California Pastoral

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by Hubert H Bancroft 1832-1928

Book Review

As a clerk in his brother’s Ohio booksore, Bancroft went to San Francisco in 1852 to sell books. Over the years he  accumulated an extensive collection of his own books and historical documents, that became the basis for 39 volumes on Native races, the histories of Mexico, and Central America, and the American West. Critics assert that he employed many assistant authors whom he merely edited. Yet even if true, the result is a unique compendium, reflecting the breadth and depth of the Americas of those times. I have volume number 34 of 39, published in 1888 by the Library of Congress. It’s an unpretentious cloth bound item like like the first two volumes of this venerable set,  picured below. The 4 1/2 pound 808 page tome is in good condition, but the thick bond pages are brittle and yellowing.

Bancroft is a loquacious writer who provides extensive details, and erudite commentary laced with classical historic and literary references. It seems very likely he was competent in Spanish, and had a classical education in History and English. Sometimes the language, both in English and in obscure Spanish are difficult.  I found my browser helpful to interpret it! .

He begins with a long and rather didactic lecture on ‘comparative civilization’ between the West and what he likes to call savegery, a 56 page history  of Western civilization, followed by long expositive sections on the Spanish Colonial empire, and then more than twenty chapters on  ‘Lotus Land’, or the West Coast of North America, with a strong focus on both Californias starting with Baja CA as did the Spanish in general, and Mexico in particular.  He details the founding and development of the Missions, and the fatal habit of Spain in governing with a heavy hand, and taking but not really giving much excepting rules, restrictions,  and regulations in all of her American colonies, as far North as San Francisco. These ultimately led to rebellion and revolution, almost exactly the experience of the British in her colonies. He ends with chapters on the founding and development of San Francisco and Benicia. The whole book is ‘filthy rich’ in details, names, people, customs, and events.  He sees as the future of California to be gateway to the  Pacifc rim nations, and  the commercial and cultural giant of the Western USA.

I would be remiss to overlook Bancroft’s obvious racism. While understandable… because we all are condemned to live within the limits of our time… it is anachroinc  now, and irritating. He considers the white races, especially anglo-saxon derived, as far more ‘developed’ than all the rest.

Nonetheless, I reccomend it highly, even though it was as challenging a read for me, as it would likely be for most of us in this 21st century.  Although all the  Americas, North, Central, and South are the homeland I love and honor most, California has  always been the heartland, the land dearest to my heart, and the pole star of  my world; Bancroft’s weighty book, California  Pastoral, makes me more than ever, grateful to be American, and to be a Californano.

Muchas gracias, Don Hubert! 

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