The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1979, Volume 25, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Letters from North America, by John Xántus. Translated from the original Hungarian by Theodore Schoenman and Helen Benedek Schoenman. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1975. 199 pages, $12.95.

Travels in Southern California, by John Xántus. Translated from the original Hungarian by Theodore Schoenman and Helen Benedek Schoenman. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1976. 213 pages. $12.95.

Reviewed by Peter W. van der Pas, Pacific Library of the History of Science and Technology

Among foreigners who have written about America, Janos Xántus takes a minor place. His reputation as a “dashing figure and a picturesque liar”, as J. Krutch expresses it, precludes taking him seriously in many cases, even if he has a good name as a collector of objects of natural history for the Smithsonian Institution and other repositories of such specimens.

Xántus was a Hungarian patriot, exiled from his country, which was at the time part of the Austrian Empire, for taking part in an uprising in 1849. He came to America in 1851 and stayed until 1864. He recorded his adventures in two books, written in Hungarian and published in Budapest in 1857 and 1859 respectively. The two books mentioned above are the first English translations of Xántus’ travel books.

The first of these books is mentioned here mainly for its introduction and because it is a logical introduction to the second one. The book consists of letters, written to relatives in Hungary which were published without the author’s consent. It describes Xántus’ adventures in Indian Territory, in New Orleans, among the Hungarian immigrants in Decatur County, lowa, and as a member of the U.S. Army. During his army service, he made some name as a collector of natural history specimens. This induced Professor Baird of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington to obtain for Xántus a transfer to Fort Tejon in California. The book ends with a description of the journey from New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles, via Panama.

The second of these books is of more importance to the student of California history. It consists of two, almost equal parts, of which the first describes the journey from Los Angeles to Fort Tejon and the author’s two years residence there. This narrative pays particular attention to the Tejon Indians. At Tejon, Xántus gathered a large collection of natural history specimens; many of these are now type specimens for the Tejon area. His activities impressed his friends in Washington so much that they obtained for Xántus permission and funding for a trip to Baja California (April-May, 1858). This trip started at present day Bahia Tortugas, from where Xántus traveled to Todos Santos, from there to La Paz and finally back to Bahia Tortugas.

The Travels was translated into German and published in Gotha by Julius Perth in 1861. Hence this book was better available to American scholars than the former one and one may guess that it was particularly the Baja California trip which has earned Xántus his reputation as a master fibber. Indeed, his geography is hard, and sometimes impossible to follow; some authors have expressed doubt whether places mentioned by Xántus actually exist. The book contains a map, reproduced from one in the original Hungarian edition; this reproduction however is so bad that it is impossible to read the geographical names.

Some suspicious features of this book have not been mentioned by previous authors. One of them is related to a discussion of the river Sepada, in connection of which Xántus quotes Venegas (not Vanegas!) in relation to a journey of Father Sedelmeyer as follows (p. 106): “Father Jacobus Sedelmeyer in October 1744 left his mission (Todos Santos) and after an eighty-mile journey reached the Sepada River, where he found 6,000 Papago and the same number Coco Indians”. In the English translation of Venegas (London, 1759, vol. II, pp. 181-182) we find the original quotation as follows: “Accordingly, in October (1744) the father set out from his mission, and after travelling eighty leagues, reached the River Gila where he found six thousand Papagos and near the same number of Pimas and Cocomaricopas dwelling in different rancherias”.

There are two glaring inconsistencies in Xántus’ quote, one, Father Sedelmeyer was not stationed at Todos Santos but at Tubutama in northern Sonora and two he did not reach the Sepada River but the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers. The eighty miles mentioned are Spanish ones, corresponding to about 320 of our miles. The direct distance from Tubutama to the the junction of the Gila and Colorado Rivers is about 260 miles, hence the statement in Venegas appears correct.

While reading the Baja California travelog, one sometimes wonders whether Xántus was actually there! The translators have supplied only a few footnotes to call out inconsistencies. A critical study of Xántus’ books, particularly the Baja California trip, which would attempt to straighten out Xántus’ geography or else prove the non-existence of places he mentions, and which would check up on persons and natural history objects, mentioned in the text, is very desirable. The translators have set the first step for such a study and for this we are thankful.