Geography is Destiny? What's the best media on California history?
October 20, 2015 11:45 AM   Subscribe

I think California has a unique and interesting history. I'd like to spend 2017 deep diving into all things California and build my ultimate California Bibliography. Specific request: I'm looking for media (books primarily, but also podcasts, magazine pieces, documentaries, (maybe?) movies) that are less a survey of the whole history of the state and more those that explore a specific time period in a specific place. More popular/easy to read or consume/social history than academic/dry/dissertation types. Edu-tainment?

I've already read -
Laurel Canyon: The Inside Story of Rock-and-Roll's Legendary Neighborhood by Michael Walker
Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love by David Talbot
And they seem to have the feel I'm looking for.

Topics I'm especially interested in:
- The Gold Rush - both San Francisco during and also in gold country itself
- California before it was "California" - while it was still Alta California (Spain to Mexico period)
- Rancho life!
- Water rights and water issues
- Development of the Central Valley as a farmland (might be part of water rights but also probably part of the effect of the Great Depression)
- Japanese internment during WWII
- Silicon Valley in the 60s/70s - pre "Internet" as we think of it today but development of ARPAnet, etc. particularly anything that draws in how this is connected to the aerospace and defense industries and why
- Building of the railroad esp treatment of Chinese during and after that
- Black Panther movement - civil rights, black power, etc esp related to Oakland
- California Mission history and current implications
- Organized labor - esp the UFW and Cesar Chavez
- Early Hollywood
- Death Valley? - I know nothing about this part of the state or the desert-ish areas east of LA
- Northern California (like north of Santa Rosa) - again, I don’t even know what to ask about what might have gone on there! Wikipedia tells me Russians colonized up there which is WHOA - tell me more about THAT?!
- Add your own - what am I missing? What parts of California history inform what California is today?

If there are places I should visit - museums, parks, etc. that represent the state I'll add those to the list as well.
posted by marylynn to Society & Culture (40 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
- California before it was "California" - while it was still Alta California (Spain to Mexico period)

I enjoyed Two Years Before the Mast, which was written in the 1840s by a man who travelled from the east coast by ship as part of the leather trade. He describes 1840s California in fascinating personal detail.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:04 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Cadillac Desert is the go-to book on water in the West. It's not just about California, but it's a lot about California. There's a PBS doc based on it as well.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:05 PM on October 20, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'll post more soon (California is an amazing state) but I think one of my all-time favorite children's books was part of the Dear America series, a historical fiction series centered on either a girl or boy's "diary." There was a particularly good one written from the viewpoint of an East Coast settler called Seeds of Hope: The Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, which has photos and captions in the back. It also touches on some of the racism that Chinese gold miners experienced as well. There's also one from the same series called The Journal of Wong Ming-Chun, which is centered on a 10-year old Chinese miner boys' experience during The Gold Rush. Might be a little young for you, but definitely edu-tainment, and I thought both of them are still compelling upon rereading.

There's also a really good book called Garden of the World: Asian Immigrants and the Making of Agriculture in California's Santa Clara Valley by an academic named Cecilia Tsu, who writes about the forgotten histories of Filipin@, Mexican, and other Asian farmworkers, as well as other immigration histories in the Santa Clara Valley, before it was known as the Silicon Valley. It's not written in a very academic style, and I thought it was compelling.
posted by yueliang at 12:10 PM on October 20, 2015

John McPhee's Assembling California (geology). Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert (water rights). A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (1906 earthquake). Mike Davis (politics, ecology, class).
posted by Bee'sWing at 12:12 PM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Two Years Before the Mast is a classic. It will give you great insight to what population groups were in California in the 1830's.

Donald Dale Jackson's Gold Dust is a detailed factual accounting of passages to reach the California gold rush and conditions in the state at that time.

The Brewer Journals cover the Civil War era in California. They're chock full of great information.
posted by X4ster at 12:16 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

There's a museum of California history right across the street from the Museum of the African Diaspora in SF. It's really lovely. They often have photography exhibits that are just wonderful. Wells Fargo also has a little museum of their history.
posted by janey47 at 12:16 PM on October 20, 2015

Not a period or location you specifically asked about, but I’d put The Exiles and Killer of Sheep on a bibliography of California culture, for sure. The first is about Native Americans in LA in 1960, the second is about Watts in the 70s.

For early Hollywood stuff, a lot of the sordid Hollywood Babylon has been debunked but it’s irresistible reading. Can’t get much less academic than that.
posted by miles per flower at 12:24 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Strongly seconding Mike Davis, and I'll add Barney Hoskyns' 'Waiting for the Sun: A Rock and Roll History of Los Angeles,' and Ronin Ro's 'Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records.'
posted by box at 12:29 PM on October 20, 2015

Like X4ster, I strongly recommend William Brewer's Up and Down California, linked above. Brewer was the chief surveyor of the Whitney Survey of California (for whom Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states, is named), and traveled extensively throughout the state from 1861 to 64. The book collects his journals form this period and make for some fascinating reading.

