Gold Rush Desert Trails to San Diego and Los Angeles in 1849. By George M. Ellis, ed. San Diego: San Diego Corral of The Westerners Brand Book Number Nine, 1995. Bibliography. Index. Maps. Notes. Photographs. xxvi + 244 pages. $45.00. cloth.
Reviewed by James D. Newland, State Historian II for California State Parks’ Southern Service Center in San Diego. His essays have appeared in several history journals. As a public historian he has served the Cleveland National Forest, and also has been the curator of the Stone Store Museum in Campo.
The year 1849 has been emblazoned on California history. Confirmation of the January 1848 gold discovery in Northern California reached the East Coast in late 1848 and triggered the mass migration of thousands of American and European argonauts to the newly acquired United States territory in 1849. These “Forty Niners” traveled by sea and overland using a myriad of routes in effort to seek their fortunes in faraway California. In a short period these gold seekers would overwhelm and displace the culture and landscape of the Mexican and Native American populations of the territory. As such the California Gold Rush (1848-1855) is a landmark event in the history of the State of California. The subject is one of the most written about in California history and continues to inspire scholarship and commemorations such as the current statewide Sesquicentennial (150th) Celebration.
Notably, the role of San Diego and Southern California in the Gold Rush Period has not received nearly the attention as the momentous activities of the Northern gold fields. The San Diego Corral of Westerners’ Gold Rush Desert Trails to San Diego and Los Angeles in 1849, however, provides an important addition to the understanding of the Southland’s relatively hidden place in the history of the Forty Niners. Roughly one quarter of the American argonauts arriving in California, an estimated nine thousand travelers, made their way to California over southern routes during 1849. (This number does not include the equal number of Mexican mineros of 1848-49 that made their way to California. Documentation of their journeys is the only glaring shortfall of this volume.) Many of these travelers came into California at the Yuma Crossing near the junction of the Colorado and Gila Rivers. From there they made their way across ninety miles of the harsh Colorado Desert into and through the mountain passes of Eastern San Diego County and on to San Diego, Los Angeles, and the north. Others made the even longer and more treacherous journey across mainland Mexico and up the Baja California peninsula. Editor George Ellis has identified fifty-two diaries of these sojourners (some scholars count as many as 130). Gold Rush Trails provides edited versions of eleven of the most interesting and informative recollections. These diary excerpts make up the core of the volume with nine focusing on the Colorado Desert crossing and two describing the Baja peninsula route.
This volume, the ninth in the San Diego Corral’s Brand Book series is the first to focus on a single theme — and as such may be the most impressive of the local history series. The book starts with a strong forward from award winning Gold Rush scholar J. S. Holliday. Editor and historian Ellis starts Section One with an introduction that provides a strong contextual background for understanding the nine diary selections he edits dutifully. The writings and manuscripts of William H. Chamberlain, L. N. Weed, Lt. Cave J. Couts, Lorenzo D. Aldrich, John W. Audubon, Jacob H. Bachman, John E. Durivage, A. B. Gray, H.M.T. Powell, and D.D. Demerest are arranged by their geographic routes, and are all well presented with detailed endnotes. Section Two provides two diaries of Baja California Forty Niners, one edited by noted Baja scholar Harry Crosby. The third section provides four articles on historic sites along the old trails including the Couts-Whipple Wagon Road, San Felipe Indian Village, Santa Ysabel Asistencia, and Mission San Diego de Alcala. Section Four reprises two older Westerner articles and Section Five includes an essay and six color prints of local Western artist Dennis Torzeski’s paintings.
In addition to admirable scholarship, Brand Book Number Nine is a beautiful book. The book is hardbound, well laid out and includes numerous historic maps, illustrations, and photographs (some printed for the first time), as well as contemporary photography and newly drawn maps of the historic trails of the Colorado Desert and Baja California. For both scholars and collectors of San Diego History, Brand Book Number Nine is a solid addition.