The Frontier Thesis and San Joaquin County

How would you describe the American character? For many of us, the description would include words like individuality, ruggedness, informality, and initiative. We might even see an image of John Wayne riding high in the saddle, six-shooter at his side, enemies cowering in fear.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)

Frederick Jackson Turner didn't know Wayne, but he may have had someone similar in mind when he authored one of the most famous scholarly papers in American history, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893). A professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard, Turner depicted the essence of the American character as rugged individualism, and he saw it shaped through interaction between waves of settlers and the raw, untamed wilderness.

Turner envisioned an evolutionary process. In his view, the savagery of the frontier forced America's pioneers to rely on their own individual strength and resources. It also weeded out those who didn't. As Americans pushed westward, they abandoned useless European institutions and ideas and brought into existence new ideas and a new form of democratic government that reflected their experience.

Does the historical experience of San Joaquin County support Turner's Frontier Thesis? I don't think so, and one of the major reasons I don't is the career of Charles Weber.

If anybody typified the pioneer spirit in San Joaquin County, it may have been Weber. Weber was no stranger to individualism, but he didn't do it all on his own. Weber traveled west as part of a group (the Bidwell-Bartleson Party), learned firsthand about California as an employee of John Sutter, and acquired Rancho Campo de los Franceses, the foundation of his fortune, in partnership with Guillermo Gulnac.

In 1850, Weber married Helen Murphy, daughter of Martin Murphy, an early settler in the Santa Clara Valley. The marriage expanded Weber's social network. Around the same time, he converted to Catholicism, the religion of his new wife, which cemented his connections with another, even more extensive community, religious in nature, with roots deep in California soil.

As Weber aged, he found himself part of a growing social network that helped him define himself and through which he could influence and be influenced by others.

The marriage also did something else: It marked the beginning of a lifelong alliance in which, according to the Weber Library, both partners, Charles and Helen, retained interest in the world of Western culture and ideas—not only within the United States, but also in Europe.

So if the Frontier Thesis doesn't "fit" in San Joaquin County, how can its history be explained? At this point, I'm not entirely certain. However, I suspect that any plausible explanation needs to take into account a more expansive understanding of human interaction than Turner offered, as well as the intellectual world of San Joaquin County's early settlers, glimpses of which can be seen in the Weber Library.

The Weber Family Library

Imagine yourself caught up in the excitement of California's Gold Rush. Now imagine yourself boarding a ship on the East Coast, sailing to San Francisco, and heading out to the Southern Mines after stopping in Stockton for supplies. Thousands of other gold seekers from throughout the world join you, hoping to make a quick fortune then head back to civilization.

Cosette, from original French edition of Les Miserables (1862).

Cosette, from original French edition of Les Miserables (1862).

Culture—good literature, art, and music—are not high priorities. In fact, you probably couldn't care less—at least, according to popular stereotypes of the Forty Niners. But how accurate are those stereotypes? Was early California soon after the Gold Rush actually a cultural wasteland?

The reality seems to have been more complicated.

Recently, volunteer archivist Gail Erwin has been compiling a catalog of the library owned by Stockton founder Charles M. Weber and his family. The library dates from the 1850s and extends into the last days of the nineteenth century. It seems to have been extensive. Gail is not yet finished, but it's safe to say at this point that Weber and his family were widely read.

So far, Gail has identified four major categories: religion, philosophy, literature, and history. Representative historical works include Flavius Josephus's Works, Buffon's Natural History, William Still, The Underground Railroad Records (1872), and Giuseppe Garibaldi's Life (1859). Among other works are classics like Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the Works of William Shakespeare, and Daniel Defoe's Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Also present is poetry by William Wordsworth and a number of lesser poets.

The reading interests of the Weber family were not limited to the English language. True to Weber's own heritage, the library includes books written in German. In addition, it contains English-French and English-Latin dictionaries and, among other volumes, Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862), as originally published in French.

I don't doubt for a moment that, taken as a whole, California's Forty Niners and those who followed soon after were a rough-and-tumble lot. The group undoubtedly had more than its share of ruffians, riffraff, and adventurers. But the evidence tells me that we err if we imagine the entire group arriving in California as blank cultural and intellectual sheets.