The Thousand Mile Summer, by the late Colin Fletcher (he also authored the Complete Walker series of hiking books) is a personal favorite and gives a wonderful recounting of the summer he spent hiking the from Mexico to Oregon through Death Valley and over the Sierra crest in the mid-late 1950's, years before there was an established Pacific Crest Trail. A wonderful first person account of a this trip long before it was a "thing."
posted by mosk at 12:33 PM on October 20, 2015

Are you curious about current California agriculture? Do you pass fields and wonder what's growing there and how does that crop fits into our economy? Answers are in the Field Guide to California Agriculture. It's an entertaining and engaging reference. Take a look at the reviews on Amazon.
posted by X4ster at 12:34 PM on October 20, 2015

Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This has many terrific early Hollywood stories; she includes good bibliographic information for further research, too.
posted by bcwinters at 12:35 PM on October 20, 2015

> - Building of the railroad esp treatment of Chinese during and after that

Although it covers more than just the construction of the California portion, Stephen Ambrose's Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, 1863-1869 is a great telling of the story of the Transcontinental Railroad, from the initial work of engineer/surveyor Theodore Judah to the sprawling construction of the railroad itself, it is a fascinating tale that Ambrose (author of Band of Brothers, among other works) tells it well. He spends considerable time describing the construction of the route across the Sierra and the methods and treatment of the Chinese laborers who did the dirty work. A fun read.
posted by mosk at 12:41 PM on October 20, 2015

Three Years in California by J.D. Borthwick is a contemporary account of an English artist who traveled through the gold mining camps in the 1850s. It's a wonderful read. (Warning: Tons of 19th century racism.) Ditto for the Dame Shirley letters.

Another interesting slice of history is about the plague outbreak in SF in the early 1900s: The Barbary Plague tells the story.

You also left one of the defining California stories off of your list -- the Donner party! There are a lot of books written about the Donner Party, many of them very bad, but Ordeal by Hunger, though flawed, is pretty good.

Also, Cannery Row for a fictionalized account of Monterey during the sardine packing years.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:48 PM on October 20, 2015

Forgot one: For water issues, check out Battling the Inland Sea about flood control in the Central Valley and the political issues that surround it.

There's no book that's been written solely about the Great Flood of 1861-62, but the entire middle part of the state was pretty much underwater for a time, and the state government temporarily relocated to San Francisco. You can find some interesting articles online.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:52 PM on October 20, 2015

Development of the Central Valley as a farmland (might be part of water rights but also probably part of the effect of the Great Depression)

It was neither! The CV turned into farmland after the Great Flood I just mentioned, which was followed by two years of historic drought. Something like 80% of the cattle in the state died and the owners of the ranchos were ruined. They had an easier time selling off land in small parcels than in huge, land-grant-sized rancho tracts, and that allowed the establishment and growth of family farms and orchards. From there, 1870s or so, agriculture in the Valley evolved and consolidated into what it is now.

Check out The King of California for more related to agriculture in the CV.

Sorry for three consecutive posts! I missed this the first two times around.
posted by mudpuppie at 12:59 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

>There's no book that's been written solely about the Great Flood of 1861-62, but the entire middle part of the state was pretty much underwater for a time, and the state government temporarily relocated to San Francisco. You can find some interesting articles online.

FWIW, the William Brewer book describes this flood in compelling detail, as he was a first hand witness to the extensive flooding of 1861-2.


One more: Although flawed, I'll also recommend Herbert Asbury's The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld. It does a good job of compiling a lot of first- and second-hand accounts to tell the tale of San Francisco's very sordid and infamous underside.
posted by mosk at 1:02 PM on October 20, 2015

The University of California Press may have some books of interest to you. For example, Infinite City

Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant reinvention of the traditional atlas, searches out the answer by examining the many layers of meaning in one place, the San Francisco Bay Area. Aided by artists, writers, cartographers, and twenty-two gorgeous color maps, each of which illuminates the city and its surroundings as experienced by different inhabitants, Solnit takes us on a tour that will forever change the way we think about place.
posted by lyssabee at 1:08 PM on October 20, 2015

Would you be interested in looking at the actual news reported back in the 19th Century? Here's a look at what was being reported about the Spanish American War in the SF Call, May Day 1988. Archived newspapers are readily available and frequently entertaining and insightful.
posted by X4ster at 1:21 PM on October 20, 2015

Imperial San Francisco about San Francisco through the Gold Rush and into political power.

Water and Power for Los Angeles early development.

(just saw your end of post caveat - these are not super dry, but definitely not edu-tainment. Super interesting, both, though.)
posted by mzurer at 1:27 PM on October 20, 2015

cadillac desert is outstanding and should be one of the first, if not the first, of your reads.
posted by lescour at 1:31 PM on October 20, 2015

Louis Warren at UC Davis teaches California History.

