corps’ story), tells a made-for-TV-drama story about a maintenance worker helicoptered out of the riverbed when a raging torrent spawned by heavy rains deluged the cab of his machine. In 1997, Canadian and Australian newspapers picked up a story of three teenagers who were drowned when an Alhambra box culvert was filled by a wall of water that started as a downpour miles away, but they mis-locate where that rain fell; neither those lost local kids nor the far-flung journalists were able to parse the illegible scrawl of culverts and channels through which the waters move.
Floodwaters rushing along the Narrows southward under the Los Feliz Bridge in 1978.
Courtesy of the Clarence Inman Collection.
And water was rising elsewhere. State Supreme Court Justice Broussard had declared in 1983 that the value of diverting Mono Lake’s water to thirsty Los Angeles was to be balanced with the lake’s environmental and recreational value. The net result: LADWP was required to take less water in order to allow the depleted lake to rise again. Some people began to think of all that water in the culverts as running wasted into the sea; others, inspired by the Mono Lake success story, began to think of the river. Still others, people whose property would be damaged should the structure fail, supported plans to strengthen it and approved of the bulldozers that regularly cleared the channel of the vegetation that made for habitat.
In a flush economy, voters with money in their pockets passed a park bond. A state with a surplus in its coffers established a new park on former railyards adjacent to the river. More money went to converting more sides of the waterway into bike paths. The City of Los Angeles hired a Pasadena consulting firm to develop a plan to revitalize the river. That plan became part of the city’s Master Plan in 2007. All the money spent on planning ran wasted into the sea in 2008, when the economy tanked.
Meet the river. Stand on one of those paved paths, shaded by the Hyperion Bridge arching over the Narrows where, in the uncorseted river below, an egret stalks in reeds growing between cobbles. You might talk to a cyclist who brings his bike on the back of his car from Mt. Washington to ride from Los Feliz to Burbank and back. To get to the bike path he drives the freeway that follows a boxed-in tributary to the river, Arroyo Seco Creek, named for the canyon it flows through.. He does not live next to the river, which is dry most of the time. He cannot ride next to the creek from his home to the river because the confluence is buried beneath the freeway junction. He takes off in his neon gear, shoulders up, head down.
The river is scenic under the Glendale-Hyperion Bridge in this 1939 postcard but is quietly disappeared from the scene as it heads south toward downtown Los Angeles.
Were you to talk to folks up and down the river, their stories might seem to add up to a class divide: People who can afford to recreate in and along the river want it to have water in it. People who live downriver, who can’t afford increased flood insurance costs, don’t. This could just as well look like an upstream-downstream divergence. If you consulted other experts, however, you would hear other stories: of upstream Asians and Latinos of lower economic standing supporting the greening of the river, of river advocates seeking environmental justice for those low income people pushed to the edge.
Were you to walk where cyclists ride, you would see vacant warehouses, weedy triangles of lot ends, buckling parking lots, sycamores in rectangles of dirt, back fences of backyards of houses. Through some of those fences, you might see vegetable gardens, dark citrus and saw-leaved loquat trees, unraveling lawn chairs, pinwheels. Over the rush of the freeway, you might hear train bells, rumbling of engines, the clatter of coupling. You might hear the people who live in the tight-packed houses that back up to the Narrows express fears that increasing access makes their homes more vulnerable to crime.
The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy has converted a few of the weedy, asphalted lot ends into pocket parks. The newer ones seem as much parodies of parks as the river does of itself. The “Steelhead Park” is comprised of a series of concrete terraces planted with native shrubs and a fence embellished with metal fish cutouts. The plants are overpowered by the concrete poured to contain them. However, in another park, saplings have grown high enough to create inviting shade. Two paths diverge. On the lower, two homeless men sit on a bench. They might offer a welcome. Most of the time, the water will flow placid in the channel below.
Between the two parks, where the engineers decided the river bottom could be covered again, where the Glendale Narrows comes to its end, the river, quiet in summer, noses at the rough, broken concrete triangles tilting above the flow, oblique peaks around which the water creases. On one of these, someone has spray-painted “BURIED IN A CONCRETE,” and on another, the eroded word “COFFIN” is split into its syllables. The force of the river wrenched the concrete in two. On a third slab, dragged by those same waters even further away over the cracked concrete bed, the imperative “BREAK AWAY” is nearly rubbed out. The river’s way of commenting on its container.
In July 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the river navigable. This releases it from the control of the Army Corps of Engineers and puts its waters under the protection of Federal Clean Water Act. The following summer, a limited number of people received weekend permits to paddle a short stretch of the river. The 280 spots sold out in ten minutes.
River activists have targeted another rail yard to convert into a public park made up of grassy playing fields laid over gravel beds, which would serve as a flood basin in rainy years, a tiny emulation of the river’s old ways. The land in question is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad, who uses it to transfer shipping containers between semi-truck trailers and rail cars. They claim the yard is in use 24/7; those who want the park claim the site is underutilized and assert that the transfer yard is “not the highest and best use of the land.”
Back in the 1920s, wilderness lovers protested LADWP’s plans to take water from the Eastern Sierra streams that fed Mono Lake. The Water Commission of the time, even acknowledging the harm the diversions would cause, followed state policy that use of water for domestic purposes was the “highest use.” Since Justice Broussard’s 1983 landmark decision, environmental and recreational uses must be balanced with domestic and commercial. Arguing against the railroad, the river advocates appropriate the very term that has justified a century of environmental harm.
Conflicting agendas swirl and eddy. Union Pacific asserts it will continue to use the rail yard. An LA City Council member describes the potential transformation as “converting dead space into something that’s lucrative.” The site may be environmentally compromised and perhaps recreationally useless, but it is not economically dead. The transfer of goods is as essential to California’s vitality as water is its lifeblood. And its river neighbor is not merely the “product” the revitalization designers have come up with. In their progress from headwaters to the sea, its waters drop further in elevation, in one-fortieth of the distance, than the Mississippi. When in flood, they move with four times the force.
The Narrows is a good place to visit, because it’s where the irrepressible river insists on emerging. Water will come out of the sky (we hope). It will gather on the ridgelines and flow into the canyons. It will flow around obstacles in soft creases or in a muddy torrent. We can direct it or make room for it. The issue is perhaps not whether soccer balls or shipping containers or birders or cyclists will circulate along the river banks, but how to take those insistent waters into account.
Photo courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.
Calling all Los Angeles neighborhood connoisseurs, local historians, and amateur detectives!
Where was this photo taken?
While working on our fall issue, which will focus on the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, we uncovered a curious photo album about the aqueduct at the Huntington Library. The album ends with this neat photograph of a woman watering her lawn at 1837 Canyon Drive in 1915. But which Canyon Drive? Can you help us pin this photograph to a map? We’d like to rephotograph the site for our fall issue.
Here’s another clue: The photo album features two men, W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver, who took a car trip along the L.A. Aqueduct just two years after its construction. We think it’s an interesting early example of the evolving attitude of Angelenos toward water, the southern California landscape, car culture, travel and tourism, photography, and even movies, but we’re thirsty for more information. Do you know where in the Los Angeles area we can find this 1837 Canyon Drive? Do you have any idea who W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver were, or the woman, who is identified only as “the Slacker,” who is “using the water” that came all the way from Owens Valley to water her lawn? Help us crack the case!
Leave a reply here or send editor Jon Christensen an email. See our contact page for his email address. Please let us know what your evidence is, and when we track down the address and re-photograph the site, you’ll get credit here on our blog and in print for helping us solve this mystery!
UPDATE: Mystery solved — and a family member revealed!
Thanks to our readers, we’ve been able to figure out a lot about 1837 Canyon Drive, the aqueduct explorers, and the “Slacker” watering her lawn. The home was in Hollywood, but has since been demolished and replaced with a modern apartment building. W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver are William Henry Frick and Julius Goodwin Oliver, and the woman watering her lawn is Oliver’s niece, Lillian, who lived with him. And most exciting of all, Ann Campbell, a relative of Oliver and Frick, heard about our search and reached out to us. She has allowed us to share some of her family photographs, including the one above.
