The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1972, Volume 18, Number 1
James E Moss, Editor

Book Review

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

Letters From California, 1846-1847. William Robert Garner. Edited With a Sketch of the Life and Times of Their Author. By Donald Munro Craig. (Berkeley, Ca., University of California Press, 1970). Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 262 pages. $8.95.

Reviewed by Edwin T. Coman, Jr., Director Stanford Graduate School of Business Library and Assistant Professor of Business History, 1936-1950. Mr. Coman is the author of Time, Tide and Timber. The 100 Year History of Pope & Talbot, Inc., Stanford, Ca., Stanford University Press, 1949, and Sources of Business Information. Berkeley, Ca., University of California Press, 1964. He has written articles for numerous historical publications including “Sidelights on the Investment Policies of Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins and Crocker,” published in the Bulletin of the Business History Society, November, 1942. He now resides in La Jolla, Ca., and continues to write on business history and library topics.

It is always refreshing to read firsthand, eyewitness accounts of historical events. When the reader puts down a well-written, accurate diary or journal, he has the feeling that he was there — almost as though he had participated in the happenings. This is especially true of William Robert Garner’s letters as is brought by the editor in his introduction wherein he states “Today they have a freshness, a frankness and intimacy that is astonishing.” The editor of the North American and United States Gazette to whom Garner sent his letters, spoke of them in the following vein, “His letters afford, to our view, the best description of California we have yet seen.”

Other than the letters, there is surprisingly little information on William Robert Garner as few records on him have been located and no one has written his biography. Donald Craig has done his best to assemble the fragments of data about Garner’s life and has produced a coherent biographical sketch from very meager sources. By drawing on other contemporary sources, Craig has filled in the background of Garner’s life and activities.

William Robert Garner, an English ex-whalerman, had gone to sea as an apprentice in the 1820s. By 1824, he had become an officer on the whaler Royal George. This was an ill-fated ship, she spent seven months pursuing whales without once bringing a whale alongside. Poorly provisioned at the outset, most of the officers and crew came down with scurvy and finally the ship was forced to put into San Francisco for fresh food, water and recuperation. When she put to sea again, the crew refused to obey commands until the quantity and quality of the food was improved. Garner spoke up for the men and as a consequence, he and four members of the crew were put ashore in manacles at Santa Barbara on November 16, 1824.

As evidenced by his letters and his familiarity with legal procedures and terms, Garner had more education than the average English boy of his time. He quickly became fluent in Spanish and easily accustomed himself to the free careless life of the rancheros. He apparently traveled widely in California, especially in the northern portion, and spoke with authority of conditions in this area. He married María Francisca Butrón of Monterey and began manufacturing lumber from the redwoods in the upper Carmel Valley. He became a substantial, well-known citizen and was one of the most reliable reporters on California. On May 15, 1849, he was killed by Indians while en route with a pack train of supplies to establish a trading post on Kings River.

Now to turn to the letters which were published in the Philadelphia North American and United States Gazette and the New York Journal of Commerce. Garner supplies one of the best accounts of contemporary life in California before it was obliterated by the hordes of outsiders who came in with the discovery of gold. His descriptions of the customs and activities of the Californians are detailed and accurate — in fact, many of them have been copied verbatim by other writers, notably, by Walter Colton in Three Years in California (New York, 1850). Garner’s descriptions of the capture of grizzly bears and bull and bear fights is a classic.

Garner early saw that California would never develop under the Mexican regime. The people were satisfied to live a rather primitive life on their ranchos and spent their time on horseback sports and fiestas. He also cites the intrigues and feuding that went on among the various factions which kept the area in a turmoil. This state of near anarchy was not conducive to an orderly economic development.

As one reads through the letters, it becomes evident that Garner is a one-man chamber of commerce and that he hopes to induce Americans to settle in California. He cites the fertility of the soil, the abundant yields and the variety of crops that can be grown. He dwells on the abundant marine life in the coastal waters which ranged from clams to whales. The opportunities to develop a textile industry based on the raising of sheep, cotton and flax are touched on. Garner even describes methods of planting and cultivation. Other natural resources such as coal, timber and others are described.

However, Garner avoids the flamboyant exuberance of most of the promotional literature, past and present. He warns of the problems of transportation, the smallness of the immediate market, the high cost of imported articles and the unstable political situation. He argues for the establishment of local industries and encourages the emigration of blacksmiths, shoemakers, millers and other artisans to California. The shipping of hides to Boston and their return to California in the form of shoes is given as a good reason for their local manufacture.

The terror of the people and the disruption caused by the American invasion are vividly described. Ranchos and farms were abandoned as people fled to Monterey, Los Angeles or San Diego. Again and again Garner mentions the dearth of horses because so many had been requisitioned by both sides that the rancheros could not round up their cattle. The breakdown of the minimal Mexican government opened the way for lawless groups to plunder the people. Since most commercial and agricultural activities had ceased, supplies of food became scarce and there was real suffering on the part of many people.

The editor has enhanced the value of these letters by drawing on the Larkin Papers . . ., Bancroft and other sources for comparative information on crops, prices and trade in the footnotes he has supplied.

The last few years of Garner’s life were clouded — vicious charges were made against him in a book written by Thomas Jefferson Farnham, a fire-eating journalist. Garner sued Farnham for libel and was completely exonerated when the flimsiness of Farnham’s evidence was exposed.

This book is enlivened by illustrations from Hutching’s California Magazine, Harpers, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and various historical collections. The crisp typography and pleasing layout add to the reader’s enjoyment of this volume.