The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Winter 1974, Volume 20, Number 1
California, In-Doors and Out. By Eliza B. Farnham. Introduction by Madeleine B. Stearn. Nieuwkoop,, Netherlands: De Graaf, 1972. (Facsimile of the 1856 edition). Illustrations. Notes. 508 pages. $17.50.
Reviewed by Janet R. Fireman, Assistant Professor of History, California State University, Fresno. Dr. Fireman teaches Southwest and Latin American history, as well as a course on women’s history. She recently published “Reflections on Teaching Women’s History” in the Journal of the West (April, 1973).
Eliza Farnham was typical of the feminists of the mid-nineteenth century in this country. Her social attitudes, reform ideas, and intellectual interests were like those of many others who distinguished themselves as exceptional women in a society that, more often than not, did not accept female activism. Driven by numerous causes such as prison reform, national expansion, social welfare, phrenology, law and order, temperance, and abolition, Mrs. Farnham was a crusading woman all of her adult life. She was highly moral and deeply religious. She was extremely concerned with propriety and her female integrity. If she were alive today, women’s liberationists would probably brand her a priggish, pompous, and pretentious prude.
But viewed in the varied American environments that were Eliza Woodson Burhans Farnham’s homes in the 1840s, 50s and 60s, she was a progressive, intelligent, and very successful American. As a former matron of the women’s section of Sing Sing prison, an employee at the Institution for the Blind in Boston, Mrs. Farnham traveled ’round the Horn to California in 1849. Her husband, who had a small shipping business on the Sacramento River, had died suddenly, and it was left to her to settle the mister’s California affairs.
Written in 1856, after several years’ adventurous residence in the Golden State, California, In-Doors and Out is Eliza Farnham’s testimonial to her own accomplishments, intelligence, refinement, and spiritual purity. She narrates the episodes of her inconvenient and difficult journey, complete with vivid portrayal of her emotional trials upon being separated from her children and left penniless in a Chilean port. Blow by blow, strong-willed, self-sufficient, self-satisfied Eliza faces the perils of fog outside the Golden Gate, mud-soaked San Francisco, and the harrowing landing at Santa Cruz, where her husband had left her a farm. And so on. In a manner best described as tedious, because the reader always knows that she will triumph against the seemingly insuperable odds, Mrs. Farnham describes her difficulties and eventual success in building a fine clapboard home, planting and harvesting crops, and adjusting to frontier life in the barbaric atmosphere and company of “lazy Spaniards” (p. 356), “drunken sailors” (p. 87), and rowdy Argonauts. That Mrs. Farnham is so incredibly pleased with herself is a bit cloying. After all, many others managed, and with fewer advantages and less money at that. Mrs. Farnham was well aware that there were other brave women in the West. She appended to her book an account of the epitome of frontier tribulations, the tale of the Donner Party. In her version of the story, the mothers stand out as the most patient, courageous, and admirable of beings. Eliza Farnham’s repeated references to the strength and vitality of the frontier woman are the reflections she saw when she looked in the mirror, mirror on the wall.
Besides enumerating the multitudinous details of everyday life at Rancho La Libertad in the Santa Cruz valley, California, In-Doors and Out moves outside the Farnham family circle. The author comments virtually on everything going on about her in the state, showing herself a strong supporter of the Vigilance Committee, a brilliant observer of mining techniques, a Nadar-like critic of unethical business practices, a would-be Sierra Club booster, and, most interesting of all, a northern California heretic in that she disliked San Francisco. It was dirty and poorly planned, infested with gaming houses, and the root of so much evil, liquor! In other comments, Eliza Farnham proves herself no historian. She obviously had little knowledge of California before her own arrival. She mentions the labors of “the devoted Jesuits” who converted the Indians “from lawless enemies to useful and perfectly manageable servants” (p. 324). Franciscans, of course, were the missionaries to the California Indians, whose description by Mrs. Farnham could be challenged at the drop of a tomahawk.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Farnham’s work shows its greatest importance here, as she makes observations on California life during the gold rush years.The value lies not so much in her descriptions, which are fairly accurate and moderately useful, but rather, in her reaction to all of what she sees. Mrs. Farnham, as a typical middle-class, educated woman of her times, demonstrates admirably for the twentieth century reader, what and how women of her class thought. Eliza Farnham describes herself, her mind, her values, her aspirations, and her beliefs as she describes California.
The Introduction to this facsimile edition was written by Madeleine B. Stearn, whose previous works on nineteenth century American women conceivably should have prepared her for providing perspective to Eliza B. Farnham. The reader is told that his work is one “of extreme significance” (p. ix), but is not given the slightest clue as to why that is so. The reader is told that Eliza Farnham was courageous in the face of many difficulties and that she was a pioneer and all, which Mrs. Farnham herself does a much better job of explaining and demonstrating. The reader is told, in short, a brief version, with many unnecessarily long quotes, of the text. The Introduction does not add much to what otherwise is an appealing, if not commanding, contribution to the historical literature by and about women being published today.