Monday, September 10, 2018

End of the Oregon Trail

There is a nice garden display and
plenty of outdoor seating for a picnic.
Our visit to the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive and Visitor Information Center in Oregon City, Oregon.

I never played the Oregon Trail computer game when I was a kid. But I've been fascinated by the Oregon Trail most of my life. Some day I'm going to devote a vacation to traveling the the modern day route and visit all of the sites and museums along the way. But while we are here in Oregon, I can at least say that I visited the end of the trail.

The early history of the state of Oregon can be generalized in decades. The fur trappers were here in the 1810s to 1820s, setting up forts and trading posts. The missionaries arrived and created their stations in the 1830s. From 1840 was the time of the settlers and farmers. Thousands of them arrived by the Oregon trail that ran from the area around Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, in the Willamette Valley of Oregon Territory. It is estimated that over 50,000 emigrants traveled the trail until 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed.

What tools would you take with
you on the trail?
Oregon City is just up the Willamette River from the Columbia, at the base of Willamette Falls. This community literally was the end of the trail, where people could rest, resupply, and find out more information on available land before they headed south to homestead in the Willamette Valley, a prime agricultural area. In fact, Oregon City was at one time the territorial capital of Oregon, that is, before it was moved to ever growing Portland and the junction of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. Now Oregon City is at the edge of the Portland metro area.

At the end of your tour, find out
how travelers fared in Oregon.
The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive and Visitor Information Center is first and foremost a museum with three sections. The first section concerns preparing to take the trail. This includes a theater presentation with an outstanding docent and a well done film. The second section presents displays concerning the difficulty of the trail. In this section you are introduced to actual travelers on the trail and here their voices through the diaries and letters they left behind. The third section is a recreation of a general store at the end of the trail. You are able to sit and view a PowerPoint on a big screen that tells you about the travelers you learned about in the second section and how they fared in Oregon.

"You have died of dysentery"
on the Oregon Trail.
As every "museum aficionado" knows, a great museum has a great gift shop. At the End of the Oregon Trail gift shop they have a very good selection of books, T-shirts, plush animals as well as snacks and drinks. It does double duty as a visitor information center for other attractions in the city. The folks who worked there were super nice and informative. Okay, I have to admit that we really cleaned out the gift shop. I bought three books, a t-shirt, and a little stuffed bison to sit on my bookshelf.

My very own office bison!
So the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive and Visitors Center gets an A++ and five star rating. If you are traveling to Portland on vacation, please add this site to your list of must sees. If you have kids, then move it higher on the list. ;-)

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Mussel Slough Tragedy

Last year I was teaching at a high school in the Central Valley of California. As you know from reading this blog, I like to find the local history in the places we live and visit. Earlier this summer I told you about the spot in the San Joaquin Valley where Murrieta was killed. Continuing with the wild west history of California, I tracked down the location of the shootout at Mussel Slough.

About five miles to the northwest of Hanford, California, in Kings County you will find California Historical Landmark #245, that is titled Location of the Famous Mussel Slough Tragedy. It's located on a country road almost indistinguishable from all of the other farm roads in the San Joaquin Valley. Don't drive too fast or you'll miss it. I believe I drove by it at least four times before I finally recognized it for what it was. The text on the monument reads: 
Here on May 11, 1880, during a dispute over land titles between settlers and railroad, a fight broke out in which seven men - two deputy U.S. marshals and five ranchers lost their lives. The legal struggle over titles was finally settled by a compromise. Location: 5833 14th Ave, between Everett and Elder Aves, 1.5 miles SE of Hardwick.
It seems like a short description (in error) for what happened here. Especially since there are no original structures left, or even a tree that witnessed the event. Here's a summary of what happened.

In the nineteenth century the area was called the mussel slough region due to a slough off of the Kings River that backed into Tulare Lake. The lake and the slough are no longer present due to modern agriculture. The Southern Pacific Railroad was granted odd numbered lots of a square mile each as an incentive to build a line through the Central Valley of California. The line through this area was completed in 1872. Settlers had come into the area and homesteaded the even numbered lots and began to create improvements such as buildings, fencing, and irrigation ditches. This included hand-dug canals to bring water from the Kings River, more than two miles away for some.

In the meantime, the railroad put out brochures to sell the land they controlled. Farmers would be able to settle on the land for a few years, then gain title when a price was fixed. Brochures from the railroad advertised prices at $2.50 per acre and up. Of course the purchasers assumed that they were getting their land at that bargain price, and set about improving the land. When it came time to complete the transaction, the railroad insisted on valuing the land with improvements, inflating their asking price to twenty dollars an acre. After the railroad filed suit against settlers and won, the price inflated again up to $35 an acre. There was also an element of rancher versus farmer in that some cattlemen who had the wherewithal were stepping front of the farmers to purchase the improved land. 

With the stage now set, on May 11, 1880 a meeting of settlers was being held when false rumors where spread that U.S. marshals were conducting evictions. The settlers grabbed their guns and went to intercept them. The truth was that a railroad appraiser, two potential buyers from the cattlemen's side, and a U.S. marshal along for protection, were driving around in a carriage looking at properties. The two belligerent parties met at the site of the monument, the homestead of one Henry Brewer. While the marshal and a leader of the group of farmers stepped off to talk about resolving the situation peacefully, the bad blood between the farmers and the two from the cattlemen's side spilled over. No one knows who shot first or even what was said to start it. But in the end, the two cowboys and five farmers were dead.