Watch for our Fall 2013 issue of Boom, when we will tell more about their photographic expedition and publish the full photo album online!
No matter how they got there—over land, by sea, or by a circuitous combination of both—western migrants in the rush that followed the whiff of gold at Sutter’s Mill often found their baggage lighter at the end of their long journey. Some blamed the elements. For Stephen Chapin Davis on board the steamship Philadelphia in July 1850, the enemy was weather. After enduring four days of a wretched storm, Davis complained in his diary of “not having anything dry on board” and that all his possessions, even his food, had “been soaked in salt water.”1 Weather and other hindrances routinely conspired against ambitious travelers hoping to transport the trappings of home to new outposts out West. Forced into hard and often wrenching decisions, travelers unloaded possessions along the way. The more portable the keepsake, the more likely it was to survive the grueling trek.
This may help explain the ubiquity of a particular kind of diary in collections of western Americana. Known colloquially in the mid-nineteenth-century as a pocket diary, today we’d call it a daily planner. Although it had roots in the colonial almanac, its printed contents appeared more modern, with features such as calendar pages, postal rates, interest tables, and preformatted sections devoted to daily diary entries and cash accounts. The title page of a Kiggins & Kellogg edition from New York read “Daily Pocket Diary for the year 1858: for the Purpose of Registering Events of Past, Present, and Future Occurrence.” It might seem ephemeral from our vantage point, but these unassuming stationery items were not just a matter of convenience or making do with whatever was at hand. They were brought along with commitment and conviction, carrying as much weight as a cherished tea set or family Bible. Published and printed in distant cities such as Boston and New York and containing features keyed to those locales, the daily planner allowed migrants to maintain ties to the places they left behind and to transplant entrenched cultural habits to their new homes.
John Mason, an overland immigrant, purchased his 1858 Pocket Diary published by Kiggins & Kellogg when he had already been living in California nearly four years. Enduring the overland trek from St. Louis and along the California trail, he had arrived in Sacramento in June 1855 and found work on river steamers heading in and out of Sacramento. On an end leaf of the three-by-four-inch volume with a foldover or “tuck” closure, he penciled a simple inscription, a mark of ownership: “John T. Mason, Sacramento.”2 While it’s unclear where Mason bought the diary, the real mystery is why. What was the use of having a diary whose monthly calendar pages contained the times of sunrise and sunset for New York, or advertisements for the wide selection of books and stationery in Kiggins & Kellogg’s new storefront at “123 and 125 William Street, Between John and Fulton Sts.”? Perhaps Mason was a New York native and, like rereading a cherished letter from home, found comfort in having a diary printed in his hometown. But a nostalgic attachment to the symbols of home alone cannot explain how frequently these diaries turn up in the archives.
James and Madilia Scofield, cousins in southern Connecticut before each set out separately for California in 1849, became husband and wife five years later in 1854. By that time, Scofield had abandoned any hope of striking gold and opened a general store in Stockton selling miner’s supplies and household goods. Like Mason, both Scofields preferred a New York-manufactured datebook to anything local. Year after year, until their eventual return to Connecticut (after making their fortune!), the Scofields remained loyal customers of the Daily Pocket Diary . . . for the Use of Private Families and Persons of Business, Published Annually for the Trade. The title continued on, listing the diary’s key features such as a banking table, counting-house calendar, and a “blank space for memorandums for every day in the year.”3
The real mystery is why.
In Auburn Ravine, 1852
Many frontier settlers such as these pictured in Auburn Ravine, circa 1852, transplanted their diaries and the habits that accompanied them from homes back east.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA STATE LIBRARY.
For customers like the Scofields, the decision to purchase a New York planner over a blank book or local almanac may have been for lack of alternatives. It took some time for West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento to rival the variety and sophistication of the publishing output of Eastern firms. Apart from travel manuals, local newspapers, and a variety of regional almanacs, Western cities turned out a limited print fare at mid-century. Most guides were published in St. Louis or Cincinnati, cities that had a much more vibrant publishing scene. The Great Western Almanac for 1846 was published by Joseph McDowell in Philadelphia, of all places. Sloan’s Almanac and Traveler’s Guidefor 1851 was published by W.B. Sloan at 40 Lake Street in Chicago. Some western publishers partnered with eastern firms to put out even the most basic print matter. In order to publish The Prairie Almanac for 1857, Thomas Orton, proprietor of the Western Book Emporium in Davenport, Iowa, teamed up with a New York firm and borrowed copy from the United States Almanac for that year. Likewise, The California Almanac for 1849 had San Francisco on its title page but was printed by George Rand in Boston. Nelson Slater, originally of Champlain, New York, now of Sacramento, collaborated with P.L. Platt to write The Traveler’s Guide Across the Plains, Upon the Overland Route to California.4 Nevertheless, the limited variety in Western bookstores seems inadequate to justify the lengths customers were willing to go to import a daily planner from back East.
Diaries bridged the distance
For a long time, I puzzled over the prevalence of these commercial diaries in collections of Western migrants. They certainly delivered on those virtues suitable for the traveler, such as portability and durability, which was a big part of their appeal. But the reference matter was all wrong, having more to do with the world they left behind than the one ahead. They contained monthly calendar pages with tide tables and calculations for Boston and/or New York, railroad tables with New York as its origin. I soon realized that the popularity of this Eastern diary represented more than convenience. The daily planner shrank the distance between coasts, mentally if not physically. It allowed the Scofields to imagine they were closer to Connecticut and helped them replicate what they left behind with a portable, inscribable symbol of home.
Mary Carpenter Diary, 1861
Diaries such as this one published in New York in 1861 are not uncommon in the collections of western immigrants.
IMAGE COURTESY OF UC IRVINE, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS.
The daily planner was the material embodiment of a cultural habit of daily record keeping that could be traced to the Protestant pledge to “improve the time.” The serially dated spaces in a prefabricated diary had a way of making one persevere with the daily task of “keeping account,” whereas a blank page in a journal could be more forgiving of the passage of time. Madilia Scofield confessed as much when she noted in April 1856 that she’d neglected to write in her journal for several days “on account of sickness.” However, she did manage to record a few lines in her daily register in hopes “that I may improve [the time] in a proper maner.”5
The kind of diary the Scofields chose was key to the process of making California feel, at least for them, more like Connecticut.
The order and regularity embedded in the diary’s format helped them transplant some of their Yankee values to a new, foreign, and oftentimes dangerous place. James Scofield acknowledged such perils when he recorded on 10 February 1854, that he had attended a murder trial. While he wished “the poor fellow a merciful sentence,” James admitted that “some rigid examples are necessary to break up the wanton use of fire arms.” The habit of keeping a daily diary was just one more convention the Scofields brought with them to their new home. In keeping that daily account, they recorded for posterity all those other customs they refused to forego, such as making calls on New Year’s Day, receiving visitors for tea, or attending Sunday services and lyceum lectures. Even April Fool’s Day was observed, as Madilia noted in 1856: “This is the first day of April. A day devoted by some to fool makeing. I believe the practice is quite prevalent here.”6
Just as the Scofields seemed intent, despite the new terrain, on maintaining their Yankee rituals of New Year’s Day visits and afternoon tea, John Mason peppered his diary entries with mentions of outings to the theater, buying “segars,” and attending “church.” Apart from the inscription that placed him firmly in Sacramento, a reader might not even realize what town or city Mason was writing in. There were but a few clues, such as the anomalous note that he’d given “25” cents to an “indian,” that Mason resided anywhere west of the Mississippi. He even chose to commemorate significant events of the American Revolution at the opening of his 1858 Pocket Diary: “the Battle of Lexington,” “Richmond destroyed,” the “battle of cowpens,” and “peace declared with Gt Brit.” It didn’t make him any less patriotic, or American, that he’d gotten many of the dates wrong.
