Source of book: I own this.
I’m the sort of guy who loves reading old books about places I know, particularly my home state of California. For example, I love Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s adventure sailing around Cape Horn to California in the 1830s, when California was relatively wild, and most of the cities I have known were somewhere between tiny villages and non-existent.
This book is in many ways similar to that one. Bayard Taylor, then in his twenties, was hired by Horace Greeley (yep, that guy) in 1849, to go on a trip to California during the early days of the Gold Rush, and report back. Taylor did so, sending back a series of articles that he later expanded into the book that became Eldorado.
Who was Bayard Taylor? I find that very, very few people I know have ever heard of him. And, indeed, but for the peculiarity of the literature curriculum I used in high school, I probably would not have either. Fortunately, I had the chance to read “The Experiences of the A. C.,” a hilarious send-up of utopian communities and cult leaders, and never forgot it. Seriously, take the half hour or less and read it for yourself.
But Bayard Taylor was a lot more than just that bit of humor. He was a quite successful writer in multiple genres during his lifetime, fluent in multiple languages, a skilled translator, a bold traveler and adventurer (as this book demonstrates), and a real character.
That he is largely forgotten today is due to a number of factors. First, while his poetry and novels sold well during his lifetime, they were pretty mediocre compared to the real luminaries of the era. This, combined with the fact that his subject matter became dated with changes in taste led to their fading from public consciousness in due time. The best of his writing are his travelogues, but that genre too went out of style. Perhaps the final obstacle to being remembered is that, like so many white male writers of the 19th Century, his prejudices are no longer shared by a majority of Americans, and they can be a turnoff to modern readers.
Let me start with that, then, before getting into why this book is actually quite good, and worth reading.
Anyone who has read Mark Twain’s book about the Gold Rush and the Gold Country, Roughing It, knows that the young Samuel Clemens was a real bigot. Particularly about Native Americans. As he grew older, he changed for the better, but only to a degree. His writing is therefore of its time and place. As I have discussed in greater detail in a post several years ago about how to evaluate luminaries of the past, there are times we have to acknowledge that people in the past had blind spots and wrong ideas, but that they still had something to say. For Twain, he may not have been able to move past his prejudices entirely, but the body of his work shows movement toward a more equal society. Likewise, we can and should praise Brett Hart for being well in advance of his time in his appreciation of Native Americans and their culture.
For Bayard Taylor, things are a bit more complicated. Like his boss, Greeley, Taylor was opposed to slavery, but ambivalent about voting rights for blacks. Taylor was more generous in his views of Mexicans (important in this book, believe me), but strongly bigoted against Chinese and Native Americans. At the back of the book is a report on California by T. Butler King, who would eventually serve as a senator for California - and to be honest, it is more racist than Taylor’s writing. Definitely the way most white men thought in that era.
So, expect to see in this book the (unfortunately) usual racial prejudices on display, just as they are in Twain and so many other writers of the era. He was a product of his time, and we in our time see things differently - I believe we have made progress on racial views, even as a vocal minority seem determined to take us back to the 1840s all over again.
Okay, with that out of the way, why should anyone read this book?
Well, first and foremost, it is a great story. And a true adventure.
Taylor catches a steamer to the Isthmus of Panama, takes canoes and mules across to the Pacific side, rides another steamer to San Francisco, and then spends the next six months in California. While there, he spends time on a gold dig, explores the foothills, travels back and forth between the gold country and San Francisco a couple times, and experiences California in both the hot and the cold seasons.
Not only that, he manages to get over to Monterey just after the Constitutional Convention finishes, and in time to witness the votes on the new Constitution. Then, he assists in the voting that ensues.
Oh, and if this weren’t enough, he decides to travel solo across Mexico, gets robbed, and 1200 miles later gets to the other side. This was, to put it mildly, crazy as hell and everyone told him so. But that was Taylor for you - he traveled the world this way, devil may care, before dying in Germany in his early 50s, as one so often did back then.
His personal life was marred by tragedy. He was engaged to Mary Agnew when he left on his trip. Immediately on his return, they married, but she was already badly ill with tuberculosis, which would claim her life mere months after the marriage. He would, years later, remarry, but the union was childless.
The book has a plethora of beautiful descriptions. Taylor clearly loved the natural world, and, with the exception of the bleakest deserts, found beauty wherever he went. (And, in the case of the desert, I get why he had negative feelings - traveling alone on a horse, with bandits all around, and a lack of fodder and water.) As one who loves California’s beauty, I felt he really captured the seasons, the smells, the nuances of the different ecosystems. He also wrote evocatively about the changing city of San Francisco, as it progressed from tent city to metropolis in the short six months he was in California. I will try to highlight a few descriptions as I go along.
First of all, though, we get his journey out. The steamship stopped in New Orleans, but Taylor notes that the city was a bit dull. As he put it, it was “enjoying an interregnum between the departure of the cholera and the arrival of the yellow fever.” These diseases will reappear in the book - particularly cholera, which was devastating Mexico during his return journey. I recently read The Mosquito by Timothy Winegard, so the yellow fever epidemics of the time were already fresh in my mind. It is easy to forget how ill people were in the past, before we realized the disease vectors for these deadly illnesses.