No marshals were killed despite what the marker says. Five farmers were convicted of interfering with a marshal in the performance of his duties, each spending eight months in jail and paid a $300 fine. Although there was a high level of animosity toward the railroads, the people could not get the government to change the policy of providing land grants to railroads. In the end, the railroads reduced their asking price a token amount and most of the settlers stayed on their land and paid the asking price. At the time of the incident, the dead and wounded were brought to the shade of a large oak tree on the property that was referred to as the "Tragedy Oak." It blew down in the 1990s. A piece of the tree is reportedly put on display in front of a local elementary school. Ultimately the fight was lost to history, with the exception of some local interest and fans of old west history.

The Mussel Slough Tragedy took on a bit of mythology over the years and like so many wild west gunfights there are multiple versions of what actually happened. The three that I consulted, each with a little bit different take, are the Wikipedia article on the incident, "Garden in the Sun: A History of the San Joaquin Valley 1772-1939" by William Seacrest, and "Hanford" (Images of America Series by Arcadia Publishing by Robin Roberts.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Fort Humboldt State Historic Park

We decided to vacation in northern California a bit while on the way to Oregon this summer. While very scenic and awe inspiring (think big redwood trees), I was still able to fit in a little history tourism. I had just started the book on Ulysses Grant so we couldn't pass through Eureka without stopping off to visit Fort Humboldt, where Grant was stationed early in his army career.

Fort Humboldt State Historic Park is the site of the fort that was occupied from 1853 to 1870. The fort was built overlooking
Humboldt Bay to provide protection to gold seekers and arriving settlers from the local Native Americans. Captain Ulysses Grant was stationed here for a few months in 1854. At its peak, the fort had 14 buildings arranged around a parade field. For the troops stationed here, the duty was dull and boring.

We visited the park in early June and the weather was still very cool compared to the Central Valley of California where we had just come from. Being the "morning people" that we are, we arrived just before they opened the gate. Actually, it's a good thing we had Google Maps giving us the step-by-step directions, as the signage directing you to the site was not obvious. The gates opened at eight o'clock. The visitors center and the two buildings of the fort that remain were not scheduled to open until nine. We spent an hour and a half walking around the park, starting with a display of logging machinery that is co-located with the fort. The park is certainly well tended, but not well visited by all appearances. We pretty much had the park to ourselves with the exception of a local walking her dog and some high school kids on bicycles that I'm pretty sure were ditching the last day or two of school.

The buildings at the fort are the original hospital and a reconstructed surgeon's quarters. The hospital building has some displays on the history of the fort, but unfortunately they were not open during the time we were there. I guess that the park is staffed by volunteers and they were having a late morning. It was disappointing, but the main thing to see when you visit a historic site is actually the location and the lay of the land. The fort is on a bluff and today the city of Eureka has grown around the bay that the fort overlooks. It is obvious that the fort is defensible with a small number of soldiers (I believe that less than 50 were typically at the fort), and the view allows for easily spotting arriving ships.

Probably the best part of visiting Fort Humboldt State Historic Park is knowing that you are walking on the same ground as U.S. Grant, George Crook, and other noteworthy soldiers from the Civil War period. You also gain a glimpse into what their living conditions were while serving in what was then still a far off place, well removed from the civilization in the East that these soldiers were used to.

Next stop in this little "Grant Pilgrimage" I've got going on will be
a visit to Fort Vancouver, another frontier outpost where Grant served before his civilian hiatus from the army.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Book Review: Grant by Ron Chernow

Book R & R: Grant by Ron Chernow

Warning: I'm going to try to get you to read this book. Okay, I know that you know that my book review and recommendations are only for books I like. But I really liked this one. So much so that I'm going to try to convince you to take it on despite the 929 page length, not counting front and back matter.

Most of us know who Ulysses S. Grant was. However, most of us (including me before I read this book) know the details of his life and the service he provided to our country. U.S. Grant was a West Point graduate and veteran of the Mexican-American War. Unsuccessful in civilian life with the exception of his marriage to Julia Dent, he returned to the army at the start of the Civil War. A very successful commander in the western theater of the war, Grant ascended to the post of commanding general of the Union armies, ultimately responsible for defeating Robert E. Lee and the Confederacy. He served as 18th President of the United States, elected to two terms spanning the years of Congressional Reconstruction.

Author Ron Chernow demonstrates that there is still an interest in bibliographies of the "great men" of American history. His previous works include Washington: A Life and Alexander Hamilton. This is the first work by Chernow that I have read and I truly wish I had picked up one of his books sooner. He is an excellent storyteller (as evidenced by over a thousand positive reviews on Amazon). Do not let the length of the book put you off! There is detail, but the facts hold your interest. Chernow is honest with both Grant's fine points and flaws. And besides, the author quickly moves to the Civil War years, which of course is one of my interest areas.

