The Journal of San Diego History
Spring/Summer 2000, Volume 46, Numbers 2 & 3
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Reviews

Golden Odyssey: John Stroud Houston, California’s First Controller and the Origins of State Government.

By Judson A. Grenier. Los Angeles: Historical Society of Southern California, 1999. Photos, maps, notes, index, documents. 222 pages. $32.00 Cloth.

Reviewed by Gordon Morris Bakken, Professor of History, California State University, Fullerton, and editor of the forthcoming Law in the Western United States.

John Stroud Houston made government work in Gold Rush California; Judson Grenier has done a marvelous job giving him his place in history. Houston was a remarkable man because he did what so few even contemplated. He was successful without mining, faithful to his family after a sojourn in California, returning to his wife waiting in Arkansas, and he used the government as an employer to make his pile. He did not build railroads, banks, or mercantile companies. Houston was a state builder in his time.

Houston was a member of the “First Arkansas Volunteer Cavalry” in the Mexican War. He was part of the Battle of Buena Vista and won promotion to regimental sergeant major. His Mexican War connections would serve him well in California.

John caught Gold Fever in 1849 and left Clarksville, Arkansas, in March 1849. Enroute to the gold fields, John met William McKendree Gwin. Connections would prove valuable. Gwin and Houston trudged through to Panama City, boarded the Sylph, and landed in San Francisco. Both Gwin and Houston were in the 1849 Constitutional Convention, with Gwin emerging as United States Senator and Houston as sergeant-at-arms and candidate for State Controller.

Houston was a player in state government. He was part of the tax law system and the collection agencies, and was a disbursement officer. He was the maker of tax forms, the maintainer of tax records, and the accountant for the people in their expenditures. Essentially, John Stroud Houston defined the office of controller on the job. He developed the office procedures, let out state contracts, paid the state’s bills, and advised the governor and legislature on the tax system, collections, and disbursements. He earned a reputation for closely following the letter of the law and guarding the state’s meager revenues from fraud and abuse. His reports to the legislature directly led to revisions of the tax laws. His books were kept up-to-date allowing him to directly serve the policy-making interests of the legislature.

But competency in office was not a criterion for re-election. By 1852 he was out of office and on his way back to Arkansas. He was not like many 49ers who made up years of excuses as to why they could not return to their wives and families. John Stroud Houston had promised to return, and he did. When the Civil War broke out, Houston refused to enlist in either side; rather he stayed home and helped educate his three daughters. His neutrality during the war hurt Houston politically, but by 1872 he had returned to the community’s good graces and was appointed Commissioner of Public Buildings. He maintained his reputation for efficiency and died in 1885, with his good name intact.

Houston has been a transparent figure in early California government, but Judson Grenier has done much to put him in an important place. He was the model for later controllers.