True, not everybody had the income or time to behave like the Webers. But I suspect that enough settlers arrived with appreciation for culture and its institutions to plant seeds that eventually transformed the nature of life on the California frontier.

How that happened and the meaning of the process will be explored in another post.

Remarkable Women of Stockton

I grew up among strong, capable women. Deep in the Great Depression, before I was born, one of my grandmothers set up two businesses (that's right, TWO) in the San Francisco Bay Area to put food on the table after my grandfather took ill. Grandma J, a tiny Danish immigrant, ended up doing quite well for herself, thank you.

Tomato Queen Tillie Lewis (1901-1977)

Tomato Queen Tillie Lewis (1901-1977)

My other grandmother was just as tough. When Grandpa N lost his job at UPS, Grandma found creative ways to feed and clothe not only her own four children, but also an aging father and a very troubled younger brother. As the children left home, she moved into the workforce, transporting heavy equipment to Navy ships in San Francisco Bay during World War II, driving a school bus, and working in a school cafeteria.

I might also mention that she raced motorcycles as a youth … but that's another story.

Not everybody has grown up with such role models. So sometimes we need reminders of the accomplishments that strong, capable women have made throughout history.

Enter Remarkable Women of Stockton. In this delightful and engaging little book, former journalist and retired local librarian Mary Jo Gohlke reminds us about the contributions that twenty of Stockton's most notable women have made to their community, state, and the world.

Gohlke's cast of characters includes such well-known local figures as Julia Weber, Harriet Chalmers Adams, and Tillie Lewis. Slightly less famous but equally intriguing are Inez Budd, the eccentric wife of the only California governor from Stockton; Sarah Gillis, the owner-manager of a successful steamship line; and Elizabeth Humbarger, an outspoken supporter of educational opportunities for interned Japanese-Americans during World War II.

My personal favorite is Gohlke's brief biography of Margaret Smyth. Smyth bore the distinction of being not only an early female graduate from what became the Stanford University Medical School, but also, eventually, the superintendent of Stockton State Hospital.

Gohlke's historical scope ranges from the Gold Rush to the early years of the twenty-first century. Some of her subjects are remembered mainly because of roles they assumed by virtue of birth or marriage. More often they gained distinction by leveraging their own aptitudes or skills to make their marks against significant odds.

Remarkable Women of Stockton sparkles with lively prose. I recommend it highly. It can be purchased online directly from the publisher, History Press, or from Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.

Time and Travel

I've been on vacation. My wife and I recently visited Europe. We spent a week in the United Kingdom and another in Switzerland. Our main attraction was Zurich, where our daughter attends graduate school.

Flying kites at Stonehenge.

Flying kites at Stonehenge.

Historic sites ran a close second, however, as they often do with historians like me. My longsuffering, nonhistorian wife took it in stride. The only time she balked was at Stonehenge. Not to worry. She reached into her backpack, pulled out a kite, and hoisted it into the air.

I wonder what other tourists thought. I wonder what the builders of Stonehenge would have thought. For all I know, they might have flown kites of their own.

Do you ever wonder about the past? Do you ever try to imagine what life was like for our parents, their parents, and their parents parents? If you do, you're part of a small and shrinking minority.

In a recent New York Times column, author Timothy Egan laments widespread lack of interest in history. Study after study bolsters his case. Egan mentions an exchange he had with celebrated documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. Burns claims that students nowadays often find "civics"—which tends to encompass history—boring or too demanding. As a result, many schools have either played down history or drastically reduced the rigor with which it's taught.

I appreciate Egan's point, but let's not indict American education in broad strokes. And let's not focus on education alone. A lot of influences are at play. Whatever the reason, though, lack of interest has diminished our understanding of the past and made life more tenuous.

How so? Those vacant stares I get when I mention the Civil War, World War I, and the Korean Conflict expose more than ignorance. They also point to frightening possibilities of repeating costly mistakes that claimed millions of lives in the past.