After a rather muddy and harrowing trip across Panama, Taylor took a steamer up the Pacific coast. His description of a sunset is magnificent.
Why has never a word been said or sung about sunset on the Pacific? Nowhere on earth can one be overvaulted with such a glory of colors. The sky, with a ground-hue of rose towards the west and purple toward the east, is mottled and flecked over all its surface with light clouds, running through every shade of crimson, amber, violet, and russet-gold. There is no dead duskiness opposite the sunken sun; the whole vast shell of the firmament glows with an equal radiance, reduplicating its hues on the glassy sea, so that we seem floating in a hollow sphere of prismatic crystal. The cloud-strata, at different heights in the air, take different coloring; through bars of burning carmine one may look on the soft, rose-purple folds of an inner curtain, and, far within and beyond that, on the clear amber-green of the immaculate sky. As the light diminishes, these radiant vapors sink and gather into flaming pyramids, between whose pinnacles the serene depth of air is of that fathomless violet-green which we see in the skies of Titian.
I have experienced many a California sunset, looking out over the Pacific Ocean, and I agree. There is nothing like it, and it never gets old. Taylor had a premonition about a number of things that did come to pass, and here, he seems to know that there would eventually be many songs sung and many poems written on the sunset over the Pacific.
One unexpected facet of the book was Taylor’s analysis of the politics of California. It is difficult to fully fathom and grasp the unprecedented situation California found itself in, and the rapid changes that occurred in a two-year period. Taylor and Butler (in the appendix) try to give an idea of the challenges.
After years as a largely neglected Spanish colony, California found itself part of the new nation of Mexico in 1821, after Mexican Independence. As a sparsely populated, economically negligible territory, Mexico continued to neglect it, and the legal system, such as it was, was barely existent.
In 1845 through 1847, the US and Mexico were at war, with California coming under US military control in 1847. It wasn’t until 1848 that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo formally transferred control of what is now the American Southwest to American control. For California, this meant a weird interregnum where a combination of military administration and the old Spanish/Mexican legal codes were all the territory had for laws.
And then, gold was discovered, leading to mass immigration. This could very well have led to anarchy.
As Butler notes, although Mexican law still governed, the only copy of the statutes was (maybe, but nobody knew for sure) located somewhere in Monterey. But few of the immigrants could read Spanish anyway, nobody knew if the old Mexican land grants were valid (and the miners sure didn’t care if they were or not…), and there was no functional court system outside of a handful of towns.
The state constitution was adopted in 1849, and by 1850, California was a state. (And this fact would be a key factor in the eventual Civil War…)
It was during this chaos that Taylor arrived. He was shocked to find that, contrary to his expectation, anarchy was not an issue, even in the rough-and-tumble mining districts. To the contrary, the people met and adopted rules of conduct, appointed a magistrate from their number, and found ways to live together. Throughout the book, Taylor expands on his description of this quite functional “frontier law,” including the informal voting methods used once the Constitution was enacted.
This, by the way, is actually the way most humans do things. The whole Lord of the Flies scenario was always a commentary on what entitled rich punk-ass British schoolboys would do, and was not even true to a very similar real-life situation. The true human superpower is our ability to cooperate with each other.
Particularly fascinating in the context of the Gold Rush is that these mining communities were racially and linguistically diverse. It wasn’t only (or really even primarily) white guys from back east. Miners came from around the world, were of every race, and spoke a plethora of different languages.
California, since 1848, has been a diverse, multicultural, and cooperative society, something the white supremacists wish to pretend wasn’t the case.
This is not to say California is or was a utopia of race relations. We have our own sordid history of anti-Chinese and anti-Black prejudice, and some truly sickening laws, particularly during the turn of the 20th Century. But the idea that California was ever a “white” state is unsupported by the evidence.
Oh, and one thing that was striking about the book in this regard is that Taylor refers to “Californians” and “Americans” as two different groups of people. “Americans” would be the immigrants from the eastern US, while “Californians” were what we now call the “Californios” - the Mexicans who remained in California after the war. These were distinct from the indigenous Californians who hadn’t intermarried with the Mexicans, but retained a tribal identity.
It is out of order in the book, but this is probably a good time to discuss the Constitutional Convention, which Taylor was able to report on, having arrived in Monterey at the tail end of the voting.
Suddenly flooded with new residents, swimming in incredible new wealth in the form of gold, and having no more government than a wholly inadequate military government, a group of prominent Californians (in the sense of both the Californios and the new American immigrants) called a convention. After all, the US government had no idea what to do with California, and was wracked by deep divisions over the issue of slavery. This is why California never had territorial status, but went straight to being a state - largely due to its own demands. As I noted above, the admission of California as a free state (and Californians themselves expressly forbade slavery in the constitution) upset the balance of power in Congress, leading to a series of doomed compromise measures, and eventually the bloodbath of the Civil War.
