Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Records of a California Family: Journals and Letters of Lewis C. Gunn and Elizabeth LeBreton Gunn. Edited by Anna Lee Marston. San Francisco: Johnck and Seeger, 1928. Illustrations. 279 pages. Reprinted ed., Donald I. Segerstrom Memorial Fund. 1974. $13.95.
Reviewed by Charles W. Hughes, a previous contributor to this Journal and presently on the staff of the San Diego History Center.
After experiencing only mediocre success as a teacher, farmer, printer and druggist, Lewis Gunn joined a company of men heading for the California gold fields in March, 1849. They sailed from New Orleans to Brazos, Texas, whence they traveled overland across northern Mexico to Mazatlan. They arrived in San Francisco in August on the brig Copiapo, and, shortly thereafter, Gunn proceeded to the diggings in the southern mines. By the end of the year he had won election as recorder of Tuolumne County and bought an interest in a newspaper, the Sonora Herald. Less than two years later his wife, Elizabeth, and their four children, Douglas, Chester, Sarah and Elizabeth, joined him in Sonora, coming to California via Cape Horn. Gunn and his family lived in Sonora for the next ten years until they moved to San Francisco in 1861 when he received an appointment as deputy surveyor of the port.
The Gunns’ trips to California and their life in Sonora are recounted here through the diaries and letters they wrote. Originally published in 1928 in a limited edition of 300 books, these documents have been reprinted again in a limited edition of 1,000 books by the Donald I. Segerstrom Memorial Fund. Anna Lee Marston, the youngest daughter of the Gunns, who was born in Sonora in 1853, edited these papers for her family and friends. She was the wife of George W. Marston, an early, prominent San Diego civic leader and founder of Presidio Park and the Junípero Serra Museum.
Anna Marston prefaced her parents’ writings with a brief essay describing the Gunns’ early family history in the United States. Then the journal of her father’s overland trip is followed by her mother’s diary of the voyage to California. These diaries are succeeded by letters her mother wrote home to Philadelphia telling of their life in Sonora. The book concludes with three brief narratives by Marston recalling some of her memories of Sonora, San Francisco and San Diego.
Those interested in the mining frontier, California and San Diego history will find this an intriguing book. The Gunn papers provide an intimate account of a rugged mining community. Where most personal papers of the gold rush era relate the experiences of one individual or another, the Gunn diaries and letters describe the experiences of a family. Readers learn of Gunn’s multifarious activities and his constant struggle to provide for his family. They see how Gunn and his wife attempt to create and retain some of the same cultural and religious standards they had in Philadelphia to give their children the proper training and background. Readers also become acquainted with the hardships and dangers the Gunns were confronted with from time to time.
The absence of explanatory footnotes is the one weakness with the book. Marston provides good notes describing events during the lapses of time between documents and a few notes identifying items mentioned in the text (see p. 226). Generally, however, persons and things discussed in the text are not explained and readers are left wondering and guessing about their significance. For example, Mrs. Gunn remarked how much they enjoyed the speeches of Sumner and Mann (see p. 175). It would have been helpful to readers if Charles Sumner and Horace Mann were clearly identified and that their speeches in the U.S. Congress, in August, 1852, were probably the ones Mrs. Gunn was referring to (see The Congressional Globe, 32nd Cong., First Sess., App., pp. 1071-81 and 1102-14). When the publisher planned to reprint this book, the explanatory footnotes could have been added to go along with the original text. Nevertheless, Records of a California Family offers a first-hand and fascinating account of one family’s experiences in the southern mines during the California gold rush.