Ken-ichi's Reviews > Up and Down California in 1860-1864: The Journal of William H. Brewer

Up and Down California in 1860-1864 by William H. Brewer
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Apr 30, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: california, history
Recommended to Ken-ichi by: randomtruth

First-person history is truly amazing. Even if all you do is marvel at how some things have changed while others have stayed the same, it is still fabulous. Grizzlies everywhere! Completely unselfconscious racism! No roads! Moaning about the monotonous summers! Racial diversity! California crazies! So good.

If you didn’t take the time to read the description, this book comprises letters written by one William H. Brewer during his time leading a field crew for the California State Geological Survey from 1860 to 1864. He and his band of beans-and-bacon-fed chaps traipsed o’er hill and dale (and desert and chaparral and flood plain and alkali flat and glacier), up and down the great state of California, mapping it, collecting biological specimens, and, most importantly, investigating its mineral wealth. Brewer was technically hired to be the botanist, but did more surveying and logistical work.

That would would all be meaningless if Brewer were not Brewer. He was a fastidious measurer and recorder. I mean, he measured everything. If he was staying in a room and felt it was a bit chilly, he would whip out the thermometer and write down exactly how chilly it was. When he saw a big tree, he was not satisfied until he wrote down exactly how big it was. If you were to do a shot every time he measured something, you would be drunk in 10 pages, dead in 50. This compulsion is annoying, amusing, eventually endearing, and ultimately reassuring, because it engenders trust in him as a faithful narrator, and that trust is what makes this such an exceptional window into the past. There’s a scene in the book where Brewer meets some fellow Yale alumni on a steamer headed down the Sacramento toward San Francisco, who he later employs in the survey. His account is succinct and unremarkable, but a footnote includes a letter by one of the men he met recounting the experience, and it is incredibly dramatized and colorful by comparison. Little tidbits like that make me believe Brewer when he says he walked extraordinary distances, or that his companions were turning blue on top of Mt. Shasta, or that the majority of the Central Valley flooded one winter.

My only disappointment was the lack of botanical detail, and frankly, given the info in the intro, I suspect there wasn’t actually much to report. Brewer surely collected quite a bit, and many California native plants and animals bear his name (including the lovely Brewer’s clarkia, which I long to see), but apparently he recognized very few of them, most likely because they were new to science. I’d be curious to take a peek at his field journals, which he intended for personal use, and not for more general consumption.

If you like history and you love the California landscape, you should check this out.


p. 13 "The weather is soft and balmy—no winter, but a perpetual spring and summer. Such is Los Angeles, a place where 'every prospect pleases and only man is vile.'" Given that I live in Northern CA and that it is thus my sworn duty to look down upon the benighted fools who choose to live in SoCal, this passage made me laugh. The quote isn't cited, though, so I looked it up. It's from a hymn called "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" by Reginald Heber, a Brit and former Bishop of Calcutta. Brewer was probably commenting on the mixed Mexican population of Los Angeles at the time, but I thought it was a sort of nice piece of romantic environmental misanthropy as well. Turns out the original has become quite controversial and emblematic of European colonial arrogance with respect to native peoples, derided by no less than Mahatma Gandhi (the next lines are "In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown / The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone"). Oh so much more on Wikipedia.

p. 41 "Such a pickle!" It filled me with joy to learn that people used the word "pickle" this way in 1860.

p. 63 Brewer encounters an Indian who has caught several "vivaparoa fishes" which give live birth, "a thing," he claims, "nowhere known except on the coast of California." There are, in fact, quite a few viviparous fish in many parts of the world, but given the fact that he was on the beach in CA, I'm guessing the Indian was catching surfperch (family Embiotocidae), which are all apparently viviparous (so sayeth Pacific Coast Inshore Fishes).

p. 68 yarb (n): Wordnik has it as a colloquial synonym for "herb."

p. 70 "No place but California can produce such groups." Brewer commenting on the racial diversity at a church service including Spaniards, Mexicans, Indians, Chinese and Anglo-Americans. So interesting that even then the area was remarkable for its diversity.

p. 71 Brewer loves the ladies. Well, he is forever talking about them. A lot of days are like, "Found a big oak, was afraid of grizzles, met several lovely daughters." He doesn't seem like a lecher, so maybe he was just starved for female companionship?

p. 82 He seemed quite afraid of tarantulas early on, but he mellows out later.

p. 121 "Much as can be said about this lovely climate, yet give me our home climate, variable as it is. This is healthy, very healthy, lovely, but it is monotonous—four more months, long months of dry air and clear sky." Tell it, brother. I love it when Brewer gets all Northeastern.

p. 121 "There is no canopy like the tent, or the canopy of Heaven, no bed so sweet as the bosom of Mother Earth." Sometimes Brewer is clearly Romantic, but he's no environmentalist in the modern sense. Constantly killing animals for sport, doesn't criticize the massive environmental destruction of mining. Strange.

p. 142 Stockholders exploit the miners, miners (sexually) exploit the Indians, the whole system exploits the land. It's like a David Mitchell novel.

p. 160 "I wish you could see those Mexican ladies ride; you would say you never saw riding before."