Equally troubling is our loss of certain crucial points of reference. Does it really make sense to compare the latest policy decision out of Washington, D.C., to Hitler or slavery? Do those who make such comparisons truly understand the untold human cost that both inflicted on the world?

Ignorance or sketchy understanding of the past invites manipulation, as Egan reminds his readers. Small wonder that one of the first things totalitarian governments try to control is institutional memory.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea: We do better as individuals and a society when we remember the past, warts and all.

So how do we get there? History needs to be interesting. History as a discipline has roots in storytelling, and those who deal with the past need to remember those origins. All the better if the stories are vivid, concrete, and three-dimensional.

One of the best ways I can imagine of sparking positive feelings about study of the past is the hands-on approach taken here at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. I invite you to check out our Web site and explore the many programs the Museum offers for young people. These include Valley Days, Pioneer School Days, and From Farm to Fork.

Each is led by trained, dedicated, and passionate docents, many of them retired teachers gifted with the ability to engage students.

I can't guarantee that the attention of those students won't flag if they ever attend Stonehenge. Packing a kite might actually be a good idea. But I can assure you that those who attend one of the Museum's programs will go home with newfound appreciation of the past.

New Exhibition to Open at Museum

Popular songs about the State of California, from the Gold Rush through the vaudeville era, are celebrated in the new exhibition Singing the Golden State, which opens on April 6 at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum. The exhibition spotlights graphically striking sheet-music covers published from 1849 through the 1930s.

Music that celebrates California.

Music that celebrates California.

"In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, publishers understood that potential sheet-music buyers judged pieces of music—like books—by their covers," says James M. Keller, curator of the exhibit. These images were sometimes by notable illustrators and artists.

In Singing the Golden State, the subject is California—its history, its geography, its people. The exhibit includes sheet music organized by such topics as the Gold Rush, fairs and exhibitions, commerce and advertising, clubs and organizations, sports and amusements, children, minorities, transportation, and a tour of the Golden State. There is a section on the state song, "I Love You, California," composed in 1913.

Until the 1930s, when the dissemination of popular music shifted to radio, sheet music served as a form of media. "If something happened," says Keller, "there's a fair chance someone wrote a song about it." The examples on display include sheet music for several songs relating to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and the "California Flood Mazurka," memorializing the great 1862 flood in the Central Valley, the largest in California's recorded history.

Singing the Golden State is a traveling exhibition from Exhibit Envoy, The Society of California Pioneers' Sherman Music Collection, and The James M. Keller Collection, curated by James Keller. It will be at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum through June 1, 2014. The Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Exhibit Envoy provides traveling exhibitions and professional services to museums in California. For more information, please visit www.exhibitenvoy.org.

Why Save Old Records?

Old government records are on my mind. Yesterday, I worked in downtown Stockton with one of members of the San Joaquin County Historic Records Inventory Project. So far, the team has inventoried about fifteen hundred items, bound volumes that range in size from small to enormous. We still have a long way to go before we're finished.

Books of deeds at the Museum.

Books of deeds at the Museum.

I couldn't helping asking myself how I would justify going to this trouble.

Several answers came to my mind, and there are probably others. One of the most obvious is hard to explain: We—or lots of us, at least—just like old "stuff." I suppose old objects allow us to touch the past. I see this impulse related to the acquisition of antique furniture, machinery, and clothing. The possibility of making money—witness Antiques Roadshow—seems to solidify this impulse.

Another justification speaks to identity, the need to understand our origins, not only at the personal level but also among groups and nations. I've lost track of the number of patrons who've visited the archives at the San Joaquin County Historical Museum in search of tiny bits of genealogical data: a birth date, the name of a long-lost grandparent, or when a couple married. Those pieces may be small, but they are very important for genealogists. In many cases, they can't be found anywhere else except government records.

Much the same can be said for history as a formal discipline. At times, government records buttress major interpretations that deal with significant issues. Sometimes, they're crucial for the never-ending quest to understand human thought and behavior. The hope, according to the familiar truism, is that the process of grappling with weighty historical issues will help us avoid making mistakes that marred the decisions of our forebears.

