The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1987, Volume 33, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Reviews Editor

John Xántus: The Fort Tejon Letters 1857-1859.

Edited by Ann Zwinger. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1986. Notes. Bibliography. Appendix. Index. Maps. Illustrations. 255 + xxvi pages. $23.50.

Reviewed by John E. Sunder, Professor of History at The University of Texas at Austin, author of several books on the Fur Trade, and a birder.

Observing wild animals in their natural habitats is an important American pastime. Thousands of wildlife enthusiasts sail annually from San Diego and other west coast ports to view whales, dolphin, and seabirds such as the small black and white Xantus’ Murrelet, named after the Hungarian adventurer-ornithologist John Xántus.

An extraordinary, rather mysterious expelle from Austria, Xántus joined the United States Army as a private in 1855 and was stationed initially at Fort Riley, Kansas Territory. When time allowed he collected birds for Army surgeon William A. Hammond who sponsored Xántus’ transfer to the Army Medical Service and introduced him to Spencer F. Baird of the Smithsonian. By then Xántus was an avid amateur ornithologist and an elected member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Baird, ever eager to send collectors to remote places, arranged Xántus’ transfer to southern California. Posted for two years to newly-opened Fort Tejon in 1857, Xántus, who was proud, arrogant, and hypersensitive, bristled at everyone at the fort, yet doggedly collected, prepared, described, and shipped eastward to his mentor specimens of “the feathered world . . . here on a large scale represented” and whatever else he could collect from the Grapevine Canyon country just north of present-day Gorman.

Ann Zwinger, known to many for her expressive books on the natural world and a recipient of the John Burroughs Association Gold Medal (1976), structures this edited volume around the “literate and often sophisticated” 49 letters, all but two from Fort Tejon, that Xántus wrote Baird in a “crisp, flowing, and generally easy to read” script between April, 1857 and January, 1859. Zwinger includes plentiful explanatory endnotes to each letter; an appendix of the birds that Xántus collected in the vicinity of the fort; and two maps, one a superimposition of the present historic site upon an original map of the fort. Birders and history buffs may notice a few editorial errors, but they are minor ones outweighed by Zwinger’s balanced portrayal of Xántus.

Although Xántus collected later at Cabo San Lucas; continued to write, and sometimes plagiarize, voluminously; and lived out his days in Hungary, his two years as a field naturalist at Fort Tejon highlighted his life. The “boxes of skins, vials, skulls, and ‘botles of alcoholics’ ” and his accurately detailed sketches that illuminate his written descriptions of specimens that he sent to Baird from the fort “contributed substantially to the developing knowledge of the natural history of the western United States.”

Xántus wrote Baird not only about topics as timely today as then, earthquake shocks, the “quite numerous” Condors, and Americans creating illwill in Central America, but also about topics now considered of antiquarian interest only, anticipated “Mormon depredations,” abundant California grizzlies, and the camel mail project. Despite his abrasive personality and obvious psychological difficulties Xántus gave us, in Zwinger’s perfectly chosen words, new knowledge of “the crawlers and the flappers, the hoppers and the soarers, the bounders and the leapers” that share the world with us.