1493, but on Spanish California?
March 29, 2014 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Recommendations for a recent popular history of Alta California before the American annexation?

I recently visited Hearst Castle and saw the cattle ranch that's a continuation of a Mexican rancho, and likewise I was fascinated by the veneration for Junipero Serra at the Carmel mission, who up to this point had simply been the name of a road for me. I'd like to learn a little bit more about the history of California before the American annexation, especially (but probably not primarily) as to its lingering effects on contemporary northern California.

In particular, I'd like something well-written, compelling, aimed at the general layman, but up-to-date and engaging in the same kinds of questions as contemporary scholarship. Following the advice given in this question, I recently read 1491 and 1493 and really appreciated Mann's ability to craft a narrative accessible to the layman but informed by the last fifty years of scholarship. I would really love to find something like those books but on the encounters between Native Americans and Europeans in Alta California. In a pinch, a history of the Spanish Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries might do the trick, but I'd really like something focusing on California.

I saw that there are some recent scholarly texts (e.g. Jackson and Castillo's Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization: The Impact of the Mission System on California Indians), which might work if they're sufficiently engaging and not too specialized.

Unfortunately, I don't speak Spanish, so I hope this book, if it exists, is in English! Thanks so much for your help in advance.
posted by crazy with stars to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I should also add that by "lingering effects on contemporary northern California" I mostly mean that I would be interested in books that looked at how Californians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries exploited the history of Spanish and Mexican California for their self-representations (e.g. Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, the creation of El Camino Real, etc.), which is a slightly different if related topic.
posted by crazy with stars at 12:58 PM on March 29, 2014

Kevin Starr is my favorite Californian historian. You may want to start with his California. It covers a longer period of time, but the first couple of chapters cover the time period you're interested in.
posted by gingerbeer at 1:30 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not quite what you're looking for, but Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast is a terrific first person account of Dana's travels along the Southern California coast as a sailor and laborer, prior to annexation.
posted by notyou at 4:01 PM on March 29, 2014

Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California, 1535-1846 has several reviews (including Publisher's Weekly!) that mention readability of the text, so it's definitely worth considering though it's not as recent as some.

California: An Interpretive History looks pretty textbook-y (don't remember if I read it in my history of California classes) but might be worth looking into despite that.

Worth mentioning: Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father looks to be a relatively popular, super recent biography on the Spanish Serra and his impact on California. Another very recent and relatively popular bio of Serra (history must be re-examining him) is Journey to the Sun: Junipero Serra's Dream and the Founding of California.

Also, California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names (don't be fooled by the copyright date; it's not that new and reviews tend to recommend the previous edition) is an interesting way to get at the history of the state from a very different perspective that leaves all the messy bits included.

Good books on California history are surprisingly uncommon and tend to be highly academic. Kevin Starr (who, full disclosure, I am not a fan of) seems to have cornered the market but there are others here and there, which I tried to mention above.
posted by librarylis at 10:54 PM on March 29, 2014

It's not a history, and the source and content may not be viewed 100% favorably these days, but I had a good experience soaking up early California vibes when reading Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson. Any public library in California will have a copy.
posted by Rash at 9:57 AM on March 30, 2014

Thanks all for your assistance.
posted by crazy with stars at 10:49 PM on April 29, 2014

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