In similar fashion, James Scofield remembered the day, 8 January, on which the final battle of the War of 1812 was fought in a blank space reserved for that day in his 1855 diary. He wrote: “To-day is the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans. No demonstration of whatever kind in this city.”7 James’s memorial to the final battle of the War of 1812 affirming America’s independence and opening up the settlement of the West reflects his sense of a shared history, though one not nearly as universal as in Connecticut. James seemed shocked that the anniversary passed unnoticed in Stockton. It is just this sense of communal history, tradition, and values that the pocket diary affirmed for customers like Mason and the Scofields. Although far from home, their loyalty to this commercial product signified that they were not willing to abandon their places of origin. Just because they were removed from the urban centers of the East to an outpost experiencing its first turbulent years of statehood did not make them any less American.
It took a few years for Bancroft to realize the significance of the transplanted publication.
The Bancroft Company, operating from its Market Street headquarters, published a commercial diary to rival Eastern brands and provide California with a daily planner all its own.
Illustration by Charles John Dickman.
COURTESY OF THE BANCROFT LIBRARY, UC BERKELEY.
Not until after the Civil War did West Coast publishers begin producing a commercial diary similar to those brands emigrants had carried with them. By that time even John Mason had replaced his New York-made diaries with a California “original,” Bancroft’s Diary for 1872 Containing Useful Memoranda, and Tables for Reference. Nearly twenty years after Hubert Howe Bancroft first arrived by steamer in San Francisco with a consignment of books and stationery, his brother A.L. Bancroft, entrusted with the business his brother had built, erected a five-story edifice to the family’s publishing empire at 721 Market Street, and announced that the “business has been remodeled to conform to the new order of things. It is selling goods upon the lowest possible margin of profits. Satisfaction guaranteed. The public are cordially invited to visit the new premises.”8
It may be no coincidence that this announcement appeared as an advertisement on the back page of Bancroft’s Diary for 1872, a California-branded diary viewed as an extension of Bancroft’s vision for “the new order of things.” Bancroft could hardly take credit for the design, a blatant copy of the formula Eastern publishers had found so successful and lucrative. That meant the basics were essentially the same, with calendar and diary sections formatted exactly as the Kiggins & Kellogg’s versions decades earlier. Only now Bancroft’s diaries, which included many different styles denoted as “No. 306,” and such, along the binding, were outfitted with data tailored for the local populace: fire alarm stations and hack fares for San Francisco, locations of the city’s public offices and buildings, monthly tide tables for San Francisco, distance tables from San Francisco to various points in the vicinity of San Francisco Bay, and a complete table of US stamp duties including the California Stamp Tax. Although not new or original, California finally got a diary all its own. It took a few years for Bancroft to realize the significance of the transplanted publication. In 1875, he applied to Congress for a copyright and renamed Bancroft’s Diary the Pacific Coast Diary.9
Title page of a Bancroft diary modeled after popular East Coast brands.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE OAKLAND MUSEUM OF CALIFORNIA.
By that time, the Scofields had decamped and returned to Connecticut. John Mason, however, converted to the Pacific Coast brand after abandoning river work and becoming a rancher in Colusa County. Others followed suit, such as Boston native John Thomas, who emigrated to California in 1857 and turned to lumbering after failing as a prospector. In addition to two large account books, Thomas kept daily records of deliveries, his health, and the weather in annual editions of the Pacific Coast Diary from 1874 to 1885. A.G. Peyton, a wood-chopper, trapper, and pit worker, used the daily entries in his Pacific Coast Diary for 1875 to detail payment for various odd jobs in mining camps in Humboldt County. Even Nelson Slater, author of the 1852 edition of The Traveler’s Guide Across the Plains, was using a Pacific Coast Diary by 1876 after settling in Sacramento as a minister and school administrator.10 Once it was adopted by Bancroft’s prolific publishing house, the daily planner became more attuned to the needs of those newcomers to the Pacific Coast, the settlers who turned gold fields and port cities into centers of commercial and cultural exchange.
The popularity of this stationery product, a European-bred symbol of order and regularity, amongst the gold miners and fortune seekers in early California seems paradoxical—until we read them. The accumulation of mundane, daily entries reveal how critical and powerful these commercially-printed products could be in conveying a sense of place, both old and new. For these California transplants, the choice of a daily planner was consequential, not casual, and instrumental to their efforts to settle into the rhythms of a life in the West.
1. William Benemann, ed., A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849–1850 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), x. 2. John T. Mason diaries, 1849–1888, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. 3. James M. Scofield papers, 1823–1923, American Antiquarian Society (AAS). 4. Sloan’s Almanac, Great Western Almanac, and The Prairie Almanac in the Graff Collection, Newberry Library; The California Almanac for . . . 1849, Ayer Collection, Newberry Library; and Nelson Slater and Henrietta Slater McIntire papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. 5. Madilia Scofield 1856 diary, James M. Scofield Papers, AAS. To put these entries into broader, historical context, see Stuart Sherman, Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and the English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). See also Alexis McCrossen, Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000). 6. James M. Scofield papers, AAS. 7. John T. Mason diaries, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; and James M. Scofield papers, AAS. 8. The business records of A.L. Bancroft & Co., including samples of the “Pacific coast diaries,” are located at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. 9. John T. Mason diaries, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. 10. John Thomas diaries and account books, 1874–1885; A.G. Peyton diary, 1875; Nelson Slater and Henrietta Slater McIntire papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Paiute oral traditions and the Owens Valley Water Wars
In 1935, Susie Baker, an Owens Valley Paiute elder from Big Pine, California, told the following story: A giant approached the Alabama Hills, a range of small hills and protruding rock formations on the Valley’s southern edge.1 As the giant reached the hills, he screamed at the top of his great voice. Frightened, people scurried from their hiding places. As they fled, the giant picked them up and killed them. He planned to take his victims home for a feast with his wife. When the giant reached Tinemaha, a peak that looms over the Owens Valley, he again screamed at the top of his voice. More people ran from their hiding places, and the giant picked them up, too, and killed them. He traveled as far north as Tupueseenata (Hammil Valley) and then decided to return home with his prey.
The Alabama Hills. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE BERADI.
But the waterbaby, a spirit that lives in lakes, grew tired of the giant’s screaming, which had frightened him several times. Waterbaby knew when the giant would pass by his home in the Owens Lake, so he went near the trail, lay down on a rock, and waited. When the giant approached, screaming, he saw the waterbaby lying on the rock. The giant asked where his mother and father were, but the waterbaby refused to answer. The giant pressed the waterbaby’s little fingers to see if it would scream, but the waterbaby never said a word. The giant pressed his little head, but the waterbaby did not even mumble. Again the giant asked, “Little boy, where is your mother and father?” The waterbaby said nothing. The giant pinched the waterbaby’s finger, saying, “You have a very little hand and pretty little body.” The waterbaby sat up and seized the giant by the forefinger. The giant exclaimed, “Let me go, you must have thought I was your dad or mother but I am not!” The giant tried to escape with his great strength, but it was useless. The waterbaby stood up, dragged the giant to the edge of Owens Lake, and threw him into the water. Then the waterbaby jumped in after the giant and took him down to the bottom. Years later, the waterbaby took the giant’s bones and threw them opposite the Alabama Hills, across the Owens River, which drains into the lake. The remains of the giant’s bones are still there, Baker informed the younger Paiute woman who recorded her story.
There are multiple meanings to this story, not only for the Owens Valley Paiutes but for all who have an interest in the Owens Valley. Scholars and folklorists know that such oral traditions are far from fantasy or quaint myths. Baker, seventy years old at the time, purposefully used the story to contemplate the history and consequences of a crucial event in California history. She concluded her narrative by saying that the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant still existed, but “It may be destroyed by the Los Angeles aqueduct builders. The waterbaby’s home may be still there. I do hope it’s there.”2
Owens Lake. PHOTOGRAPH BY ALAN LEVINE.
The aqueduct to which Susie Baker refers is, of course, the famous channel that siphoned water from the Owens Valley toward Los Angeles, and its construction was a seminal part of the Owens Valley Water Wars.
