The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1986, Volume 32, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

A Short History of San Diego.

By Michael McKeever. San Francisco: Lexikos, 1985. Selected Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 141 Pages. $9.95 Paperback.

Reviewed by Karna Webster, M.A. in History and Copley Award Winner, San Diego Historical Society Institute of History.

A Short History of San Diego by Michael McKeever of Chula Vista was written for tourists and also, perhaps, for newcomers. The slim paperback with a dream-like illustration of Mission San Diego de Alcalá on the dusty pink cover is the most recent book about this Southern California city. Although the text reveals nothing that has not been published before, the author presents the material in a brisk and entertaining style.

The book begins with a few pages about the prehistoric natives of San Diego County and speeds through time from Cabrillo’s discovery to the Battle of San Pasqual and the arrival of Alonzo Horton. Wyatt Earp, Madame Tingley, Charles Hatfield, and Charles Lindbergh all appear on the pages. The story of the San Diego Zoo, the famous tourist attraction, occupies one tenth of the space in the book. The text carries the reader into the 1980s, and the last chapter editorializes a bit about the future, while suggesting interesting places to visit such as Sea World and Old Town State Park.

Attractive and nicely designed with only a few typographical errors, the book contains a good number of photographs. The interesting bits of information usually found in the “Notes” appear in the side margins, and the “Selected Bibliography” suggests that most of the research material came from secondary sources. The main problem for the author and the editors of a work such as this is not so much what to include in the limited space, but rather what can safely be left out and still maintain an accurate picture of historical events. In some instances, this abbreviated history will lead to some misinterpretation by the readers.

The author briefly mentions the Mary Walker incident to illustrate the supposed racial prejudice of San Diegans in 1866. The words of newspaper correspondent Rufus Porter are presented out of context and shortened to the point where the reader could not guess that Porter, known for his sarcastic wit, was really chastizing the local citizens. As Henry Schwartz hinted in his paper about the incident, Porter was on Mary Walker’s side in the affair and hired her to tutor his daughter, Rufina. Mary Walker and Ephraim Morse, one of San Diego’s leading citizens, were married a short time later at Porter’s house in Spring Valley. Anyone writing about this incident ought to read the original paragraph as it appeared in the San Francisco newspaper. With tongue in cheek, Rufus Porter suggested that the school superintendent find a “reconstructed” teacher to take the place of New Hampshire-bred Mary Walker.

Del Mar Man should have been left out of this book entirely. The notorious skull, once reputed to be 48, 000 years old, and therefore the oldest human remains ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere, has been proven to be a youngster of some 8,000 years. Most university-trained anthropologists never accepted a date much older than that, despite the so-called scientific evidence to the contrary. Dr. Bada’s amino acid racemization test was a new and controversial method, now known to be inaccurate, at least as far as Del Mar Man is concerned.

Despite the few shortcomings noted above A Short History of San Diego is a welcome addition to the publications about the city. The book can be read in a few hours and will serve as an introduction to the area. Many readers will be inspired to find out more and will visit the places mentioned by the author. Perhaps that is what Michael McKeever and his editors intended.