The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1998, Volume 44, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush.

Edited by Ramon Gutierrez and Richard J. Orsi. San Francisco: California Historical Society; Berkeley: University of California Press (March 1998). Illustrations, maps, notes, index. xi + 396 pages. $60 cloth; $27.50 paper; free to CHS members, being a double issue of California History.

Reviewed by Dr. Robert J. Chandler, senior historical researcher at Wells Fargo Bank who also writes on California in the 1860s.


Ramon Gutierrez, professor of ethnic history at the University of California, San Diego, and Richard J. Orsi, innovative historian and California History editor at California State University, Hayward, present the first of four volumes commemorating the sesquicentennial of James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Coloma. “Each generation,” Gutierrez rightfully observes, “turns to the past with different questions, with new concerns, with different hopes and anxieties” (p. 3).

“Postmodernism,” he continues, has greatly influenced these thirteen studies — perhaps reflecting the worldwide loosening of the bonds of nationalism. Postmodernism or “deconstruction” postulates that nothing — observation, language, record keeping, documents, narrators, or writing, is neutral. Objectivity is a myth and absolute values do not exist. These academics, though realizing the impermanence of their explanations, use the latest scholarship to raise substantive questions regarding the melding of conquerors and conquered; cultures and immigration; ecology and economies; and all that produced modern California. Anthony Kirk illustrated this useful research and reference volume with unpublished illustrations, and in “Picturing California” describes fourteen color plates.

Three essays pay attention to ecology. M. Kat Anderson, Michael G. Barbour, and Valerie Whitwourth, in “A World of Balance and Plenty,” detail vegetation zones based on the ideas Anderson examined in Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians (1993). “Culture-bound foreigners” thought a wilderness existed where none did (p. 14). William Preston, a San Luis Obispo geographer in “Serpent in the Garden” amplifies this vanished golden age. “Domesticators,” rather than farmers, Preston declares 300,000 Indians made a “deliberate modification” of their Arcadian habitat to produce more food and raw materials. California was a densely populated Native-American land, and these gardeners “were indelibly fused culturally and spiritually to the land” (pp. 264-5). However, from the moment of European discovery, invading, hardier Old World diseases, plants, and animals threw this finely-tuned system out of whack. With “Indian Peoples of California,” Berkeley anthropologist, William S. Simmons shows the wide range of diversity among these communal gardeners. Yet, this Indian world was static. Lack of metal and pottery limited activities, while living in a land of plenty curtailed a need to trade, except for goods that could be carried.

With Spanish settlement, everything changed drastically. Iris H.W. Engstrand, familiar to our readers, draws on her Spanish Scientists in the New World (1981) to detail European coastal exploration. In “Land, Labor, and Production,” Steven W. Hackel describes the self-sufficient Hispanic economy. Missions supplied a surplus of food and contract Indian labor to the presidios. After Yankee ships arrived in California in the 1820s, cattle ranches further altered the landscape by sending massive numbers of hides to Boston in return for manufactured goods and luxuries not produced locally.

Indian labor was central to this new order. Michael J. Gonzalez, like Engstrand also from the University of San Diego, and Douglas Monroy, drawing on themes from his award-winning Thrown Among Strangers (1990), describe seigniorial Californio society. According to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, settlers were gente de razon, or “reasonable people,” while the supposedly childlike and instinctive Indians were sin razon, or “without reason.” Regardless of their qualities or cultures, Monroy concludes, “the Indians remained resolutely, in the Californio mind, sin razon” (p. 191). Therefore, any actions taken against them were not unreasonable!

The Native Americans, who were “Between Crucifix and Lance” did not agree. James A. Sandos, a Redlands professor, plays detective to reveal Indian resistance from folklore, graffiti, and actions. Antoinia I. Casteneda, a Chicana feminist historian, announces in another highly philosophical article, that “Woman — the female principle — was a pivotal force in American cosmologies and world views” (p. 234). Then the troops arrived. “Sexual aggression against native women was among the first recorded acts of Spanish colonial domination,” she says. The inevitable clash leads her to use “gender and sexuality as categories of analysis” to explore “how women articulated their power, subjectivity, and identity” (p. 230).

The evolving Californio world then came under pressure. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., the dean of Southern California historians, portrays in “Alta California’s Trojan Horse,” the unplanned, but quickening settlement of Yankee sailors and artisans. Lisbeth Haas surveys “War in California, 1846-1848,” as she draws upon her Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936 (1995), which won the Organization of American Historians prize for a history of ethnic and racial minorities. She laments the loss of voices of the vanquished; the “near erasure of Californio and California Indians from public memory,” (p. 349) as she presents a difficult task. History is very personal, not to be trusted to outsiders. Haas praises Genaro Padilla’s1993 analysis of wartime recollections made by Californios in the 1870s. The dilemma is in its title: My History, Not Yours.

This volume closes leaving readers to look ahead to the next three and prepare for the imminent Gold Rush. In 1848, the world of California grew to encompass the globe, both from the miners” points of origin, and the destinations of exported gold, silver, foodstuffs, and manufactures. For miners, merchants, and farmers, nature became an adversary; value must be ripped from the earth. In 1860, after ten years of statehood, the Golden State had over 400,000 people. Today, through liberal immigration begun with Spanish settlement, California’s bounty supports more than 32 million residents, a hundred times more people than in 1769.