The Water Wars
A popular topic of study in California’s history, the Water Wars have inspired many books and the film Chinatown. Authors have used the Owens Valley saga to assess the environmental and economic causes and consequences of water diversion.3 Yet in too many of these histories, scholars ignore the Owens Valley’s Indigenous inhabitants. Paiutes may appear as static “first inhabitants” of the Valley, but then they disappear, allegedly conquered by Owens Valley “pioneers.” They were thought to have had little at stake in the Owens Valley Water Wars—a sentiment that Susie Baker refuted. Water and the conflict over this precious resource were on the minds of Owens Valley Paiutes when they told oral narratives in the 1930s.4
Beginning in 1905, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bought land and water rights from Owens Valley settlers. In 1913, the Department of Water completed an aqueduct that brought the water from Owens Lake and Owens River the 230 miles to Los Angeles. In the 1920s, conflicts between Owens Valley farmers and the City of Los Angeles developed. Drought had reduced the amount of water available for productive farming in the valley, and angry farmers attempted to sabotage the aqueduct. Eventually, the farmer rebellion failed and they sold more land and water rights to Los Angeles. By the 1930s, the city of Los Angeles owned 95 percent of the Owens Valley’s farm and ranch land.5 Through all this, the Paiutes and their oral traditions remained.
Owens River. PHOTOGRAPH BY RALPHMAN.
In 1935, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber of the University of California secured a state public works project grant and enlisted anthropology students to canvass the state and interview native peoples. Students Frank Essene, Frederick Hulse, and Abraham Halpern traveled to the Owens Valley to conduct their fieldwork. Anthropologists often hired younger Paiutes to interview and interpret the oral testimony of elderly Paiutes, which enabled Paiutes to control and shape historical and contemporary narratives. Many of these oral traditions involved or were related to water.
Oral traditions, those stories told for more than one generation that reflect social, economic, cultural, and political contexts, represent the ways in which indigenous people remembered and told their histories.6 Paiutes related their ethnogenesis to a specific river, which enunciated their relationship with water, and identified the location of springs as a way to define a historical consciousness that depends on place rather than chronology.7
Paiute oral traditions not only contemplate the past, they intentionally reflect and comment upon contemporary events. The diversion of water from the Owens Valley was one of the most important events in Paiute lives and politics, if not in all of California. Paiutes revised their oral traditions in a struggle between themselves and Anglo settlers over the meanings and consequences of Settler Colonialism in California.8 In their oral traditions, Paiutes argued that the war began at Paiute creation, not in 1905, when Frederick Eaton began to purchase land in the Owens Valley. The antagonist, rather than the City of Los Angeles, was more often than not the Owens Valley settler. And the ultimate victors in the wars may not have been the city of Los Angeles, but the Paiutes themselves—their systems of knowledge and their efforts to reclaim water.
Identity and water
At a basic level, Paiute oral traditions define Paiute identity. In the 1920s, George Collins, a Paiute man in his thirties or forties from Fish Springs, said that the Owens Valley Paiutes called themselves nün’wa paya hūp ca’á otūŭ’mu, “we are water ditch coyote children.” In one version of their creation story, Coyote the creator placed Paiutes next to the “water ditch,” or the Owens River, that runs through the Valley.9
Anthropologists lump Owens Valley Paiutes into the Great Basin cultural area and have attempted to define them by their language and economy. Paiutes speak Mono, a dialect of the Numic language mostly spoken in the present-day states of Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and California. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe Paiutes settled the Owens Valley as early as 600 C.E., but archaeological evidence shows that indigenous people occupied the Valley 5,000 or perhaps 6,500 years ago. A common trait of Great Basin Indians was their ability to adapt a hunting and harvesting economy to the arid environment east of the Sierra Nevada and west of the Rocky Mountains.10
But whereas anthropological cultural areas, such as the “Great Basin,” identified practices that indigenous people of a specific region shared, and archaeologists endeavored to discern a specific time or date when Paiute culture appeared in the Owens Valley, Paiutes demonstrated the importance of place in their sense of self. Paiute ethnogenesis occurred next to a known and specific body of water; they were not “water ditch coyote children” until Coyote created or placed them next to the Owens River. Oral traditions explicitly linked Paiute identity to Paiute water, and water to Paiute worldview.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.
All things, especially water, are sentient in Paiute cosmology, with human emotions and abilities. In one story, a group of women are gathering basket-making materials near a lake at present-day Dyer, Nevada. The women foolishly begin to make fun of the water. Angrily, water leaps out of the lake and attempts to sweep them to the bottom.11 Although the lake fails to take its intended prey, water, like humans, feels insults and attempts to exact revenge for affronts.
Additionally, water possessed its own spirits, such as the waterbaby in Baker’s story.12 Often, waterbabies were troublesome sprites associated with bodies of water, such as lakes or rivers, although they also functioned as spirit helpers for healers. Another oral tradition relates that a group of children were playing at Pasasa’a (now known as Casa Diablo Hot Springs and home to a geothermal power plant). An impetuous boy begins to throw rocks into Pasasa’a, despite his peers’ warnings. A waterbaby emerges from the spring, abducts the boy and takes him under the water.13 Such stories about water revealed the way in which Paiutes understood and related to the world in which they lived—namely, that aspects of the physical world possessed access to supernatural forces. Moreover, these stories warned children of the real dangers of playing too close to springs, creeks, or lakes.
Paiutes animated water by imbuing it with puha, power or “a force or energy” that everything in the world possesses. Puha can have positive and harmful effects; it can be a generative or destructive force in the People’s lives. Yet the relationship between puha and water might be much more than just possessing power. The Paiute word for water—paya—sounds like puha, the word for power.14 A Southern Paiute man from Las Vegas described puha in liquid terms: it “flows into and down the sides of mountains.”15 The Paiute worldview accorded water an important role and place in the People’s lives.
The places of history
Paiute histories emphasize place, rather than chronology.16 Oral traditions and historical narratives move across space, not time; from place to place, not from date to date. Consider again the story of the giant, who traveled from one distinct place to another on the Owens Valley Paiute landscape. The giant walked from the Alabama Hills to Tinemaha to Tupueseenata and then returned to Owens Lake. Baker knew the exact location of the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant. Other stories about water, too, were clear about where they occurred. We know that the story of the basket-makers took place at Dyer, and the story of the children occurred at Pasasa’a. In the Owens Valley as well as the Yukon Territory, specific places serve as “anchors of memory,” linking human history to place.17 We don’t know when these stories occurred, but they are “true” from a Paiute perspective because they occurred at places known to historical and contemporary Paiutes.
PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.
Looking into the stories deeply, we see a narrative structure emerge that adheres to topographic features. In Paiute cosmology, high places such as the Alabama Hills or Tinemaha are associated with positive manifestations of puha. Hence, puha “flows down” from mountains. Benevolent spirits live on mountain peaks; doctors go to the tops of mountains to seek visions and puha itself. Low-lying areas, such as Owens Lake, Pasasa’a, and other bodies of water, usually (but not always) have negative manifestations of puha. Waterbabies emerge from water and snatch women and children. In between high and low areas are the plains, or Owens Valley itself, an area of stasis or what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan describes as “space.”18 Paiutes structure their oral narratives to replicate this understanding of their topography. Oral traditions begin in space, either on the plains or at the foot of the hills, and proceed to high or low places. The story of the giant originates at the foot of the Alabama Hills and then moves from named place to named place before the giant meets his end at Owens Lake.19 Other oral traditions about water adhere to this topographic narrative structure.
The Frog Sisters and Rattlesnake
Here is another story Susie Baker told in 1935: The Frog sisters lived at a spring. Rattlesnake, who lived about one mile or more away, planned to steal the spring away from them. He kept very close watch until he had a chance. One afternoon, when the Frog sisters were fast asleep and no one was around, Rattlesnake came down to the spring and drank as much as he could, holding the rest of the water in his mouth. He took every bit of the water in the spring and started for his home. He was about a half-mile away when the Frog sisters woke up and to their surprise found no water in their spring. They immediately investigated and guessed what had become of their water. They pursued Rattlesnake and saw him climbing up the hill. The Frog sisters followed him up the hill as fast as they could. Upon seeing the sisters in pursuit, Rattlesnake increased his speed, but as he ascended the mountain, he became tired, coughed, and spat out some of the water. He continued on his journey until the Frog sisters overtook him, stopped him, tickled him, and made him spit all the water he had in his mouth. The Frog sisters drank the water and took it back to their spring where they deposited the water in its rightful place.
