Thomas O. Larkin: A Life of Patriotism and Profit in Old California.
By Harlan Hague and David J. Langum. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 304 pages. $28.95.
Reviewed by Stephen A. Colston, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University. Author of articles on Mesoamerican ethnohistory and Colonial Latin American cultural history and editor of Approaches to Historical Archaeology: The Case of the Royal Presidio of San Diego (1982).
Few individuals wielded more influence in Mexican California than Thomas Oliver Larkin (1802-1858). While many of Larkin’s papers have been published, and a number of scholars have written studies about him, this book is noteworthy because it is based upon an extensive corpus of unpublished manuscripts and is the first truly comprehensive biography of this remarkable man that has yet to be issued.
Born in Massachusetts, Larkin pursued his earliest business ventures in that state and North Carolina. However, his efforts met with little success and the young Larkin searched for more fertile entrepreneurial vineyards in which to labor. While he preferred to remain in the east, the ever-acquisitive Larkin decided that California was to be his land of economic opportunity. He sailed from Boston to Monterey in 1832, and during the voyage had an affair with a married woman, Rachel Hobson Holmes, who was traveling to California to join her sea captain husband. Not long after her arrival in California, Rachel received news of her husband’s death. She and Larkin married in 1833, and the couple (together with a child who had been born to them out of wedlock) took up residence in Monterey. Rachel became the first Anglo-American woman to settle in Alta (Upper) California.
As the political and economic capital of Alta California, Monterey was well suited to Larkin’s business activities. Not content to work in the employ of his half-brother, Larkin soon embarked upon a successful career as a financier and merchant. After the U.S. conquest, Larkin turned his attention to real estate development and he and a partner created the community of Benecia, the first California town to be founded by promoters. Larkin was an unabashed social climber, and he fostered personal relationships with the influential — both Californios (Spanish-speaking Californians) and Anglo-Americans — whom he thought might advance his business interests. Unlike many Anglo- American settlers in Mexican California, Larkin does not seem to have harbored feelings of racism toward the Californios. He also distinguished himself from most of his compatriots who had arrived in California during the 1830s by remaining staunchly Protestant and he was patriotic, and he never converted to Catholicism or became a Mexican citizen.
While perhaps overshadowed by his role as a businessman, Larkin also engaged in diplomatic activities which facilitated California’s transition from Mexican to U.S. control. In 1844, he was appointed U.S. consul at Monterey and was the only individual to hold that position. As consul, Larkin promoted U.S. economic interests and protected the civil rights of Anglo-American immigrants. In 1845, he was appointed by President James K. Polk as a confidential agent. Larkin used that position to further what he had earlier advocated in a series of letters which had been published in several eastern newspapers, namely, the peaceful acquisition of California, initiated by the Californios themselves, by the United States. However, Larkin’s plans for this peaceful union were shortly to be dashed by the outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico.
While the book examines Larkin’s political life, most of it is devoted to describing and assessing his many business activities. In fact, the authors’ chronicling of Larkin as entrepreneur is at times so detailed that some readers may be daunted by the minutiae of recounted business transactions. But what emerges from all these data is an adroitly crafted and penetrating study of Larkin-the-man. This is a volume that is worthy of its subject, and it is essential reading for any serious student of early California history.