What made this book a real page-turner was actually the post-Civil War period. Grant held his post as General of the Army during President Andrew Johnson's term of office, following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Through the perspective of a biography of Grant we see the (at times) unbelievable actions and attitudes of the President and how Congress, the Cabinet, and Grant try to reign him in and accept the will of Congress. This political divergence eventually brought about impeachment proceedings for Andrew Johnson. Grant follows Johnson into the White House, winning the elections of 1868 and 1872. During this time Grant, an unflagging supporter of the Union and civil rights for freed slaves, led the country through the remainder of the Reconstruction era. At the end of his presidency, all of the states that had seceded were back in the Union. However, although the Constitution guaranteed rights of citizenship to freedmen, Reconstruction was not so successful in practical terms for former slaves. This was not only a contentious time politically, but also an incredibly violent period in American history. As Chernow puts it, "Americans today know little about the terrorism that engulfed the South during Grant's presidency. It has been suppressed by a strange national amnesia."(p.857)

I know you are going to enjoy this book. I also believe that you are going to learn a great deal and gain an appreciation for the turbulent times following the Civil War. After reading this book, you'll have to agree that if our country made it through that time, today's contentious political landscape is no big deal.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Elvis, the Pembroke Welsh Corgi

The latest member of the Roving Historian team joined us a few days ago. Elvis is a Pembroke Welsh Corgi. He's only 10 weeks old, so he has a bit of schooling ahead of him before he joins us on any extended adventures. But being the history geeks that we are, we had to do a fair amount of research on the breed before he came home. Sheila literally read every book (five) on the breed that our local library had. So let us share some of that information with you, a couple of pictures of our baby boy, and a short video.

History of the Pembroke Welsh Corgi

First, to avoid any confusion, there are two types of Corgis and they are distinctly separate dog breeds. The Cardigan Welsh Corgi is the larger of the two. The Cardigans will be ten to thirteen inches tall and probably weigh a bit over thirty pounds. The breed has been around longer than their Pembroke cousins. The Pembroke Welsh Corgi typically won’t be over thirty pounds or twelve inches tall. Both breeds are herding dogs (don’t let the short legs fool you), and as such their temperaments are to be tenacious, outgoing, friendly, bold, playful, protective, affectionate, devoted, alert, companionable, intelligent, and active. Both breeds are small and adorable, but they are not couch potatoes.

Humans started domesticating the wolf about 15,000 years ago and through selective breeding and training there is evidence that dogs were being used to herd cattle more than 2,000 years ago. The challenge in determining when a specific breed originated is that it was not until the 1800s that specific breeds were recognized and pedigrees were recorded. However, the 10th century is probably the right answer, as archaeologists have found the bones of Corgi-type dogs at a site in Wales that dates to 890 CE.

There are several theories to the origin of the breed. Here’s my favorite origin fable. Welsh legend tells the story of two children playing in the woods when they found two dogs with foxlike faces and short legs. The kids bring the dogs home and their parents told them that they were fairy steeds who draw their carriages and carry the fairies into battle. The gift of the fairies helps the children to do chores around the farm. You can see the marks of the fairy saddles on the backs of the Pembroke Corgis’ backs to this day. (Well, if it ain’t true it ought to be.)

My other favorite origin theory, a little more down to earth, is that Vikings from the Scandinavian countries brought early breeds like the Valhund, the Lundehund, and the Buhund to Wales in the ninth and tenth centuries. There is also the possible influence of the Schipperke and/or early Pomeranian breeds that were brought to Wales by Flemish weavers in the early part of the twelfth century. A couple of the Scandinavian breeds are a bit larger than the Corgi, but with the influence of the shorter legged breeds and selective breeding over the centuries, we have the modern Welsh Corgi. By the 1800s, the Corgi is very popular on farms in Wales, particularly in Pembrokeshire.

The corgi was first seen at a dog show in 1925, the same year that a corgi club was formed in Pembrokeshire. Both the Pembroke and the Cardigan were shown together. Because each breed had their own fans, a separate cardigan club was formed the next year. By 1934 the Kennel Club in Great Britain separated the Pembroke and Cardigan Welsh Corgis into the two separate breeds we have today. 1934 also saw the first corgi registered by the American Kennel Club. The next year the AKC recognized the two separate breeds, Cardigan and Pembroke. The Pembroke Welsh Corgi Club of America is founded in 1936.

A history of the breed is not complete without mentioning the corgi’s most famous fan. Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain was given a corgi puppy for her eighteenth birthday and has been a fan ever since. All of the queen’s dogs descend from that puppy, “Susan,” she received on her birthday in 1944. The video is a bit dated on its information. The Queen no longer has sixteen corgis. As of November 2012, it was reported that Elizabeth owned two corgis, Willow and Holly, and two dorgis (a cross between a Pembroke Welsh Corgi and a Dachshund), Candy and Vulcan. It was reported in July 2015 that the Queen has stopped breeding corgis as she does not wish any to survive her in the event of her death. The last of her corgis passed away in April 2018, marking the first time the Queen has been without a corgi since her eighteenth birthday. She has owned 30 corgis during her reign. Her dorgis are still living at the time of this writing.

The American Kennel Club says that the Pembroke Welsh Corgi is the 18th most popular breed of dog out of the 194 breeds that they recognize. They make a great family pet. But remember that they are a herding dog. They are smart and assertive. Probably not the best choice for families with children under the age of 8. Do not let the small size and adorable looks fool you. Like other herding breeds, they need strong leadership and plenty of exercise. There’s a lot of energy in that small package.