p. 242 He describes almost the entire Central Valley flooding in 1862: 6,000 square miles under water (which prompted 11,000 lbs of rescue ham!). Astounding.

p. 251 "What the 'Nigger Question' is at home, the 'Mongolian Question' is here." Brewer dislikes the Chinese lack of integration. "The morals of this class are anything but pure."

p. 256 Apparently Tamalpais could mean "bay country mountain" in... Miwok?

p. 257 Here and elsewhere Brewer laments the fact that the Spanish land grants have left huge tracts of land in the hands of a few, preventing smaller farmers from settling and making a living for themselves. I wonder if this is at least partially responsible for the relatively large areas of land that have been conserved in the West.

p. 261 meerschaum (n): a soft white mineral, often used for pipes.

p. 295 "Previous to 1848 the river was noted for the purity of its waters, flowing from the mountains as clear as crystal; but, since the discovery of gold, the 'washings' render it as muddy and turbid as is the Ohio at spring flood" Again he draws the connection between mining and environmental changes, and the decreasing utility of the river as a result, but digs no further. Later he describes the silt as "surely filling up the Bay of San Francisco" (p. 328). He seems perfectly free with his opinions in other matters (e.g. the "feelings of deep disgust" (p. 322) excited by most Indians he meets), so why doesn't he at least worry over the wanton destruction of the landscape he so enjoys exploring? Was there some stigma associated with criticizing "progress" and Westward expansion?

p. 348 "At Tomales there are several houses, but the only one where we could get 'accommodations' was a very low Irish groggery, kept by a 'lady.'" He's none too fond of the Irish either. Gotta love the word "groggery" though.

p. 367 He says Marin was pronounced "Ma-reen'", whereas today we pronounce it mah-RIN, last syllable rhyming with "tin." Wonder when that changed.

p. 411 "Such was our camp—picturesque, romantic; but prosy truth bids me to say that mosquitoes swarmed in myriads, with not one-tenth the fear but with twice the ferocity of a southern Secessionist." One of those things that hasn't changed. Speaking of Secessionists, he often calls them "Secesh," as in "We have a lot of 'Secesh' at my boarding house." Love it.

p. 434 glutton (n): a synonym for wolverine!

p. 474 "You at home little know the blessed charm that letters can have, their true value to the person that wanders, homeless and desolate, especially when his bed is the ground and his canopy the sky, and when all he holds dear is so far away."

p. 493 On the subject of "half-breed" white/Indians, he writes, "It is a good American doctrine that a man not entirely white has few rights or privileges that a pure white is bound to respect..." On the same page, he laments the murder of many Indians at the hands of white settlers: "They went in the night to this island and murdered the whole of these people! Women, children, infants at their mothers' breasts, decrepit, infirm, and aged people were killed in cold blood and with the most revolting cruelty." He then goes on to say that their husbands and fathers now plague the area, seeking revenge, and the only solution is "their absolute extermination." People of the future will probably look back on our time and marvel at the same discordancy between our professed compassionate egalitarianism and our unwillingness to intervene when genocide threatens predominantly non-white nations. I guess the recognition of our hypocrisy is a step in the right direction. Yay?

p. 521 "A few days ago, before we got the deer, the boys shot a large arctic owl, an enormous fellow. They dressed and cooked him. I have often heard of 'biled owl,' but this is the first time that I have practically tested it, and it is nothing to brag of—strong, tough, and with a rather mousy flavor." Ew. Just... ew.

p. 546 "They are generally the 'poor white trash' from the frontier slave states..." Wikipedia would have us believe that the phrase "white trash" emerged in the 1830s among black slaves to describe poor whites. Amazing.

p. 567 "begirt with a hackamore" apparently means "encompassed by a kind of bitless bridle," as in the animals doesn't have a bar of metal in its mouth.
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Reading Progress

April 30, 2010 – Shelved
May 3, 2010 – Shelved as: california
May 3, 2010 – Shelved as: history
October 4, 2010 – Started Reading
October 4, 2010 –
page 20
3.21% "Ah the past. So fresh, so different, so racist."
October 8, 2010 –
page 73
11.7% "It's fun reading primary source material like this. I should do it more often."
October 11, 2010 –
page 84
October 11, 2010 –
page 85
October 12, 2010 –
page 106
16.99% "Still waiting for my grizzly."
October 14, 2010 –
page 146
23.4% "The temperatures he describes are extraordinary, and make me doubt his thermometer. Also, where the hell are the plants? Maybe he saved them for his notebooks for fear of boring his correspondents."
October 15, 2010 –
page 160
25.64% ""I wish you could see those Spanish ladies ride..." Brewer's recurrent themes are: elevation, temperature, bears, and lovely daughters. Maybe this is true of all men who sleep most nights outside."
October 20, 2010 –
page 216
34.62% "So many tarantulas."
October 26, 2010 –
page 298
47.76% "Woo, finally leaving the Bay Area."
October 28, 2010 –
page 380
60.9% "To the Sierra!"
November 1, 2010 –
page 416
66.67% "Wonder if it's too early for him to run into Muir..."
November 3, 2010 –
page 483
77.4% "Someone on the train asked me if this was a text book this morning."
November 5, 2010 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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message 1: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Lahr I found this review delightfully well-written and insightful.

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