Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Alta California 1840-1842 The Journal and Observations of William Dane Phelps, Master of the Ship “Alert”. Introduced and edited by Briton Cooper Busch. Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1983. Appendices. Selected Bibliography. Index. Maps. Illustrations. 364 pages. $29.50.
Reviewed by Alexandra Luberski, State Park historian in Old Town.
First-hand, eye-witness accounts of past events in the form of letters, journals, and diaries should always be considered valuable additions to a historian’s library. One such book is the journal of William Dane Phelps, written while he traded in Alta California from 1840 to 1842 and only published recently under the editorship of Briton Cooper Busch. In addition to the journal entries, this book also contains a helpful and succinct introduction that outlines Phelps’ forty-year career as a mariner and businessman. Even though this introduction is somewhat flawed by the editor’s occasionally condescending tone when interpreting California history, it is nonetheless quite informative.
As for the journal itself, most of the entries deal with Phelps’ numerous visits to harbors, missions, and pueblos in Alta California during which times he describes the lifestyles, politics, and customs of that area. The reader should note, however, that Phelps’ Protestant, Anglo-Saxon cultural and ethnic backgrounds color his observations and oftentimes lead him to be highly critical of the Californios’ activities, many of which he found to be at times “uncivilized.” Phelps’ critical remarks were not only directed at the men, but also what he sees to be typical Californio women who “. . . lavish all they can get to decorate their bodies while their minds are as barren of knowledge and comprehension of what relates to housewifery as the rooms of their mud-built houses are destitute of furniture. . . .” Almost immediately, he adds that there are some women, however, who “are married to foreigners (and) who to all appearance make good wives, and were it not for their want of education, would pass muster even in the United States.” Phelps’ prejudice towards a culture he did not fully understand is clearly evident throughout the journal. Nonetheless, in spite of minor and oftentimes humorous detractions, the journal makes for interesing-albeit culturally biased-reading.
For San Diego historians, the Phelps journal is somewhat disappointing because the records of his activities and adventures in this port are brief. These entries are, nonetheless, worth examining, even though San Diego is also frequently the victim of Phelps’ sarcastic tone. For example, Phelps witnessed and described the arrival of the Catholic Bishop assigned to San Diego as follows: “His arrival was hailed with great joy. . . His sedan chair was landed; his reverence was placed in it. . . the women took possession and lugged his holiness through the sand. . . a distance of 21/2 miles, and deposited their precious buthen at the mission. . . ” One cannot help but sense in such a description a rather sarcastic attitude towards the Bishop for his pompous manner but also Phelps seems highly amused by the Californio women for their child-like, simplistic creation of all this pomp and ceremony.
As California historians are becoming more interested in the social history of a particular region and ethnic groups, the availability of diaries, letters, journals and other primary materials outside of repositories becomes increasingly important for historical research. For this reason, the Phelps journal and the editorial work of Mr. Busch will be a valuable addition to scholarship in this area. This publication will also be of interest to anyone who wants to learn more about natural history, maritime activities, and social events and customs of this era of Alta California’s history.