Pembroke Welsh Corgi: Your Happy Healthy Pet by Debra M. Eldredge, 2009

The New Complete Pembroke Welsh Corgi by Deborah S. Harper, 1994

Pembroke Welsh Corgi (Breedlover's Guide) by Susan M. Ewing, 2011

American Kennel Club website

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Oregon Historical Society and the Museums for All Program

One of the first things I like to do when moving to a new state (right after ordering a book about the state history) is to join the state historical society. State historical societies usually have a pretty comprehensive museum, plus I like to get their journal.

The Oregon Historical Society is located in downtown Portland. I have not visited yet, first I have to get over my dread of Portland traffic and parking. However, I'm looking forward to checking it out and promise to post some pictures when we visit later this summer. I joined the society ahead of our visit by visiting their website. For $80 I signed up for a family membership for the year. That might sound like a lot but their are benefits. Along with free admission to the museum for two adults and as many children as you have living in your house, you also get a quarterly journal. A few of the articles are posted online so you can see the quality and depth of the publication, but once you join you have access to past issues online through the website (so no need for that JSTOR account). With membership you can also participate in the area "reciprocal membership program." Each month, one of the participating museums admits members of the other museums for free. So if I had been a member of the Oregon Historical Society last month when we visited the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria while on vacation, we would have saved twenty-eight bucks! And best of all, your membership fee helps the society continue their good work of preserving the state's history through the museum and archive.

One of the things I hate to see is when a museum or historic site charges what I consider to be too high of an entrance fee. I want to see these sites available to everyone, regardless of means. Along with the entry fee, I support every site I visit by buying a book or some kind of souvenir in the gift shop (Sheila collects refrigerator magnets to keep track of where we've been) and I might even drop a couple of dollars in the donation box as well. Now I get it, to run a quality museum takes funds, and sometimes donations just aren't fulfilling the need. But anyone who took economics can tell you that when you raise the price, you might make more money up to a certain price point, but with each increase in entry fee you are going to lose some visitors. I hate the thought of a young person being denied the experience of visiting a museum because they did not have the means to pay the entry fee.

So here's my final point of why I'm praising the Oregon Historical Society before I've even visited the museum. The entry fee is only five dollars. It was a bleeding fourteen dollars at the maritime museum, so for a state museum five bucks sounds like a bargain to me. Moreover, they participate in the "Museums for All" program. Museums for all is "a signature access program that encourages families of all backgrounds to visit museums regularly and build lifelong museum habits." In other words, let's remove the obstacle of cost, and get kids visiting museums with their families. With this program, all visitors have to do is present a valid EBT card along with a picture ID and up to a family of four can visit the museum for free. I love this program and I'm proud to support it with my membership.


We are enjoying our new home in Salem, Oregon very much. I'm getting up to speed on the local history. But I wanted to let you know that I took on the challenge of reading "Grant" by Ron Chernow. The reason I call it a challenge is that it is 929 pages not including front and back matter. I'm about a third through it and it is worth the investment of time so far. I'm pretty ignorant of Grant's contributions as President, so I'm looking forward to getting to that part of the book.

That's all for this post. I hope you're visiting some exciting history sites and reading some good books. Recommendations are welcome. ;-)

Monday, July 2, 2018

Joaquin Murrieta and Cantua Creek

Sometimes I like to complain about California's relationship to their history, in that they don't have a relationship at all. I mean sure, you have some great Spanish Missions to visit, the best in my opinion is a state park. You also have a nod (provided by the NPS) to WWII history with the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Site. But the sites of many events receive no special standing. I believe that in most cases California land is just too valuable. Some places just get plowed under for a new housing development or, in this case, maybe an orchard. Or perhaps the site is just too remote. Even in California.

CA Historical Marker #344, about
nine miles from Coalinga.
For a year I commuted from Fresno across the San Joaquin Valley to Coalinga, California. I taught social studies at the local district's continuation high school there. Every day I would pass a historical marker and one day I stopped to read it. It said:
"14 miles [with a direction arrow] Arroyo De Cantua, Headquarters of notorious bandit Joaquin Murrieta. Killed here July 25, 1853 by posse of state rangers, led by Captain Harry Love. Terrorized mining camps and stage operations during his career. Historical Landmark No. 344. Department of Public Works - Division of Highways."
Joaquin Murrieta. Well, you know who he is. Murrieta is arguably the most famous of California outlaws. He terrorized the state during the Gold Rush with lots of mythology growing over the years. For some Californios he was a Robin Hood character, avenging the Hispanic community for the wrongs brought by the invasion of Anglo-Americans. It is said that the story of Joaquin Murrieta was the inspiration for the fictional character of Zorro. To the state of California he was a ruthless bandit. The new state government raised a party of "California Rangers" to hunt Murrieta down. They caught up to him and some of his associates, including "Three Fingered Jack" at Arroyo De Cantua, or Cantua Creek. (Check the location link at the bottom of this post for a Google map link.) This spot is on the far west side of the Central Valley, the closest city being Coalinga, a community of about eighteen thousand which was not founded until almost three decades after the incident.

Murrieta and Jack were both killed in the resulting shootout with Captain Harry Love and his California Rangers. Other members of the gang were captured. But to prove they had caught the famous outlaw and collect their reward, the rangers brought Murrieta's head and Jack's severed hand, pickled in a jar of alcohol. Of course there is the requisite conspiracy theory that they got the wrong man and Joaquin escaped to continue the good fight.