I mentioned that Taylor was opposed to slavery. Here is his reaction to the new constitution:
As an American, I feel proud and happy - proud that the Empire of the West, the commerce of the great Pacific, the new highway to the Indies, forming the last link in that belt of civilized enterprise which now clasps the world, has been established under my country’s flag; and happy that in all the extent of California, from the glittering snows of the Shasta to the burning deserts of the Colorado, no slave shall ever lift his arm to make the freedom of that flag a mockery.
Like Taylor, I acknowledge that it wasn’t perfect, but there was still a lot to be proud of. I think the spirit of that first California lives on today - we remain a pragmatic, innovative, multicultural, and vibrant place that isn’t afraid of change and the future.
This idea of a state character (like a national character) may not be absolute, but I think there is some truth in it. Taylor also noted that, due to the overwhelming maleness of early California, there were different expectations for behavior and skill sets.
Every man was his own housekeeper, doing, in many instances, his own sweeping, cooking, washing, and mending. Many home arts, learned rather by observation than experience, came conveniently into play. He who cannot make a bed, cook a beefsteak, or sew up his own rips and rents is unfit to be a citizen of California.
I still see this as part of the California character, and not just in my generation. Many of my parents and grandparents’ generation also had this expectation, that men just knew how to do things, and didn’t get hung up on “women’s work.”
Likewise, Taylor observed some other character traits that seem on point. The Gold Rush required incredible hard work - it was never a “get rich easily” situation. Even those who made a lot of money in a short period of time spent thousands of hours of backbreaking labor. Combined with this was a daring - indeed reckless - spirit. You had to take risks to succeed. This too is evident in modern California, where we continue to be on the cutting edge of technology and innovation.
Taylor foresaw a number of developments in California’s future. One of these was our eventual agricultural boom. While in the 1850s, gold was where the money was at, the future would be in the soil, and even today, with the challenges of drought and climate change, we are an agricultural powerhouse - I encourage my fellow Americans to look at where their produce comes from. I myself have seen grapes and greens and all kinds of things in between in stores everywhere I have traveled.
The other crop that Taylor nailed was wine. As he noted, in many places, wine grapes can be grown without irrigation.
I think it is time for another description. In the late summer, Taylor climbed a hill near Monterey, and looked down on the rolling hills that are so characteristic of California.
The unvarying yellow hue of mountain and plain, except where they were traversed by broad belts of dark-green timber, gave a remarkable effect to the view. It was not the color of barrenness and desolation and had no character of sadness or even monotony. Rather, glimmering through the mist, the mountains seemed to have arrayed themselves in cloth of gold, as if giving testimony of the royal metal with which their veins abound.
California is indeed the golden state, and not because of the metal.
Not everything about California thrilled Taylor. Throughout the book, he is continually complaining about being eaten alive by fleas. I suppose this probably comes from the animals sharing space with the humans, but he never seems entirely able to get away from them. (Mexico is no better, by the way…)
The last quarter of the book is taken up by Taylor’s insane adventures in Mexico. I do not know that area very well - certainly the way I know the California described in the book, which I have explored since my youth. So, I had to look up his route, which seems to have been down the western coast (but up on the tableland), then across to Mexico City, and eventually over to the Gulf Coast. 1200 total miles. Like the rest of the book, it is a fun adventure, with great descriptions of places and events.
It is kind of amusing the way Taylor pokes fun at his supposedly terrible Spanish. But this is, to a degree, self-deprecation. In reality, he gets around pretty well in places where nobody speaks English, and even has complex political and philosophical conversations with Spanish speakers. He sells himself a bit short, but he really was a cosmopolitan with a toolbox of languages he could use as needed. (Including, just in this book alone, French and German.)
There are a couple of lines from the Mexico section that I thought I might mention. The first is Taylor’s graphic description of human sacrifices among the Aztecs. He comes to an interesting conclusion.
Here, at least, the Aztecs had a truer conception of the Spirit of War than ourselves. We still retain the Mars of the poetic Greeks - a figure of strength and energy, and glorious ardor only - not the grand monster which all barbaric tribes, to whom war is a natural instinct, build for their worship.
Little did Taylor imagine the barbarosity that would envelop the “civilized” United States in just a short decade.
The other incident involves his observation of a meeting of the Mexican Senate. He wasn’t impressed with Mexican politics, which seemed to him to be ineffectual at getting things accomplished. (There is a degree to which this remains true, although Mexico is in many ways more functional than it was when I was a kid, and hyperinflation drove immigration to California.) I love this description, though - it really is a great line.
It is better, however, to do nothing decorously than after a riotous fashion.
There you have it, at least a taste of what this book is about. It has its flaws, but the strengths outweigh these, in my opinion. The beautiful descriptions, the perceptive observation of human society in what might have been anarchy, his thoughts on a state that sprung up seemingly overnight, and the hard work of those who dreamed of the California that could be - these make the book well worth reading.
For a native (and proud) Californian like myself, it was particularly fascinating to see the genesis of our particular character, in all its strengths and weaknesses. Understanding our history helps us to see ourselves more clearly, and pursue the virtues that represent the best of us.