One of the most compelling justifications for this project, though, is the practical value of the records. Today, all sorts of legal decisions hinge on historical evidence. Attorneys, administrators, judges, elected officials, and a host of others depend on reliable records to arrive at just and fair decisions. Think about it: contracts, property rights, child custody, rights of way, and real estate title all rest on reliable historic records. Those of us who live in and around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta need not be reminded that claims to water rights also depend on historic documentation.

So is it worth the effort? It doesn't bother me at all to serve as a guide for antiquarians, genealogists, historians, and a host of professionals that turn to such records to avoid endless disputes and untold grief.

Theresa and Charles Wriston: Chapter Two

Who would have ever thought? Last week's post, which involved Charles Wriston, his wife, Theresa, and their two children, triggered a lot of feedback. The responses tended to fall into two categories.

The California Constitution of 1849, written at Colton Hall, Monterey, granted women trailblazing rights.

The California Constitution of 1849, written at Colton Hall, Monterey, granted women trailblazing rights.

The first filled in missing biographical details. Thanks to one of Charles's blood relatives, I know now that he lived to the ripe old age of ninety. Men characterized by "habitual intemperance and dissipation" usually don't live that long—sometimes they do, but not usually. It looks as though Charles mended his ways.

As for Theresa, according to another reader—someone who seems well-versed with an array of genealogical resources—she and her husband continued living together at the Boston House at least until 1925. They evidently continued in that relationship at other addresses in Stockton from around 1930 until at least 1940.

The children's fate is unknown.

The feedback that intrigued me the most came from my good friend, Norm, who worked at the appellate level of the California State court system until his retirement a few years ago. Theresa's legal situation triggered memories of his that reach back to his days in law school. Norm steered me in a direction that eventually led me to an article titled "California's Sole Traders," written by attorney and genealogist Judy G. Russell.

Russell reminds readers that women in nineteenth-century American lacked full equality with men. However, California and a few other states provided a legal framework that enabled them to run businesses on their own, with property rights of their own, protection against debts incurred by their husbands, and access to the courts.

Here's the relevant wording from legislation that dates from April 1852: "Married women shall have the right to carry on and transact business under their own name, and on their own account, by complying with the regulations prescribed in this act."

Which regulations? Well, a woman in search of status as "sole trader" needed to publish her intention several weeks in the newspaper, satisfy the court that she didn't intend to defraud her husband's creditors, and swear that she was setting up her business with her own money to support herself and her children. All of which Theresa, who clearly labeled herself as an aspiring "sole trader," did to the satisfaction of the court.

Whether or not the law of April 1852 amounts to "affirmative action," as Russell suggests, can be debated. But it can be safely stated that, whatever else it tells us, the Wriston's case demonstrates how progressive California's laws were at that time.

Russell's article can be read here.

Surprises on the Trail of Dusty Old Records

What comes to your mind when you hear the words historic county records? Darkened warehouses? Moldering paper? Dusty shelves? How about stories of tragedy, courage, and compassion?

Old records filled with surprises.

Old records filled with surprises.

Since the middle of January, I've had the honor to work with three current or former students from the University of the Pacific taking an inventory of historic San Joaquin County records. Yesterday, while working with one of my colleagues in downtown Stockton, I came across a large leather-bound volume that bore the title Separate Property of Married Women.

I'm still at a loss to explain fully why this volume exists. Why focus on married women? What about married men? Is this simply one more example of the sexism I often see embedded in other historic documents?

Maybe. However, the stories I found inside suggest something a bit more nuanced.

Take, for example, the case of Theresa Grace Wriston, the wife of Charles Ransom Wriston. In May 1914, Mrs. Wriston applied to the court for permission to run a boarding house in her own name. According to the records, her husband had "wholly failed" over the past two years "by reason of his habitual intemperance and dissipation" to support Mrs. Wriston and their two young daughters, aged four and twelve.

Divorce wasn't an option, at least not in May 1914. According to the records, Mrs. Wriston still hoped at that point that her husband—described in the application as "strong" and "able-bodied"—would "again become a useful member of society."