So why did they put the marker 14 miles away? The state Office of Historic Preservation doesn't say. On their website they say that the actual site is three large rocks located in the foothills southwest of Cantua Creek bridge. I admit I didn't go look for them. There are no roads to the site and the area is now private ranchland. However, I provide you a picture looking southwest from the bridge over the California Aqueduct in the area on the map marked as Cantua Creek. Yep, nothing but orchards out there. High lonesome. About twenty miles to Coalinga, and fifty miles back to Fresno.

Looking southwest from the Aqueduct at Cantua Creek.
My best guess is that when the marker was placed near the intersection of highways 33 and 198, that was the nearest they could get to the site where people might actually drive by and notice. The arroyo that was the site of the shootout might have been filled in, plowed over, and planted on by California's industrial agriculture machine. Or if it is in the foothills, it is being grazed on by cattle with no way to realistically get to the site. I don't know if I'm wrong headed in this, I mean, California agriculture land is pretty valuable. I just thought there would be more attention paid to California's most notorious outlaw.


Where have you been the last ten years?

Salem is the state capital
of Oregon.

We are quickly coming up on the ten year anniversary of the Roving Historian blog. For those of you who check the blog routinely or are signed up to receive emails, I want to thank you for your attention and support of public history. Posts have been pretty sparse the past couple of years. But summer is here and the Roving Historian is free again! I thought it might be time to review where we've been and make a re-dedication to sharing history for the rest of us.

Ten years ago I started this blog to share places, books, and ideas about history with a non-academic audience. You know, regular people who like history (which is not meant to say that regular people can't be scholarly at times). The blog was used to help document an intern project for my master’s program in applied history. We also talked about a book I wrote about the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion. We reviewed some other books and told you about some historic sights that we visited. However, our frequency of posting fell off about five years or so into it. What happened? We moved to California in 2013 to help out my aging parents. While we were there I went about teaching history in both a regular high school environment and in a alternative education program. While doing that I also earned a master's degree in education. With all of that going on, the blog suffered. As they say, life gets in the way.

Great places to walk and bike along
the Willamette River.
My wife, Sheila, and I are starting a new chapter in our lives. We have moved back to the Pacific Northwest. This time we are trying out beautiful Salem, Oregon. With that move it is time to rededicate to this blog. Certainly we'll talk about new sites we've visited, new books to read, finish writing that book on the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, and we'll probably talk a bit about education and how we teach history. I'm looking forward to it. I hope you are too.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

NARA's Prologue To End Print Version

I have a glorious week off from Teaching for Thanksgiving, something to be thankful for, surely. It's a great time to catch up on some reading and writing of my own choosing. ;-)

Prologue is the quarterly journal of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). It has been in publication since the spring of 1969, highlighting programs and news about NARA. The articles are all based on the holdings of NARA in and around Washington, DC., the regional archives located around the United States, as well as the Presidential Libraries

I have been a subscriber to Prologue off and on for a little over ten years. Needless to say, I enjoy this publication very much. So I was very sad that my Fall issue came in the mail recently with a letter that stated that the next issue (Winter 2018) will be the last print issue. Of course, they will continue to put content on the NARA website, but no longer will I be able to hold a printed copy. 

So along with the letter, there is only a one-line statement on the journal's website that says, "The Winter 2018 issue will be the last printed edition." I did a quick Google search and did not find any news release, there is not even a statement in the NARA news on the website. Moreover, I haven't found any statements of shock, surprise, or disappointment. 

I won't go into a lament on the switch from print to online content. Business is business and I'm sure it's hard to keep a print publication like a history journal on a paying basis. Additionally, I am sure that NARA will come up with an engaging way to present the content that was once provided exclusively in the print medium. In fact, their notification letter asks for input on what that content should look like. I'm just sorry to see Prologue (for me anyway) get lost in the flood of online information that comes at me every day. I will miss the print version coming up in my reading stack. Which is where I go to escape that flood of electronic noise at the end of the day. I just thought someone should mark the passing.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Point Reyes and Drake's Bay

It is 308 steps down to the
lighthouse, and 308 back up!
One of our recent day trips was to Point Reyes National Seashore which is about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. We had never been to this area before and were not disappointed with the beautiful views there. Even though it was a weekday, there were plenty of people visiting. There is a nice visitor center there, but really, the star of the show here is nature. Plenty of walking and very little in the way of services. The highlight of the visit is a walk down hundreds of steps to the lighthouse. Unfortunately you have to walk back up!

So what does this trip have to do with history? Well, it's not about the lighthouse, although I do love them. If you look at a map of Point Reyes (Google Maps will do), you will see that the point wraps around a body of water named "Drakes Bay." Remember the story of Sir Francis Drake from elementary school? From 1577 to 1580, Drake and his ship, the Golden Hind, sailed into the Pacific to raid Spanish shipping, with the full
Waysides at the visitor center tell the
story of Drake's stay in California.
consent of Queen Elizabeth I. On June 17, 1579, Drake sailed into this bay on the northern California coast to make repairs to his ship before continuing across the Pacific ocean and eventually home. Drake and his men stayed for thirty-six days and by all available sources had pretty good relations with the local Miwok. Oh, yes, and he claimed the land for England. A brass plate that is believed to be made by the crew was later found in Marin County, along with other archaeological evidence to support journals kept by members of the crew.