This story embodies the topographic narrative structure that undergirded Paiute oral culture and history. As we can visualize, the story begins with Rattlesnake on the plains, moving down to the spring and stealing the water. Afterward, Rattlesnake climbs a hill, where the story’s positive resolution occurs. Additionally, Baker used the Paiute language to map the Owens Valley landscape. Baker identified the place where Frog sisters lived as ya qua java joh (Frog Spring). She called the place where the Frog sisters overtook Rattlesnake togo wamo cha qua tepu (Snake Spat Out).20
The Paiute landscape functioned as a mnemonic device, reminding Paiutes where valuable sources of water exist—essential knowledge in an arid environment.21 In 1935 Mattie Bulpitt, a ninety-five-year-old Paiute woman from Round Valley, told a variation of the Frog sisters and Rattlesnake story: “[Frog] owned a spring about five miles out, north of Big Pine and it still is there just below the state highway.” She also identified the locale of Snake Spat Out: “These willows can be seen still to this day near the top of the mountain just off the main state highway.”22 The places mentioned in Paiute oral traditions were not atavistic memories; they were meaningful locations that, on a daily basis, Paiutes saw and into which they invested meaning.
When Paiutes moved into the Owens Valley approximately 1,500 years ago, they grafted meanings on the area’s mountains, hills, valleys and waterways. These early Paiutes used language, stories and place names to create a home in the Owens Valley. They named the places in their homeland—the Owens Valley—in their own language: Mattie Bulpitt called the places “Frog Spring” and “Snake Spat Out.” With these oral and historical narratives, Paiutes transformed nebulous space into place and made a political claim on it. Naming a place is laden with power relationships and the act of naming generates debates over the meaning of those names.23
Early twentieth-century settler historians of the Owens Valley and Inyo County challenged Paiute ideas about history and the land. William Chalfant, a local news-paperman and contemporary in age to Susie Baker, wrote Owens Valley and Inyo County histories, constructing a usable past that glorified American settler colonialism.24 Settler histories use Indians as foils, introducing them as premodern people who gave way to civilized settlers. Chalfant dedicated his book “to the pioneers” and to his father, who was a “Pioneer of Inyo and [a] pioneer in endeavor[ing] for her moral as well as material growth.” Chalfant suggested that Paiutes failed to work for Owens Valley’s social and economic development. Then, he went so far as to deny Paiute indigenousness in two chapters on Paiute cultural practices, freezing them in the time in which they encountered Anglo settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, and denying them any history beyond. He argued that no one, not even the Paiutes, had occupied the Valley for long before Anglo Americans arrived. The Indigenous artists who made rock paintings in the Owens Valley, he claimed, were interlopers. He further argued that archaeological remains were the products of a “wandering warrior from some other region” and not of a long Paiute occupation. Finally, Chalfant provided detail into the process by which the Owens valley, river and lake received their name: Captain John C. Frémont named the area’s predominant features after a fur trading associate, Richard Owens.25 In the Owens Valley, as in southern New England, Settler naming-practices replaced “Indians in their homelands” and argued for the “indigeneity” of the Settlers themselves.26
Owens River at sunset. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARSHAL HEDIN.
Paiute oral traditions challenge Chalfant’s arguments. They argue that Paiutes had occupied the Owens Valley for a long time and possess a deep understanding of the area’s history through knowledge of places and what occurred there. Although “pioneers” had arrived in the Owens Valley and displaced the Paiutes—Mattie Bulpitt told her listeners—the place names, historical actors, and tellers of history remained. Although she did not explicitly refer to Chalfant’s work, likely, she and Susie Baker knew the meanings Settlers had embedded onto the Paiute landscape, and they refuted his arguments with their oral traditions. The story of Rattlesnake and the Frog sisters reasserted a Paiute landscape, known to them, defiant of American colonialism, which began in the 1850s.
Anglo colonialism and Paiute displacement
In the mid-nineteenth century, Anglo Americans arrived in the Owens Valley, which sparked conflict over natural resources. Jennie Cashbaugh, a seventy-year-old Paiute woman from Bishop, noted that “Trouble arose every now and then as the white people wanted more water.”27 American Settlers established a mining, pastoral, and agricultural economy in the Valley, which drained water from Paiute communities and resource areas. Conflict ensued as Paiutes clashed with miners, ranchers, and the military. In 1863, the California Volunteers forcibly removed nearly one thousand Paiutes to Fort Tejón.28 From there, federal officials relocated the Paiutes to the Tule River Reservation, near modern-day Porterville, California. By 1870, very few Paiutes remained at Tule River, for they had returned to the Owens Valley, but by that time, Anglo American farmers and ranchers had claimed much of the best land and water. Paiutes eked out a living by creating a mixed economy of wage labor, hunting, and using the little water available to irrigate gardens and small fields.29
Giving places Anglo American names signified the process by which Anglo Americans exerted rule over the region. Indeed, place-naming worked in concert with Settler economic practices and histories to erase Paiute histories and systems of knowledge. In the 1860s, Confederate sympathizers living in the Owens Valley named the Alabama Hills after the CSS Alabama, which sunk the Union ship Hatteras off the coast of Texas.30 Paiutes reclaimed such places by telling their own narratives about them. The Alabama Hills are not significant because they commemorate a Confederate naval victory, Paiutes tell listeners; they are important because they were the place from which the giant began his rampage and where, ultimately, he ended his journey and his exploitation of the People. Paiutes were not interlopers, recent arrivals or wandering warriors—they had a deep history in the Owens Valley.
An alternative history
If we continue to probe the sometimes murky meanings of oral tradition, other historical meanings and interpretations rise to the surface. Susie Baker deliberately ended the story of the giant with a reference to a contemporary event, that the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant “may be destroyed by the Los Angeles aqueduct builders.”31 Similarly, she concluded the story of Rattlesnake and the Frog sisters, “[ya qua java joh and togo wamo cha qua tepu] were springs at one time, but they are now dry.”32 In other words, in 1935, Frog Spring and Snake Spat Out no longer had water. Why not? Simply, someone had entered the Valley and drunk all the water.
Paiutes used their oral traditions to offer an alternative history of Paiute-American encounters and interpret the impact of those encounters on the water and, therefore, the People of the Owens Valley. “An enduring value of informal storytelling,” anthropologist Julie Cruikshank writes, “is its power to subvert official orthodoxies and to challenge conventional ways of thinking.”33 It is no surprise that the Paiutes called the Owens River the “water ditch,” for they irrigated the Owens Valley for centuries before Anglo Americans arrived. At a town Paiutes named pitana patü, near the modern-day town of Bishop, Paiutes used irrigation ditches to increase the growth of indigenous plants, such as nā’hāvīta (spike rush). In the spring, the town head man announced the beginning of the irrigation season, usually when snow runoff from the southern Sierra caused creeks to rise. Residents of pitana patü then elected or chose a tuvaijü’u, or irrigator, who led a corps of twenty-five men in building a dam out of rocks, brush, sticks, and mud on Bishop Creek. After completing the dam, the tuvaijü’u directed the water into the ditch, which fed northern and southern fields in alternate years.34 Stories about the “water ditch,” then, reposition Paiutes as the indigenous people of the Valley and those who had first used the water.
Owens Valley in the fall. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.
Paiute oral traditions reframed the timing of events. The Owens Valley Water Wars did not begin when Los Angeles Department of Water and Power representatives bought land in the Valley. Rather, the wars’ genesis flows back to creation, when Coyote placed his children next to the “water ditch.” After that, Paiutes productively used Owens Valley’s water by irrigating fields of nā’hāvīta. Then, Anglo Settlers arrived in the Valley, who seemingly could never slake their thirst for water.
