McKibben on Faragher, 'California: An American History'

John Mack Faragher
Carol McKibben

John Mack Faragher. California: An American History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022. Illustrations. ix + 466 pp. $28.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-22579-2

Reviewed by Carol McKibben (Stanford University) Published on H-Environment (September, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

California: An American History, by John Mack Faragher, is a sweeping narrative covering the period from California’s first inhabitants thousands of years ago to the present day. It is about both diversity and resilience, filled with many surprises along the way, beautifully written, divided into forty small, readable chapters, and riveting from beginning to end. Without footnotes or bibliography, it was ostensibly written for a nonacademic, young adult audience, but I am an old academic and I loved it. I missed the footnotes, however. I know from my own experience that readers, young and old, academic or not, love and appreciate footnotes as integral to good history. Notwithstanding that small criticism, this book is brilliant, powerful, compelling, and well worth reading. I will be assigning it to my students and recommending it to everyone I know.

One of the best parts of Faragher’s analysis is its balance. Faragher does not begin to discuss California’s statehood until page 169 (the book is 466 pages), which correctly shows that most of California history happened before American domination in 1848. He begins, as he should, with a detailed analysis of California’s First Peoples in the centuries before European excursions and conquest, showing that this place was (and is) one of the most demographically diverse on the planet. First Peoples, numbering around three hundred thousand before Europeans arrived, lived in myriad small communities; they were related sometimes by kinship but separated by language and culture and, most importantly, by California’s varied geography so that even places in relative proximity were often quite distinctive in terrain, climate, and plant and animal life. Droughts, fires, and extreme weather were always a normal part of California’s environment too, although exacerbated today by the extremes of climate change.

He explains the values and experiences of Indigenous Californians from their perspectives, by recalling their own stories, passed down through the centuries. For example, the story of Old Man Coyote (who pops up throughout the book), “What Happened to My Chickens?” (chapter 7) shows how the mission system worked to lull Indigenous people into believing in the beneficence of priests, only to be brutally mistreated and killed or to die from disease once they resided in the missions as Christians. More than this pull factor, however, Faragher explains that environmental damage forced starving First Peoples out of homelands spoiled by farming and ranching and into missions. In contrast to common misunderstandings, Faragher also shows, Indigenous communities, albeit greatly diminished in numbers, continue to fight for land and rights in California today with concrete examples, such as the battle over the resort town of Palm Springs.

Faragher also makes the important distinction between Spanish views of Indigenous people, as fully human beings, potential Christian converts, and subjects of the Crown, and American perspectives, which regarded Native people as subhuman creatures, as unfit for citizenship as wolves or bears, to be exterminated as a fundamental part of US policy. In Faragher’s telling, the story of the invasion of California by Europeans is not a linear story about conquering white men but a complex, uneven struggle by Spanish subjects, women and men, of European, Mexican, Indigenous, and African descent who were joined by Filipinos when they first landed in the southern part of the state in the sixteenth century. The next two hundred years of European-Indigenous relations happened in fits and starts and involved multiple groups of women and men, including Russians, jostling for power and place without an obvious winner. There is an American side that is overlooked in this telling, however. According to Faragher, California is not on the radar of US policymakers until the 1830s under President James Polk. In fact, US presidents beginning with Thomas Jefferson were keenly interested in acquiring California (along with the rest of the continent). They funded numerous mapping expeditions (Lewis and Clark, among others) and used both violent and diplomatic means to try to make that happen.

Faragher makes the story of California’s political transition from Spain to Mexico to the United States both complex and compelling. One of his most powerful stories is about Spanish California’s last governor, Pablo de Solá, whose mentorship of three little boys, best friends Mariano Vallejo, José Castro, and Juan Alvarado, led to their future leadership under the Mexican regime. He makes their battles with the conquering Americans a fascinating example of Californio resistance, not a simple story of conquest.

Faragher is a wonderful storyteller, sprinkling memorable historical actors throughout these pages, some famous but many unknown. Yet Faragher adds depth and new insights into even those historical figures that we thought we knew well. For example, details surrounding the lives of Bret Harte, Ina Donna Coolbrith, and Charles Warren Stoddard show the depth of their professional friendship and personal relationships set within the larger story of nineteenth-century San Francisco. However, it is also about how gender and bad luck relegated a brilliant woman poet to the Oakland library while her male counterparts continued to devote themselves to creative literary work that made them famous.

Faragher brings the same wonderful complexity combined with clarity to California’s immigration stories, urban histories, and labor histories, often placing women in starring roles and integrating multiple Asian, European, Mexican, and African American communities and actors into his analysis rather than telling their stories as separate. One of my favorites is the pivotal role that poor Mrs. Eliza Tibbets played in transforming Riverside County into the orange growing powerhouse it became by the 1890s, although she gained almost nothing from her initiative and creative venture.

Faragher ingeniously weaves memorable but often unknown individual actors into his twentieth-century narrative to bring social and economic changes and political events into sharper focus. For example, his treatment of Governor Earl Warren includes new information about Warren’s life’s work, his sense of purpose, and especially his contradictory responses to civil rights when he became chief justice of the Supreme Court, as shown in Warren’s brutal mistreatment of Japanese Americans but also in his leading the charge for African American civil rights twenty years later.

Faragher helps us comprehend fully the horror of an America that abandoned its own Constitution after Pearl Harbor, a lesson we should remember in today’s dangerous political times. He does not merely focus on male policymakers such as Warren but also relates the heartening story of Marilyn Greene, a young Jewish middle schooler who lived in the multiracial Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights. She made a simple and powerful appeal in her school newspaper in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor: “We have a special concern for our loyal American citizens of Japanese descent, who are as truly American as any of us” (p. 344). In this small statement of truth and courage, as Faragher shows us, she put Warren, and almost every other Californian at that time, to shame for the blatant racism in their cruelty and mistreatment of Japanese people and their fellow Americans of Japanese ancestry.

There are many, many more examples of Faragher’s extraordinary breadth of analysis and attention to detail here that I cannot address in this short review. Faragher is the author of several important books on the West and is a well-known, brilliant scholar who writes with clarity, precision, and depth of knowledge and understanding that make this, along with his other work, an enormous contribution to the literature on California and the West but also to American history from the colonial period to the present.

Citation: Carol McKibben. Review of Faragher, John Mack, California: An American History. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. September, 2022. URL:

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