The cliffs along this bay supposedly
reminded the English sailors of home.
On the day we visited, the only beach goers on this fairly remote beach was a number of elephant seals. So as not to disturb them, the humans didn't mingle. Regardless, it was a bit of a thrill for me to come to this place. First, there are very few places where you can go in California to see what the area might have looked like when Europeans first arrived. The remoteness of this seashore makes it one of the few. Also, Drake claimed this area for England nearly two hundred years before the Spanish would found a settlement on land that would become California and forty years before the English started colonies on the east coast.
The only visitors to the beach on the day
we visited were some elephant seals.
This makes Drake the first European to claim lands that would become any part of the United States.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Back Over There

Yes, I know I have been a very poor blogger this spring and summer. It's not that I've stopped being a history fanatic. It's just that I'm in the middle of learning how to be a math and science teacher! I know, can you believe it? Last year I taught social studies at a continuation high school here in the central valley of California. As you might have seen in the news, there is a definite shortage of math teachers. There was a need at the alternative education high school where I teach and I have a math and science background from my undergraduate days (35 years ago!). So I stepped up, or stepped in it, depending on how poorly I do teaching math and science during the next school year. However, I still made time to read some history, so here's a recommendation for you.

Book R & R: "Back Over There" by Richard Rubin.

Back in 2013 I read Richard Rubin's first book on WWI titled "The Last of the Doughboys" and really enjoyed it. In that book Rubin described interviewing the last few remaining WWI veterans who were still alive (must to most people's surprise). In "Back Over There," the author goes to France and tours the battlefields of the Western Front of World War I. Both of these books are very timely since we are currently in the one hundred year anniversary of the war.

I have to admit that I am jealous of Richard Rubin. You can tell by his writing that the author truly enjoyed his research. One of my favorite things to do is to walk a battlefield. In "Back Over There" Rubin travels on his own to the ground where battles of the "Great War" happened, not just American Expeditionary Forces but also our allies, the French and British. These battlefields are near the French border with Belgium and Germany, in many cases what is today and was then, in rural areas dotted with small farming villages. Often he makes contact with locals who know the history of the ground as well as any park ranger would at a National Historic Site in the United States. But the majority of the fields that Rubin walks are not protected national parks. They are farm fields where people continue to find artifacts, typically in the form of unexploded ordinance. The interesting thing about Rubin's trip to France is that while we have largely forgotten the battles and sacrifices made by our soldiers WWI, but other nations have not. They continue to That is evidenced strongly from Rubin's description of the formal remembrance ceremony at Belleau Wood to his interactions with the locals who drop what they are doing to take Rubin on a tour of a battlefield near where they live.

"Back Over There" is an enjoyable read with good pacing. The author seamlessly switches back and forth between historical background and travel narrative. He provides self-deprecating humor in describing his poor French language skills and the occasions where he gets lost looking for the spot where a particular event happened. These are two things that everyone who travels can relate to. So you see that this book is both historical and travel narrative. During this 100-year anniversary of an event that changed the course of history and our standing in the world, "Back Over There" is a good book to read and reflect on. Find out the sacrifices made by us, and more so by our allies. Ask yourself why other nations honor and remember, and are still grateful for what past generations of Americans have done, but we seem to have forgotten.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park

One of my favorite historical fantasies includes the wonder of what certain places in California looked like before the modern world took over. I would love to be able to go back in time as an immigrant to California in the 1840s and be able to experience the sight of the Sacramento Valley before there was a city of Sacramento. Well, a trip to Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park doesn’t make that visualization any easier. The park is located in a quiet neighborhood on the corner of L Street and 28th, just a block or so west of Interstate 80. The fort used to be in the middle of rolling grassland in sight of the American River to the north and the Sacramento River to the west. Now it is surrounded by residential streets of Sacramento, less than two miles from the state capital.

Johann Augustus Sutter left his family in Switzerland and came to America in 1834 to escape debts and gain a fresh start. He was reportedly a huckster with a tendency to inflate his own resume, but by hook or crook he made it to California in 1839. When Sutter saw the land around the American River, he started making plans to build a farming and ranching empire. He sold his plan to the Mexican government of California and not only won Mexican citizenship in 1840, but also a land grant of 48,827 acres the following year. All he had to do was maintain order among the local Indians. He was also authorized to issue land grants and passports to American immigrants to California.

With the help of Native-American labor, Sutter built his fort with adobe walls that were two and half feet thick. The compound was reported to be 425 feet by 175 feet. Inside the fort there were carpenter and blacksmith shops, a gunsmith, a distillery, bakery, grist mill, and a blanket factory. Over the next several years, Sutter welcomed immigrants arriving over the California trail. Many new arrivals went to work for him. Eventually Sutter’s “New Helvetia” would encompass approximately 191,000 acres.

When James Marshall brought the gold nuggets to the fort in1848, Sutter initially tried to keep the discovery a secret. But once word got out, the flood of fortune seekers overwhelmed him and his holdings. Sutter lost his empire faster than he built
it. By the 1850s Sutter’s Fort was in ruins. The site was bought by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the fort was rebuilt in the 1890s. It then became part of the California State Park system in 1947.