Although Los Angeles entered the Valley and preyed on water, Paiutes identified new “villains” or antagonists in this story. In many Owens Valley histories, Los Angeles and its representatives are the story’s bad guys.35 Paiutes told it differently. Jennie Cashbaugh actually had kind words for Los Angeles: “The city of Los Angeles is a different proposition all together,” she said. “They would meet the Indians part way, they realize they have made the Indians homeless and took their work from them, the means of bread and butter they had, just a living but today they are fair enough to compromise with the Federal Government so as to give better land to the Indians to at least make a living.”36 Los Angeles, according to Cashbaugh, promised to work with the Paiutes, something that Owens Valley settlers had never offered. Unlike the settlers, who also “made the Indians homeless,” Los Angeles promised to create a land base for the Paiute and provided jobs in 1930 and 1931 on city-owned ranches, roads, and waterways.37 Settlers, on the other hand, had marginalized Paiutes to the lowest rung of the region’s economic ladder and usurped the best land in the Valley.38 For Paiutes, settlers (the typical victims in Anglo histories of the Owens Valley), not Los Angeles, served as antagonists.
Owens Valley. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.
If Paiutes reframed the chronological narrative of the Owens Valley Water Wars and pointed to new adversaries, they also used their oral traditions to address the unique ways in which the Water Wars affected the People. The disappearance of water particularly harmed Paiute women. When Jennie Cashbaugh described the sedge plants Paiutes gathered, she remarked, “Nā’hāvīta is a taboose class of seed food, [it] cannot be found in the Owens Valley since the Valley went dry. The plant must have all dried up, never to grow again.”39 The development of a mining and pastoral economy in the Owens Valley, and Los Angeles’s siphoning of the Valley’s water, destroyed indigenous food sources, specifically those harvested by Paiute women, and harvesting indigenous plants grounded women’s identities: At Creation, the Paiute Father gave baskets to women in which they could gather plants.40 Without water, women could not perform this essential contribution to the family economy. (Paiute women found job opportunities as domestic workers and washerwomen, but they were poor substitutes for these lost resources.)41
The Los Angeles aqueduct also threatened Paiute systems of knowledge. The aqueduct threatened to destroy the places where Paiute oral traditions occurred. Passing the Alabama Hills in the Owens Valley, Paiutes remember that screaming giant. Passing the rock where waterbaby waited for the giant reminds them of waterbaby’s unusual service to the People. If those places ceased to exist, the history might disappear. Likely, Owens Valley Paiutes had another sobering thought in the 1930s: If the water disappears, what will become of the People? What will become of “water ditch Coyote children”? When Frog Spring and Snake Spat Out were dry, and nā’hāvīta no longer grew in the Owens Valley, the very identity of the People was threatened. In 1935 this was literally true, and it was the result of the colonization of the Owens Valley.
Still, there is a glimmer of hope in these stories, a thought that Paiutes may emerge victorious. The stories of the giant and of Frog sisters refer to a predator entering the Owens Valley, moving across the Paiute landscape and harming the People. Both the giant and Rattlesnake act in ways that mimic the actions of Los Angeles. When the giant walks from Alabama Hills to Tupueseenata, he comes from the direction of Los Angeles (south) and parallels the pattern in which Los Angeles purchased land in the Owens Valley, moving from the south to the north. The Frog sisters story likewise resembles the history of Paiutes, Anglo settlers, and Los Angeles. Someone—Paiute leaders, the Office of Indian Affairs, Owens Valley settlers—was asleep when Rattlesnake crawled into the Valley and stole the water. At this point, it certainly looked bleak for Paiutes and water, with murderous giants and thieving Rattlesnakes.42
The stories’ conclusions, however, offer a positive narrative for the future. For one, the giant story suggests that the Paiutes were prepared for Los Angeles. They already knew that violent and threatening beings could come from the south and invade the north. Paiutes also knew that they and their water had the puha to defeat these large monsters. In parable-like fashion, the oral tradition of the Rattlesnake pointed out the folly of greed. Rattlesnake took too much water, for he could not swallow all of it. He eventually lost all the water and the Frog sisters returned the water to its rightful place. In the end of both stories, diminutive, ostensibly powerless, characters reclaim the water and defeat powerful enemies. The small waterbaby throws the giant into the lake and devours him; the Frog sisters reclaim their water from poisonous Rattlesnake. Although things may have looked bleak in the oral traditions and in 1935 when the women shared these stories, the future need not be. Paiutes had faced large foes like this before and won; Paiute cultural heroes returned the water to its proper place.
In 1935, when Paiute women told these narratives, their leaders were negotiating with the United States and Los Angeles about the future of the Paiute nation. In the early 1930s, the federal government and Los Angeles had recommended removing the Paiutes from their homeland, from the site of the “water ditch” to a new reservation, near modern-day Merced, or to Nevada’s Walker River Reservation. In fact, many of the people interviewed in 1935, such as Cashbaugh and Bulpitt, were children when the federal government removed the Paiutes to Tejón at the end of the 1860s, and they told stories of that difficult experience. Los Angeles’ suggestion for removal resurrected those memories of the forced march to Tejón and the awful living conditions there and at Tule River.43
Between 1935 and 1937, federal officials held outdoor meetings in the Owens Valley to explain the situation to the People. Paiute women appeared at these meetings in equal numbers with Paiute men. Perhaps the stories they told their leaders energized them in their effort to reclaim land, water, and power. At any rate, the Paiute leaders, supported by their elders, insisted they were not leaving. Historian Steven Crum suggests that the Paiutes’ “deep attachment” to the Owens Valley galvanized their resistance to removal.44 Paiute history and oral tradition likewise bolstered their fight to remain near the “water ditch.”
In the end, Paiutes emerged victorious because they avoided removal and displacement. In the 1937 Land Exchange Act, Paiutes and the United States traded 2,914 acres of “previously allotted lands” to Los Angeles for 1,392 acres, which became the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine reservations.45 The Paiutes would remain next to the “water ditch” forever.
The story, however, did not end there. The Land Exchange Act provided for Paiute water rights, but the federal government failed to secure them from Los Angeles. As part of the exchange, Los Angeles had promised to provide 6,064 acre-feet of water to the Paiutes; but at the same time, the city insisted it could not transfer water rights to the Paiutes without a two-thirds vote by city residents. Moreover, the amount of water promised failed to meet the demands of a growing Paiute population and tribal economic development.46
In 1994, the Department of the Interior investigated the water rights issue, which is still open to debate. The Owens Valley Indian Water Commission—a consortium made up of the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Reservations—fights for water rights and, like their oral traditions, hopes for a positive future.47
In their oral traditions, Paiutes told an ethnohistory of water and water rights in Owens Valley, which detailed the destructive consequences of economic change and offered a critique of historical changes in the Valley. Seen in the context of a struggle over water and culture, these stories enable us to see ways in which Paiutes re-envisioned their past and made it usable for contemporary political struggles, providing a snapshot of Paiute interpretations of past, present, and future.
Other histories of the Owens Valley Water Wars have treated Paiutes as bit players, something akin to the background that the Alabama Hills offers for movies. Paiutes were not scenery to the story; they were central to the Water Wars, which threatened the very core of Paiute life. The stories tell us that small, seemingly powerless people can slay the giant and tickle Rattlesnake. Perhaps nothing is more valuable than these oral traditions as a tool for understanding Paiute history, politics, and culture, or as a guide to assist modern-day Paiutes in future struggles for natural resources.
I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their excellent critiques of this essay and for pushing me to improve. I appreciate my friend Louis Warren for soliciting this essay for Boom. Charles Roberts shared research materials with me and directed me to important sources. Damon Akins, Laurie Arnold, Brian Collier, Duane Champagne, Steve Crum and Bridget Ford prodded me to think about this paper in new ways. I thank audiences at Stanford University, the University of California, Davis, and the University of Notre Dame for sitting through my lecture about Paiutes and water. Your questions improved this essay. The American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University provided space and time for me to write.
1. The Alabama Hills have served as the scenic backdrop of Hollywood films, such as The Ox-Bow Incident, Joe Kidd, Star Trek Generations, Iron Man, and Django Unchained.
