David J. Weber, Book Reviw Editor
We Three Came West: A True Chronicle. Edited by Helen Raitt and Mary Collier Wayne. San Diego: Tofua Press, 1974. Appendices. Illustrations. Maps. 250 pages.
Reviewed by Rodman W. Paul, Harkness Professor of History, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Among his numerous publications, Dr. Paul is best known for his books: California Gold (1947), and Mining Frontiers of the Far West, 1848-1880 (1963).
This book turns out to be a decidedly pleasant surprise. At first glance it has the appearance of being merely a family chronicle edited by loyal descendants, but on careful reading it proves to be an admirably observant and vivid picture of life in Southern California, especially in Pasadena, as seen by “health seekers” of the late 1870s. What is more, one of the family of three “health seekers” whose joint narrative makes up this little book was Margaret Collier Graham, who later became well known as a writer of Southern California stories, a local literary critic, a feminist leader, and a hostess whose home became a gathering place for the few writers and artists that Southern California could claim in those days. Mrs. Graham’s early development as a writer is well illustrated by her contributions to this composite volume.
Here, then, is a book of more than family or local interest. Its time span, 1876 to 1880, covers that difficult period in which a sparse population, buoyed up by what seemed ill-justified hopes, was trying to make a living in a dry, dusty, isolated land not yet reached by major railroads or population booms. All three of the narrators, Donald Graham, his wife Margaret, and Mrs. Graham’s sister Jennie, were graduates of little Monmouth College back in Illinous. All had an interest in writing, and collectively they were governed by cultural standards that were well above the average for western settlers of that era. They were in Southern California because Donald was struggling with tuberculosis, and when they finally settled in Pasadena, after trial of several other places, they found themselves in a little colony of “about forty families, all owning farms of from five to forty acres, … none of (whom) are by nature farmers, but have become such by grace and ill health. Doctors, lawyers, mechanics, Colonels and Majors are plentiful.”
The three narrators’ comments on other Southern Californian communities are scarcely those of the contemporary travel books, much less of the booster literature. Los Angeles was a place with bad drinking water, “foreign odors,” and “narrow, winding streets, bordered with squalid-looking grotesque houses from which peered the dusky faces of still more squalid looking Spaniards and Chinese,” while Anaheim was “merely a flat, not over-cleanly German settlement, whose streets are covered with straw `to keep down the sand,’ and so littered with refuse from the shops that it is difficult to believe one has not driven into an alley by mistake.” San Gabriel was a “ragged little town, with two narrow, closely-built streets” and “an open ditch-in which the little Spanish children take their baths and their drinks.” Pasadena, by contrast, seemed a “charming valley,” nine miles from Los Angeles “and the entire distance is passed over without seeing a sign of civilization, one sheep ranch being the only habitation on the road, and signs of civilization about a sheep ranch are generally scarce.”
If these caustic descriptions suggest the reactions that one might expect from Bayard Taylor, that over-cultivated literary traveler of the Victorian era, in all fairness it should be pointed out that most of the letters that constitute the book show the narrators, and especially the two ladies, in a very favorable light. Discomfort, loneliness, monotonous chores, and financial strain are passed off with forbearance, while the natural setting, even in the dry season, inspires an enthusiastic response.