Although the park was surrounded by the growth of Sacramento long ago, don’t let that give you the impression that this is not an enjoyable park to visit. And if I was going to recommend a starting point for a California Gold Rush trip, this would be the place, followed by a drive up to the Marshall Discovery site. For one thing, the drive up to Coloma would give you a feel for the expanse of land that was under Sutter’s control, if even for a brief time. The fort itself is a real treat to walk through. It is on par with the mission at La Purisma for the re-creation of the shops. There are plenty of artifacts in each to view as well as a period wagon. Check the park website for a schedule of events. If possible, visit on a day when one of the “living history” events is taking place. And while outside the fort there is a quiet modern neighborhood, inside it is easy to transport yourself back to the 1840s. Imagine what an oasis this settlement must have been after arduous months on the trail. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

Russians in California? Our Trip to Fort Ross State Historic Park

I've wanted to see Fort Ross State Historic Park for a long
time. The village is not represented, but the recreated 
stockade and interior buildings are awesome to explore.
We had a rather warm couple of days after Christmas, so Sheila and I took the opportunity to drive up the coast to Mendocino County and check out Fort Ross State Historic Park. This place has been on my radar for several years, and since it is too far for a day trip from our house, we made a weekend out of it, staying in Mendocino and visiting the Point Cabrillo Light Station State Historic Park (which I’ll tell you about in the next post).

Fort Ross is located on the northern California coast, an approximately 2-hour drive north of San Francisco along Highway 1. The area receives about 44 inches of rain a year, 35 of it between November and April. So typically a visitor in the winter would take the chance of encountering coastal storms with rain and gale force winds. However, on the day that we visited we hit the weather jackpot with the sun shining, highs in the upper 50s and a very gentle breeze.

The weather was perfect on this winter break. Check the
forecast before you go.
Russians had been crossing the Bering Strait in search of furs since the middle of the 18th century. By the end of the 1700s, the Russian-American Company had settlements from Kodiak Island in the Aleutians to Sitka in present-day Alaska. Operations expanded with the contracting of American ship captains to use native Alaskans to hunt sea otters along the California coast. To help in these operations, the Russians chose to build a settlement at Metini, 18 miles north of Bodega Bay. The Russians arrived in 1812 with 25 Russians and 80 Alaskans, who built the first houses and a stockade. The site was populated with a native American village, plenty of fresh water, forage, and pasture. There were nearby forests for an ample supply of wood, and best of all, since they were technically encroaching on Spanish territory, the site was defensible. They named it Fort Ross, to honor Imperial Russia, or Rossiia.

I have never seen so many hand tools!
As it turned out, a defense was not necessary. The site was about sixty miles from the nearest Spanish mission, in Sonoma, and eighty-five miles from the Presidio at San Francisco over rough terrain. Moreover, the Spanish (and later the Mexican Californios) seemed to be more interested in trading with, rather than expelling the Russians. Which is a good thing, since the marine mammal population began to be depleted by over hunting by 1820. Along with trading and hunting fur, the settlement also farmed and ranched. They were productive enough to send foodstuff to their outposts in Alaska. In 1841 the Russian-American Company sold their holdings to John Sutter, of Sutter’s Fort fame. After the Gold Rush and the American annexation of California, the area was ranched by a succession of owners that ended with the property being transferred to the State of California in 1906. This makes Fort Ross one of the oldest California State Parks.

Did I mention the weather was perfect? The coast the best 
part of the trip.
Fort Ross is definitely a destination. I highly recommend a picnic lunch, which is what we chose to do. The nearest inexpensive restaurant is more than an hour’s drive in either direction. But picnicking is really the way to go if the weather is nice, which it was on the day we visited. Besides the drive, give yourself a half a day to go through the visitor’s center and the grounds. Along with the buildings and the stockade, take the time to walk out to the sea cliff and sit on the bench for a little while.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

The site of Marshall's discovery of gold is on the South Fork
of the American River, in Coloma, California.
Go stand where it all started.

After the Old Town Sacramento Gold Rush Days, I figured that the best place to start exploring the California Gold Rush was to travel to where it all started. Most people call the place “Sutter’s Mill” but since it is the site where James Marshall discovered gold, it is now the location of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.

John Sutter, a Swedish immigrant, came to California in 1839. His eventual aim was to create an agricultural empire he called “New Helvetia.” The settlement he built would for the most part become Sacramento. More about his story in another post. By 1847, one of Sutter’s planned ventures was to build a saw mill up in the foothills, where the trees are. Fortunately, a carpenter and craftsman, James W. Marshall, had recently arrived in California and agreed to work
for Sutter in building such a mill. They chose a site on the south fork of the American River about 45 miles east of Sacramento.

Replica of Sutter's Mill at Marshall Gold
Discovery State Historic Park.
Marshall’s work force consisted of native Americans and former members of the U.S. Army’s Mormon Battalion that were lingering in California on their way home after the Mexican War. The mill was to be water driven, so the crew had dug a small canal that diverted water from the river to power the mill. The tailrace is the part of the canal that takes the water back to the river. During the day, the workers would dig in the canal. Each night water was allowed through to wash away that days digging. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was inspecting the tailrace when he noticed shiny flecks and pebbles on the ground. He scooped them up and over the next several days had run some tests and traveled to Sutter’s Fort to share the samples with John Sutter. Sutter ran some tests as well and the two men were convinced they had discovered gold. They initially tried to keep the news a secret, but soon the word got out and the news spread around the world.