My fingers are crossed for a California History Megapost at the end of 2017!
posted by aniola at 1:33 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Stanford's Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project could be a great resource for you.
posted by delight at 1:36 PM on October 20, 2015

Seconding Two Years Before the Mast. I found it to be very engaging and readable for such an old book.
posted by Aizkolari at 1:38 PM on October 20, 2015

The Campaign of the Century chronicles Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California party and race for the governorship in the 1934.

Also a great website on that race. That site also has a link to a 53 minute PBS documentary on the race.

Why David Sometimes Wins is a great book on the UFW campaigns written by Marshall Ganz.

And The Fight in the Fields is another documentary about the UFW.
posted by brookeb at 2:12 PM on October 20, 2015

Also you should read up on the history of Angel Island, the West Coast's version of Ellis Island.

This list of documentaries should give you a good starting place.
posted by brookeb at 2:19 PM on October 20, 2015

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir
posted by aniola at 2:25 PM on October 20, 2015

Be sure to also have a look at California's pre-European history.
posted by aniola at 2:27 PM on October 20, 2015

nthing Cadillac Desert for water in the West.

It's a behemoth, but one of the most comprehensive books on California water history I've come across is The Great Thirst (published by University of California Press, mentioned above).
posted by memento maury at 4:22 PM on October 20, 2015

The San Francisco Public Library Chinatown branch has a lot of local history books, which I attempted to read through while living nearby. Lots of memoirs or nearly-memoirs, city and entertainment and political histories. Very casual searching doesn't get me a shelf list, but it should be possible. All the stories set in the Chinatown theaters were fascinating. So was the history of Locke, last or only rural Chinatown in California. I remember a history of all the WWII shipyards in the Bay, and why all of them are still rough neighborhoods *except* Sausalito -- man, that was some politics. And Sausalito has the Bay Model, which helped save the Bay from some hubristic engineering.

Jack London! Free in the public domain: Tales of the Fish Patrol touches on a whole slew of the immigrant societies working on the water, and how difficult it was for them to cooperate at all. Also it's a rollicking read. The Valley of the Moon is an accidental summary of USian politics: our hero and heroine start as labor organizers, but they're really really white and good-looking and white, so people give them so much help and special access that they're rentier-farmers for the rich by the end of the novel. It's not really a good novel, but...
posted by clew at 5:02 PM on October 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

Kevin Starr wrote the definitive series on California history, plus a few other books.
posted by gingerbeer at 5:41 PM on October 20, 2015

If Baja California counts as California (which culturally and geographically speaking, it should!), then The Log from the Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck is awesome :)
posted by Drosera at 6:10 PM on October 20, 2015

For a really personal, poetic memoir about suburban expansion and growing up there as a child of the GI Generation, read Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D. J. Waldie.
posted by Miko at 9:02 PM on October 20, 2015

You should plan a visit to the Prelinger library in San Francisco and prepare to spend a lot of time there.
posted by jessamyn at 9:05 PM on October 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Not to be totally obvious, but did I miss where everyone already said the movies Chinatown and Los Angeles Plays Itself?
posted by thetortoise at 1:08 AM on October 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, von Stroheim's Greed. Death Valley, San Francisco, Oakland, gold, and it's a film that gives you a better sense of what early Hollywood was like than any documentary.
posted by thetortoise at 1:29 AM on October 21, 2015

Joan Didion's Where I Was From covers a personal and particular California that I love. Also Writing LA is a great anthology to give you a feel for the European sweep of Southern California history. (I notice you only list Hollywood & water rights, but Los Angeles has it's own, pretty neat, history.)
posted by dame at 5:31 AM on October 21, 2015

Every time I’ve gone to the Huntington Library I’ve seen some great displays that are specific to California history. Lots of engravings, maps, photographs, citrus labels, Jack London letters, gold rush & oil boom ephemera, etc.

Which reminds me: There Will Be Blood! (Also The Master and maybe even Inherent Vice but There Will Be Blood especially.)
posted by miles per flower at 7:58 AM on October 21, 2015

I came in to recommend Kevin Starr's multi-volume history of California, but gingerbeer beat me to it, so I'll just second that and offer a different direction:

The San Francisco Public Library is one of the greatest contributors to There are more than 10,000 items from the San Francisco Public Library, covering all KINDS of things. If you visit San Francisco, the History Center at the San Francisco Public Library has a ton of amazing stuff (the source of much of the material now available through You can also browse their historical photograph collection online.

Finally, if you visit San Francisco, make time for a few walks with the San Francisco City Guides. All walks are free (donations welcome), and they are uniformly terrific - entertaining and informative. You can visit all kinds of neighborhoods and learn about all kinds of California history, from the Gold Rush and post-Gold Rush Chinatown to silent films in San Francisco to the history of the port to the Summer of Love in the Haight to community and politics in the Castro.
posted by kristi at 10:35 AM on October 21, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for all the suggestions so far - I'd be happy to have them keep coming. I've started compiling a Google Doc with the lists in case anyone else is interested.
posted by marylynn at 6:38 PM on October 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

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