Kevin Starr California: A History

ISBN 13: 9780679642404

California: A History

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9780679642404: California: A History

California has always been our Shangri-la–the promised land of countless pilgrims in search of the American Dream. Now the Golden State’s premier historian, Kevin Starr, distills the entire sweep of California’s history into one splendid volume. From the age of exploration to the age of Arnold, this is the story of a place at once quintessentially American and utterly unique.

Arguing that America’s most populous state has always been blessed with both spectacular natural beauty and astonishing human diversity, Starr unfolds a rapid-fire epic of discovery, innovation, catastrophe, and triumph.

For generations, California’s native peoples basked in the abundance of a climate and topography eminently suited to human habitation. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early sixteenth century, there were scores of autonomous tribes were thriving in the region. Though conquest was rapid, nearly two centuries passed before Spain exerted control over upper California through the chain of missions that stand to this day.

The discovery of gold in January 1848 changed everything. With population increasing exponentially as get-rich-quick dreamers converged from all over the world, California reinvented itself overnight. Starr deftly traces the successive waves of innovation and calamity that have broken over the state since then–the incredible wealth of the Big Four railroad tycoons and the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906; the emergence of Hollywood as the world’s entertainment capital and of Silicon Valley as the center of high-tech research and development; the heroic irrigation and transportation projects that have altered the face of the region; the role of labor, both organized and migrant, in key industries from agriculture to aerospace.

Kevin Starr has devoted his career to the history of his beloved state, but he has never lost his sense of wonder over California’s sheer abundance and peerless variety. This one-volume distillation of a lifetime’s work gathers together everything that is most important, most fascinating, and most revealing about our greatest state.

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About the Author:

Legendary California historian Kevin Starr is University Professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the gold and silver medals from the Commonwealth Club of California, he served as the state librarian of California for the decade spanning 1994 to 2004. Starr divides his time between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

QUEEN CALAFIA’S ISLAND

Place and First People

First described in a bestseller, California entered history as a myth. In 1510 the Spanish writer Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo issued a sequel to his 1508 prose romance Amadis de Gaula, which Montalvo had in turn based upon a late thirteenth- to early fourteenth-century Portuguese narrative derived from French sources. Published in Seville, Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Deeds of Esplandián) chronicled the exploits of Esplandián, son of the hero Amadis of Gaul, at the siege of Constantinople. Among Esplandián’s allies at the siege were the Californians, a race of black Amazons under the command of Queen Calafia. California itself, according to Montalvo, was “an island on the right hand of the Indies . . . very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise,” abounding in gold and precious stones. The Californians rode griffins into battle and fought with golden weapons. Queen Calafia herself was “very large in person, the most beautiful of all of them, of blooming years, and in her thoughts desirous of achieving great things, strong of limb and of great courage.”

Equipping a fleet, Calafia had sailed to Constantinople to join the other great captains of the world in the siege against the Turks. By the end of the story, Queen Calafia and the Californians have become Christians (which involved, one surmises, giving up their promiscuous ways and the feeding of their male offspring to their griffins), and Calafia herself marries one of Esplandián’s trusted lieutenants, with whom she goes on to further adventures.

In 1863 the Boston antiquarian Edward Everett Hale, author of the well-known short story “The Man Without a Country,” sent a paper to the American Antiquarian Society in which he provided translations of key passages of Las Sergas de Esplandián and cited the prose romance as the source of the name “California.” Hale’s report was in turn reported on by The Atlantic Monthly in March 1864. Montalvo’s two tales, Hale noted, were instant bestsellers and remained so for the rest of the sixteenth century. Not until the publication of Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in two parts in 1605 and 1615 were Montalvo’s romances superseded in popularity. Don Quixote, furthermore, was not the only one to take these stories as literal fact. The Spanish in general had a tendency to conflate fact with fiction when it came to these prose romances.

In 1533 a party of Spanish explorers, sailing west from Mexico across an unnamed sea at the command of Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, landed on what they believed to be an island in the recently discovered Pacific. After 1539 they began to call the place after the mythic island of California, half believing and more than fully hoping they would find there as well the gold and precious stones described in Montalvo’s romance, and perhaps even an Amazon or two. Not until 1539–40 did the Spanish discover their geographical mistake. California was a peninsula, not an island, and north of this peninsula—eventually called Antigua or Old California—was a vast northern region that the Spaniards, for one reason or another, would be unable to settle for another 230 years.