Today the site is a California State Park in Coloma, California, a little less than nine miles north of Placerville along Highway 49, “The Gold Rush Trail.” If you get there early, stop off at the Sierra Rizing Coffeehouse and Bakery. Good coffee and
This is believed to be the actual tailrace dug in 1847.
friendly people. Besides, you won’t find Starbucks or any other chain restaurants. You’ll probably only spend a half day at Marshall Gold Discovery park. It’s a great place to enjoy a picnic lunch. Or you can head down Highway 49 to one of the Gold Rush towns for lunch or dinner. The state park doesn’t charge any fees. There is a small museum that is very good if you are unfamiliar with the Gold Rush. However, the best part of the visit is outdoors. There is a replica of the mill to look over. There are also some period buildings and outdoor exhibits with wayside markers. My favorite part of the visit was the monument that noted the location of the actual discovery. I stood on the edge of the American river and tried to imagine, as I often do, what it was like in 1848, before the crowds and development that came with California being such a populated state. It’s easier to do here than at most Gold Rush towns, except for the voices of a few other visitors, we had the beautiful river to ourselves.
A large stone marker approximates the spot where Marshall
made his find that started the Gold Rush.

P.S. I just finished a pretty good book for reference on the California Gold Rush. Enough information, in an entertaining voice, and not so much detail to become boring for the casual reader. Try "The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853" by Edward Dolnick.

There is a small, modern, museum at the park as well. Nice
little museum bookstore and gift shop too.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sacramento Gold Rush Days...

...and the California Gold Rush!

Old Town Sacramento is part of the California
State Parks system.
If you are a regular reader of this blog then you know that since moving back to California a couple of years ago we've been visiting historical sites around the state while I bone up on my California history. You know that we've visited some of the missions, and a couple of WWII sites. However, we also spent some time this summer visiting sites that have to do with the California Gold Rush.

I'll share our excursion to the gold rush areas of California in a later post. But I wanted to share our trip on Labor Day weekend first. Now you have to understand that typically, historically, usually and almost always, I want to avoid traveling on a holiday like the plague. But this year our anniversary fell on Labor Day and Sheila surprised me with a little history weekend by getting a reservation on a riverboat that is now a floating hotel on the Sacramento River. This would give us the opportunity to see several sites in Sacramento that have been on the history bucket list for some time.

The store fronts are stocked and interpreters are present in
period costume.
The Delta King Hotel is a restored paddle wheel river boat that plied the waters of the river between San Francisco Bay and Sacramento from 1927 to 1940, and also saw service in WWII. To the best of our knowledge, it is the only hotel that is actually located in Old Town Sacramento. Now, we were looking forward to a nice quiet weekend. I mean, even though it's Labor Day, who goes to Sacramento anyway? Well, it turns out that it would be us and a few thousand of our new friends. See, the hotel called Sheila to confirm the reservation, and tell her that because of the Gold Rush Days festival, they would have valet parking set up at the nearest parking garage and drive us over to the hotel in a golf cart. We were so clueless, we didn't even know that there was a "festival" going on!

A lot of restored old stuff in Old Town.
Old Town Sacramento is a 28 acre area of restored buildings from the nineteenth century. It is located along Interstate 5, just down from the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. The neighborhood is just a few blocks west of the state capital. This area was the terminus of the pony express and where the idea for the Central Pacific Railroad was hatched. I could argue that this is ground zero for the American era of California history. But like Pioneer Square in Seattle or the Fort Worth Stockyards, it is now more tourist attraction than historic site.

We were actually looking forward to the whole thing. We're early risers and beat the traffic. When we arrived and parked in the garage at around 9 am, there was hardly anyone around, but a line of cars was following us in. The first site that greeted
Here comes the cavalry.
us when we turned the corner into Old Town as a small detachment of cavalry coming down the street. We wore ourselves out walking around Old Town, visiting the museums there and people watching. There were people dressed in old west attire putting on demonstrations like how to crack a bull whip or staging a gunfight in the street. As expected, it got more and more crowded as the day progressed.

The Gold Rush Days was a fun event, but I must say that it was more about "festival" than history. California has a rich and varied history, but I have yet to see reenactors that compare to sites we've visited back east. There were a lot of anachronisms easily noticed in the outfits of those who were working the streets. But the museums in Sacramento are first rate and I'll tell you about some of those in future posts.

Our cabin on the Delta King.
By the late afternoon we were ready to collapse and one of the best parts of the weekend was our stay at the Delta King. The room was like staying in a museum, but it was very comfortable and had the necessary modern conveniences of cable television and wifi. We had lunch and breakfast the next morning in hotel's excellent restaurant (I recommend the fish and chips). But we were so exhausted from the day's activities that we had a pizza delivered for dinner, which if you wanted to you could eat at a cafe table set up on deck right outside of your stateroom.

If you are going to have a trip through California Gold Rush History, Old Town Sacramento is a good place to start. The California Railroad Museum is worth the visit to Sacramento alone. The small Wells Fargo museum is also good. Walk the streets, buy a t-shirt and some chocolate, and if you want to stay the night, choose the Delta King rather than the downtown motels. Enjoy your stay. Then head two miles across town to Sutter's Fort to start your real gold rush history trip.