2. Susie Baker, Ethnological Documents of the Department and Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1875–1958, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA, BANC FILM 2216, (hereafter ED), Reel 149–152, Item 152.4: 296–98.
3. See Roman Polanski, dir., Chinatown (Paramount, 1974); William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict Over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993); Gary Libecap, Owens Valley Revisited: A Reassessment of the West’s First Great Water Transfer (Palo Alto: Stanford Economics, 2007); Abraham Hoffman, Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001).
4. There are correctives that include Paiutes in Owens Valley water history. See Nancy Walter, “The Land Exchange Act of 1937: Creation of the Indian Reservations at Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine, California, through a Land Trade Between the United States of America and the City of Los Angeles” (Ph.D. diss., Union Graduate School, 1986); John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Andrew Franklin, “Desiccating a Valley and a People: The Effects of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on Owens Valley and Its Inhabitants, 1924–1931” (M.A. thesis, California State University, Sacramento, 2000).
5. For an overview of the Owens Valley Water Wars, see Walton, Western Times and Water Wars, 131–97.
6. I follow Jan Vansina’s definition of an oral tradition: a “verbal message which are reported statements about the past beyond the present generation.” Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 27. Rather than merely a personal recollection, Vansina suggests, oral traditions reach far deeper in time and are told with more consistency. Dakota scholar Waziyatawin adds that oral tradition also involves the process in which the story is relayed. Remember This!: Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 27.
7. Anthropology and ethnohistory have come a long way from the days in which Robert Lowie could dismiss oral traditions out of hand. I have been influenced by Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Peter Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); see 1–28 for discussion of oral tradition and Lowie; Julie Cruikshank, The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Jonathan D. Hill, ed., Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).
8. Nabokov, A Forest of Time, 92. Peter Nabokov describes oral traditions as “mythic revisionings”: “rather than being closed systems of fixed symbols, if myths are to remain relevant and recited, they must be susceptible to internal tinkerings and updatings.”
9. Julian Steward, “Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 33:3 (1933): 235, 234 for a description of Collins. By using the past tense (“called”), I do not mean to insinuate that the Owens Valley Paiutes no longer think of themselves as “we are water ditch coyote children.” Rather, they “called themselves” this name in the 1930s.
10. Sven Liljebald and Catherine S. Fowler, “Owens Valley Paiute,” Handbook of North American Indians, 17 vols., William Sturtevant, gen. ed., Warren D’Azevedo, vol. ed., (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1986), 11: 412–34; Steward, “Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute,” 233–38; Walter, “Land Exchange Act,” 31.
11. Mary Saulque and Emma Washington, ED, Reel 205–206, Item 205.3: 159.
14. For a concise overview of puha, see Jay Miller, “Basin Religion and Theology: A Comparative Study of Power (Puha),” Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 5:2 (1983): 66–86.
15. Richard Stoffle, Richard Arnold, Kathleen Van Vlack, Larry Eddy, and Betty Cornelius, “Nuvagantu, ‘Where the Snow Sits’: Origin Mountains of the Southern Paiutes,” in Landscapes of Origin in the Americas: Creation Narratives Linking Ancient Places to Present Communities, ed. Jessica Joyce Christie (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009), 36, 38.
16. “Whether in physical reality or cultural memory,” anthropologist Peter Nabokov writes, “language, religion, and history always ‘took place.’” A Forest of Time, 131. Perhaps the best known book on the role of place and worldview is the fantastic work by Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996).
17. Cruikshank, Social Life of Stories, 17, 18.
18. Yi-Fu Tuan defines space as “that which allows movement.” Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 6. Here, too, I am influenced by Daniel Gelo’s exceptional work on how Comanches (also Numic speakers) view of the landscape. “Recalling the Past in Creating the Present: Topographic References in Comanche Narrative,” Western Folklore 53 (October 1994): 295–312.
19. For a similar narrative structure, see Gelo, “Recalling the Past in Creating the Present.”
21. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places, 15, 16. Basso notes that Western Apaches recognized that water too had left their homeland. Many Western Apache placenames referenced water existing in places that are now dry.
23. For helpful studies of place and power, see Tuan, Space and Place and Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004). Historian Jared Farmer has put the theories of both scholars to good use in his history of place making in Utah: On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).
24. Across the United States, local histories were instrumental in the construction of ideas about American Indians and westward expansion. Writing about southern New England, historian Jean O’Brien argues, “the local gave particular valence to the twinned story of non-Indian modernity and Indian extinction.” Jean O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xiv.
25. Willie Arthur Chalfant, The Story of Inyo (Published by the author, 1922), frontispiece, 8–41, 9, 10–13, 46–47.
28. For a concise overview of removal, see George Harwood Phillips, ‘Bringing Them Under Subjection”: California’s Tejón Indian Reservation and Beyond, 1852–1864 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 248–49.
29. Walton, Western Times and Water Wars, 24–52; Sharon Dean, et al., Weaving A Legacy: Indian Baskets & the People of Owens Valley, California (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2004), 23–26.
30. Erwin Gudde, California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographic Names, 4th ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 1949), 6. Anglo Americans named Tinemaha after a Paiute chief. Ibid., 394.
38. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 198–206. For the Paiutes, events during the next couple of years ensured that they would remain in their homeland. In 1937, the Land Exchange Act created reservations at Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine. On behalf of the Paiutes, the federal government exchanged nearly 3,000 acres of land with the City of Los Angeles for nearly 1,400 acres of land. Questions remain about Paiute water rights, and modern-day Paiutes and scholars argue that the United States failed to protect Paiute water rights and fulfill its trust responsibility to the Paiute Nation. Walter, “Land Exchange Act.”
40. Jim Jones, ED, Reel 149–152, Notebook 29: 129–33.
41. Walton, 25–27.
42. Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank notes that for Indigenous people of the Yukon Territory, “If one has optimistic stories about the past . . . one can draw on internal resources to survive and make sense of arbitrary forces that might otherwise seem overwhelming.” Julie Cruikshank, Social Life of Stories, xii.
43. For Owens Valley Paiute removal, see Steven J. Crum, “Deeply Attached to the Land: The Owens Valley Paiutes and Their Rejection of Indian Removal, 1863 to 1937,” News from Native California 14 (Summer 2001): 18–20. Crum also notes that in 1873, the federal government proposed returning the Paiutes from Owens Valley to Tule River. However, Owens Valley Settlers, who needed Paiute labor, blocked these efforts.
44. Crum, “Deeply Attached to the Land.”
45. Sharon Dean, et al, Weaving A Legacy: Indian Baskets & the People of Owens Valley, California (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2004), 31-33.
This past spring, the exhibition Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles 1945–75 opened at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. The show—which featured an audio-visual timeline wall, a digital jukebox, and two galleries of video, music, photography, and historical artifacts—explored the popular myths, social realities, and political upheavals of life in post-WWII LA through the city’s multiple music scenes. The following is the text from the exhibit’s timeline, a guide to the key political tensions, cultural breakthroughs, and musical moments of the period that helped shape the making of this exhibition.
Musician and impresario Johnny Otis improvises a cover of “Harlem Nocturne” onstage at Central Avenue’s Club Alabam. He and his band record it soon after, earning Los Angeles one of its first national R&B hits.
The LA-born jazz producer Norman Granz launches the Jazz at the Philharmonic Tour, part of his attempt to promote desegregated jam sessions.
Journalist Carey McWilliams publishes Southern California: An Island on the Land, a portrait of LA as “a vast drama of maladjustment: social, familial, civic, and personal.”
Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia,” is found brutally murdered in Leimert Park. The gruesome unsolved killing helps earn LA a reputation as a capital of noir and crime.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
The American Council on Race Relations publishes “The Problem of Violence: Observations of Race Conflict in LA,” which finds the city overrun with prejudice and economic inequality.
The Elks Hall on Central Avenue hosts a historic jazz concert featuring a breakout horn battle between Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray that helps cement L A as a laboratory of bebop.
Hunter Hancock, a white radio DJ, debuts his R&B and jazz program “Harlematinee” on KFVD.