The American state of California faces the Pacific Ocean between latitude 42 degrees north (at the border of the American state of Oregon) and latitude 32 degrees north (at the border of the Mexican state of Baja California Norte). On a clear day, photographed from a satellite, California appears as a serene palette of blue, green, brown, white, and red. This apparent serenity, however, masks a titanic drama occurring beneath the surface, in the clash of the two tectonic plates upon which California rests. California itself resulted from a collision of the North American and Pacific plates. Across a hundred million years, the grinding and regrinding of these plates against each other, their sudden detachments, their thrusts above or below each other—together with the lava flow of volcanoes, the bulldozing action of glaciers, and, later, the flow of water and the depositing of alluvial soil—created a region almost abstract in its distinct arrangements of mountain, valley, canyon, coastline, plain, and desert. As the California-born philosopher and historian Josiah Royce observed, there is nothing subtle about the landforms and landscapes of California. Everything is scaled in bold and heroic arrangements that are easily understood.

Fronting more than half the shoreline of the western continental United States, California—all 158,693 square miles of it—offers clear-cut and confrontational topographies. First of all, there is the 1,264-mile Pacific shoreline itself. Thirty million years ago, tectonic action formed this shoreline by detaching a great land mass from the southern edge of the Baja California peninsula, moving it northward, and attaching it back onto the continent. At four strategic intervals—the bay of San Diego in the south, Monterey and San Francisco bays in the midregion, and Humboldt Bay in the north—this appended land mass opened itself to the sea and created four harbors. Formed as recently as thirty thousand years ago when mountains on the shoreline collapsed and the sea rushed in, San Francisco Bay is among the two or three finest natural harbors on the planet.

Rising from this coastline, from north to south, various mountain ranges run boldly into the Pacific. At latitude 35 degrees 30 minutes north, in the county of San Luis Obispo, these coastal mountains bifurcate into two ranges: the Transverse Ranges, veering in a southeasterly direction into southern Kern County in the interior, and the Peninsula Ranges, continuing southward down the coast. In the far north, the Klamath Mountains and the southern tip of the Cascades move in an easterly direction toward the Modoc Plateau on the northeastern corner. Running south from the Modoc Plateau is another, even more formidable mountain range, the Sierra Nevada—John Muir’s “Range of Light,” four hundred miles long, eighty miles wide—sealing off the eastern edge of California from the Great Basin until these mighty mountains yield to the Mojave Desert in

the southeastern corner. Forty-one California mountains rise to more than ten thousand feet. The highest—Mount Whitney—is, at 14,496 feet, the second highest mountain in the continental United States. Mount Shasta in the north—rising from its plain to a height of 14,162 feet, its crowning glaciers still grinding against each other—was once an active volcano. Nearby Mount Lassen, also a volcano, was active as recently as 1921.

Thus in eons past did mountains set the stage for the essential drama of the California landscape: an interplay of heights, flatland, and coast. Coastal plains adjoin the bays of San Francisco and Monterey, and a great basin, the Los Angeles Plain, flanks the coast south of the Transverse Ranges. Four hundred and thirty miles in length, the Central Valley runs through the center of the state in two sequences, the San Joaquin Valley to the south, the Sacramento Valley to the north. Open and sweeping as well are the moonlike Modoc Plateau in the northeastern corner of the state, the high desert Great Basin on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, the Mojave Desert in the southeast, and the Salton Trough thrusting itself up from Baja.

Here it is, then: a landscape of stark contrasts, vibrant and volatile with the geological forces that shaped the western edge of the continent. Numerous fault lines—the San Andreas, the Hayward, the Garlock, the San Jacinto, the Nacimiento—crisscross the western edge from San Francisco Bay to the Mexican border, keeping the region alive with tectonic action. Within human memory—in 1857 at the Tejon Pass in Southern California, in 1872 in the Owens Valley, in San Francisco in 1906, in Long Beach in 1933, in the San Fernando Valley in 1971, again in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989, and again in the San Fernando Valley in 1994—great earthquakes shook the land, destroying lives and property. At magnitude 8.3 on the Richter scale, the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, like the Lisbon earthquake of 1775, precipitated the destruction of an entire city.

Just sixty miles from Mount Whitney, the highest point in the state, is Death Valley, the lowest point on the continent at 282 feet below sea level. Here temperatures can reach as high as 134 degrees Fahrenheit, as they did on July 10, 1913. In midsummer the Central Valley can be as hot as the Equator. Fortunately for California as a place for human settlement, however, two factors—the California Current coming down from the northwestern Pacific, and the Pacific High, a high-pressure zone a thousand miles off the coast—help moderate the heat of the interior. From the point of view of human preferences, coastal California—where settlement began and maintains its greatest density—sustains a mosaic of salubrious climates. Few climates in North America, if any, can equal that of coastal California from the point of view of human use. Like the Mediterranean, the southern littoral is warm and dry. This Mediterranean climate continues up the coast and veers inland until it meets the forested regions of the north. From Monterey Bay to the Marin headlands north of San Francisco, however, this Mediterranean climate is moistened and softened by morning sea fogs and the other mitigating influences of maritime weather. In general, coastal California rarely gets below 40 degrees...

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