Ten Books That Open Your Eyes to the Golden State

Get to know the real California

Eleven Books that Open Your Eyes to the Golden State

We have Hollywood. We have Disneyland. We have The Golden Gate Bridge and the Transamerica Building, Yosemite and Malibu. We have Giant Redwoods and grizzly bears, sourdough bread and Fisherman’s Wharf. California can boast a plethora of modern “wonders” and ancient beauty.

However, did you know that she is rich in Native American history? That her past includes violent and disruptive conquest by Spanish conquistadors and Catholic missionaries? That she experienced the most massive human migration in world history – and survived? That, in the mid-1800s, she was on the vanguard of economic globalization? That her population represented the most diverse in the world – where representatives from every continent on earth came together during the California Gold Rush?

The books cited below represent only ten examples of works that expose the depth and richness of California’s early history. Give them a try…discover what you may not know about America’s 31st state (before she was a state). If available, click on the title of the book to buy it through IndieBound – in support of independent bookstores throughout the U.S.

El Dorado

1 – El Dorado – The original travel book about California

“Go West, young man!” Such was the directive of well-known newspaper editor Horace Greeley. It is an oft-cited phrase – and may actually have been said in another way, at another time – but it is a fact that Greeley sponsored young Bayard Taylor on a journey to the new territory of California at the height of the Gold Rush in 1849.

Taylor made that journey and wrote about his experiences in El Dorado. The raw beauty of California is revealed. Exposed are the hardships of those living through the troubles wrought by the rapid influx of people into a land that had no infrastructure to support them.

The Victorian flourish of the writing may be cumbersome at first, but Taylor’s wonder and enthusiasm for California shine through.

Three Years in California

2 – Three Years in California (search the web for this out-of-print book)

This is the personal journal of adventurer/miner/merchant/town official William Perkins, a man of little significance to history except as a keen observer. Perkins journeyed to California in the early days of the Gold Rush and left us a full description of the beauty and brutality he found here.

Unlike many diarists, Perkins is an able writer who has captured the wonder of a time in history that shaped California.

San Francisco Memoris

3 – San Francisco Memoirs (search the web for this out-of-print book)

This delightful collection of the writings of various residents of San Francisco (or Yerba Buena, as it was called in the days before the Gold Rush) provide the personal touch to history. Nothing imparts the flavor of a particular time and place like the memories of those who lived it.

At times humorous and always replete with details that make the city come alive, San Francisco Memories was a pleasure to read and a joy to experience.

The Saw the Elephant

4 – They Saw the Elephant

So much of the history of the California Gold Rush is written by and about the men who journeyed to find their fortunes. This wonderful book is a collection of the writings of women who left diverse lands and came to call California their home. Contrary to the myth that Gold Rush women were primarily prostitutes, these women were miners, hoteliers, laundresses and seamstresses, restaurant owners, and entrepreneurs who often fared better than their male counterparts when it came to surviving and thriving in the untamed land of California.

To “See the Elephant” had come to represent the battle-cry of the Gold Rush pioneers – they were going to find their fortune, experience something new, take a once-in-a-lifetime risk. The women of California did all that. They saw the elephant.

The Age of Gold

5 – The Age of Gold

Unlike all of the previous books, H.W. Brands’ epic history of California, The Age of Gold, is not written from the perspective of personal experience. It is a history book – and a fine one at that.

Brands has thoroughly researched and masterfully presented the story of California. He presents rich, detailed accounts of the hardships endured by the travelers, both by land and sea, weaving their stories into the larger historical picture.

This is a well-written and exciting history – a must-read for anyone interested in the Birth of California.

The Rivals (book)

6 – The Rivals

I was so impressed by this book that I wrote a separate review of it (The Rivals: A Book Review).

While not a sweeping saga of California, The Rivals is the (true) story of two of California’s earliest political representatives: William Gwin and David Broderick.

Although both from the same political party, these two could not have been more different: Gwin was born of wealth and power in the southern United States, while Broderick was the New York son of an Irish stonemason who cut his political teeth at Tammany Hall. They had different hopes and aspirations for the new State of California and approached them in diverse styles: Gwin with his political aplomb and Broderick with his fists.

Having never heard of either men before (I am a native Californian, so that is nearly inexcusable), I was riveted by the story of their lives as presented in this book.

Miwok Means People

7 – Miwok Means People (search the web for this out-of-print book)

In 1848 there were still more than 150,000 indigenous people living throughout this westernmost strip of the new American territory. They lived peacefully with each other, for the most part, because California was a land of plenty: game was abundant, seafood easily available, acorns (the diet staple for most of the population, given the widespread growth of oak tree throughout much of the land) and berries and grains were ample.

Isolated from the Native Americans in the rest of the continent that was to become the United States, and isolated from each other by the diverse geography of California, the California tribes spoke 100 different dialects stemming from 21 distinct language groups found nowhere else. The life of a true California native could not have been more different from that of the Plains Indians who have come to represent America’s standard image of an “Indian.”

One such California tribe were the Miwok – whose territory stretched from the Sierra in the East to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. Miwok means People is a rich look at a way of life like no other.

The Other Californians

8 – The Other Californians

California is rich in cultural and ethnic diversity, even today. The roots of that diversity began with the California Gold Rush – when people from every continent traveled to “See the Elephant” and make their fortunes in the goldfields of the new territory. But humans will be human and, therefore, with such diversity also came prejudice.

The Other Californians highlights the issues California faced when so many cultures collided.

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9 – Embracing the Elephant – Experience the California Gold Rush!

Unlike all of the other books above, the next two (Embracing the Elephant and A Veil of Fog and Flames) are works of fiction. However, if you want to experience the feel of California at its inception, this adventure is the answer.

Publishers Weekly calls it “historically evocative.” ForeWord Reviews says it is a “journey worth taking.” The Historical Novel Society highly recommends it, saying: “Beninger’s skillful use of language pulls you into the story, and makes the scenes come alive.”

A historical fiction adventure set against the backdrop of the California Gold Rush, Embracing the Elephant follows young Guinevere Walker from her home in Boston, to Rio de Janeiro, around the treacherous Cape Horn, to the new city of San Francisco and, ultimately, the California mountain range called the Sierra Nevada, known for both its beauty and brutality.

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10 – A Veil of Fog and Flames

Heroes and scoundrels are not born – they are forged in the crucible of experience. Nothing anneals like living. So claims the next novel, A Veil of Fog and Flames.

At fifteen, Guinevere Walker and Jack Moylan are not yet galvanized for the future. In the roiling cauldron that is San Francisco of 1851 – a city devastated by suspicious fires, a dangerous brand of justice imposed by vigilantes from its formidable business community, and the cloud of slavery – the two face issues and questions that thrust them into adulthood and mold their very nature. Do they conform or rebel? Do they succumb to social conventions and restrictions? Or do they pursue their dreams in defiance of the pressures?

A Veil of Fog and Flames is a tale of young lives poised on a tightrope of right and wrong, their stories woven into the fabric of a city that forges rules as it pleases – and breaks them as easily.