Did he reform himself? We'll probably never know. However, we do know that the judge approved Mrs. Wriston's application. She proceeded to buy a boarding facility in her own name on North Hunter Street, in Stockton, with capital furnished by her brothers. Soon afterward, she reopened it as the Boston House.

Did Mrs. Wriston succeed? The volume doesn't say. Nor does it reveal whether she and her husband ever ended their marriage. The story ends suddenly, leaving a string of unanswered questions.

Separate Property of Women doesn't promise to tie up all the loose ends. Instead, it teases us with intriguing glimpses. In the case of Mrs. Wriston, it parts the curtains slightly for a brief look into the life of a gutsy and determined woman, and it allows us to witness her navigating the legal system of her time—effectively—to protect herself and support her children.

Never judge a book by its cover, I've been told. Who could have ever have predicted that dusty old records would contain such nuggets?

Museum Offers Workshop on Writing Memoirs

One well-known family from American history.

One well-known family from American history.

Isn't it nice to be remembered? Isn't it even nicer to be remembered for the reasons you want to be remembered? How about your children, their children, and their children's children? Will they recall anything about you other than your name and a few faded pictures?

Next month, the San Joaquin County Historical Society Museum will conduct a workshop designed for people who want their descendants to remember them. It is titled "Letters to My Grandkids: A Personal Memoir Workshop," and it will take place at the Museum from 1:00 to 2:00 p.m. each Thursday of March.

Here are the subjects for each week:

March 6

  • Why learning about family history is important.
  • How to prepare a short letter or story.
  • Suggestions for topics, and assignment.

March 13

  • Refresher on paragraph and story construction.
  • How to embellish your legacy letters with art.
  • Questions and discussion of problems encountered.
  • Share work in progress.

March 20

  • Relating personal stories to national and world history.
  • Questions and discussion of work in progress.
  • Additional prompts for ideas.
  • Share work in progress.

March 27

  • Resources available for publishing of memoirs and personal history.
  • Questions and discussion of work in progress.
  • Share completed work.
  • Evaluation of workshop.

The cost for participation will be ten dollars for members of the San Joaquin County Historical Society, and fifteen dollars (plus parking at Micke Grove Park) for nonmembers. For additional information, contact Robin Wood at the Museum (209) 331–2055 or (209) 953–3460.

Exhibit of Historic Postcards to Open at Museum

One of the most fascinating but little-known treasures of the San Joaquin County Historical Museum may be its collection of historic postcards. The scenes they depict range from the mundane to the bizarre. Starting the first week of March, visitors can catch glimpses into this rich collection of local resources when the Museum opens an exhibit based on its own holdings.

Historic insights  welcomed: postcard of now-forgotten Delta Crest Nursery, Borden Highway, Stockton. (ca. 1928).

Historic insights welcomed: postcard of now-forgotten Delta Crest Nursery, Borden Highway, Stockton. (ca. 1928).

Today, postcard collecting is the third most popular hobby in the world. Postcards capture moments that remind us of places, people, and events. Sometimes they are the only existing images of buildings and locations that are long forgotten.

The U.S. Postal Service issued the first pre-stamped postcard in 1873. This was the only postcard at that time that could be sent in the mail. In 1898, the U.S. Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, which gave private companies permission to produce postcards. Congress required these cards to include the printed words "Private Mailing Card" on the back. Blank areas on the front were reserved for writing messages; addresses went on the back.

Postcards with divided backs were introduced in 1907. From then on, senders could use the back for both the address and the message. At the same time, "real photo" postcards appeared. These changes increased the popularity of postcards, which purchasers started to save in picture albums.

Until 1915, German printers dominated the postcard industry, However, when World War I broke out production moved to the United States. The new wave of postcards had a white border to save ink and detailed picture descriptions on the back.

From 1930 until 1944, cotton paper was used to print postcards, thus giving them the look of linen cloth. In 1939, Union Oil Company introduced the first photochrome postcards. The images on the front of these closely resembled real photographs and are the kind we purchase today.