John Dolphin opens Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a South Central record store specializing in R&B and jazz that stays open 24 hours, has its own radio broadcasting booth, and its own recording studio for Dolphin’s “Recorded in Hollywood” record label.
Roosevelt High graduate Don Tosti records “Pachuco Boogie,” his hipster ode to zoot suit-wearing pachucos that becomes the first Latin song to sell a million copies in the US.
The Shelley v Kraemer Supreme Court decision abolishes racially restrictive housing covenants, though the practice still continues throughout Los Angeles.
Working as a busboy at Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown, Jerry Leiber hears Jimmy Witherspoon on the radio and dedicates his life to writing R&B songs. He soon partners with Mike Stoller to pen some of the most popular R&B hits of the twentieth century.
William H. Parker III is sworn in as chief of the LAPD and initiates an era of aggressive, racially discriminatory policing. He praises Los Angeles as “the white spot of the great cities of America today.”
Dragnet, a TV series based on the LAPD under Chief Parker, debuts on NBC.
The construction of the LA freeway system begins.
The white Local 47 Musicians Union and the black Local 767 Musicians Union amalgamate after a three-year campaign spearheaded by Buddy Collette, William Douglass, and Mark Young.
Oklahoma trumpet transplant Chet Baker records a classic West Coast bop session for the Pacific Jazz label alongside Shelley Manne, Russ Freeman, Herb Geller, and others.
John Dolphin organizes a protest with 150 Central Avenue business owners against the LAPD, whom they accuse of leading a “campaign of intimidation and terror” against white customers of black businesses.
The “Latin Holidays” concert series, organized by Boyle Heights radio DJ Chico Sesma, debuts at the Hollywood Palladium and features local and national Latin music legends.
The Robins have a #1 R&B hit with “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a Leiber and Stoller tune about a riot in a federal prison.
Walt Disney opens Disneyland, a suburban Utopia and “the happiest place on earth,” in Anaheim.
Marilyn Monroe convinces the owners of The Mocambo to book jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who becomes the first black artist to perform at the legendary Sunset Strip nightclub.
Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean as a white suburban teenager, makes LA synonymous with “the juvenile delinquent.”
The Nat King Cole Show debuts on NBC to great controversy as the first variety show hosted by an African American.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
To avoid age restrictions at LA nightclubs, Art Laboe starts promoting concerts at El Monte Legion Stadium. Drawing a multiracial audience of all ages, they become one of the prime music attractions in the region.
Ritchie Valens records an electrifying rock-&-roll-meets-cha-cha-cha version of the traditional Veracruz folk song “La Bamba” at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. He dies in a plane crash the following year.
The surf rock craze is born, thanks to “Let’s Go Trippin,” an instrumental by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones.
While working as an elevator operator at Bullock’s department store, saxophonist Ornette Coleman records his debut album, Something Else!
Ed Pearl opens The Ash Grove, a “Los Angeles cabaret,” on Melrose Avenue. It is the first LA venue to feature folk, blues, theater, bluegrass, and flamenco under one roof.
Gidget, starring Sandra Dee as a white suburban teenager, helps turn surfing into a national pop craze.
Twenty-seven-year-old R&B star Jesse Belvin dies in a suspicious car accident following the African American singer’s performance at the first integrated concert in the history of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Rampart Records, the Motown of East Los Angeles, releases its first 45 RPM single.
The Hawthorne-reared Beach Boys debut “Surfin’” on LA radio. Despite Brian Wilson’s fear of the water, they become international ambassadors of Southern California beach culture.
In Watts, pianist Horace Tapscott forms the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, dedicated to preserving and performing African American music. Two years later, it grows into the Underground Musicians Association.
The Beach Boys perform on TV, circa 1964.
Guitarist Charles Wright forms Charles Wright and the Wright Sounds, a band that will soon grow into the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, best known for their 1971 hit “Express Yourself,” famously sampled by NWA.
Sam Cooke records the civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” at RCA Studios on Sunset. Cooke is killed the following year at the Hacienda Motel on Figueroa.
Phil Spector produces “Be My Baby” for The Ronettes at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, highlighting his signature “Wall of Sound” recording style.
The Teenage Music International concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show, is filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It features performances by James Brown, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, and others.
Life magazine cover, July 1966. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
Love, led by Dorsey High alum Arthur Lee, begins playing Bido Lito’s, where the audience often includes Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger.
Thee Midniters record “Whittier Boulevard,” their ode to East LA’s main drag, which they base on The Rolling Stones’ instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue.”
After a twenty-one-year-old African American man is pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, a community struggle ensues with LAPD officers that escalates into five days of fires, looting, and civic disturbances that become known as The Watts Riots or The Watts Rebellions. Chief Parker calls in National Guard troops and the ensuing conflicts leave Watts with thirty-four deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests and over $40 million in property damage.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
Frank Zappa watches the Watts Riots on TV in his Echo Park home and writes “The Watts Riots Song,” later renamed “Trouble Every Day” on The Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out.
Robert F. Kennedy in San Francisco, 1968. PHOTOGRAPHY BY EVAN FREED.
The Byrds begin a residency at the It’s Boss club. Art scene regulars Dennis Hopper, Craig Kauffman, Jack Nicholson, and Toni Basil are among those in attendance.
The Doors make their debut at The London Fog nightclub on the Sunset Strip.
Police clash with teenagers up and down the Sunset Strip over curfew and loitering violations. The “Sunset Strip Riots” reach their peak with a confrontation involving over 1,000 protestors in front of the Pandora’s Box nightclub.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.
In response to the riots, Stephen Stills of the band Buffalo Springfield writes “For What It’s Worth” three weeks later.
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks begin collaborating on songs for Smile, a new Beach Boys album that Wilson describes as “a teenage symphony to God.”
The Watts Happening Coffee House opens and The Watts Writers Workshop is formed, both important steps in using the arts to rehabilitate community in Watts after the riots.
The first “Love-In” is held at Griffith Park.
Ruben Leon forms the Black and Brown Brotherhood Band with Buddy Collette and members of Eddie Cano’s Afro-Jazz Quartet “to counter black and Hispanic tensions across the schools.”
James Brown records his Civil Rights anthem “Say It Loud—I’m Black, and I’m Proud” at Vox Studios in Van Nuys.
Students walk out of high schools throughout East LA in protest of unequal education.
Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire.
The Watts Summer Festival launches.
Members of the Manson Family commit a series of grisly murders, including a spree that ends at the canyon home of director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate. The murders are the brainchild of Charles Manson, a struggling songwriter linked to Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.
Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds provide inspiration for the protagonists of Easy Rider, the landmark counterculture film directed by LA art and music denizen Dennis Hopper.
“Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice,” the Doors sing in “Peace Frog,” from their fifth album, Morrison Hotel. “Bloody red sun of fantastic LA.”
The Chicano Moratorium antiwar movement holds a peaceful protest of over 20,000 people in East Los Angeles that is violently broken up by police.
In solidarity with the Chicano civil rights movement, Mexican American soul band The VIPs change their name to El Chicano and record the hit single “Viva Tirado.”
Berry Gordy opens MoWest Records, a short-lived Los Angeles branch of Motown.
To commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots, the Wattstax music festival—dubbed the “Afro-American answer to Woodstock” and featuring Isaac Hayes, Albert King, and The Staple Singers—is held at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Aretha Franklin records the top-selling gospel album in history, Amazing Grace, live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
The music and poetry group known as The Watts Prophets—Richard Dedeaux, Father Amde Hamilton, and Otis O’Solomon—publish The Rising Sons of Wisdom & Knowledge. The trio met as members of the Watts Writers Workshop, a creative writing collective formed in the wake of the Watts Riots.
Neil Young releases his fifth album, On The Beach, which includes “Revolution Blues,” a song inspired by the Manson murders, and the title-track, which worries that “the world is turning’, I hope it don’t turn away.”
“Before the Deluge,” a song included on Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, muses on the end of Southern California innocence and “the resignation that living brings.”
Long Beach band WAR releases ‘Low Rider,” their tribute to the Chicano low rider scene in East LA.