Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe, and the Shaping of California / Edition 1

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In this wholly original study, David Wyatt uses the metaphor of fire to tell the story of California. Wyatt focuses this catastrophic history of his native state on five events of social combustion and tangible fire that swept through California, altering its physical and political landscape and the way both were represented in art and literature.
Wyatt begins with the accidental importation and spread of the wild oat in the 1770s, a process that had its human parallel in the Spanish invaders. He then explores the impact of four other significant events: the Gold Rush, the 1906 earthquake and fire, the post-World War II defense-industry boom, and the fire of race that erupted in Watts in 1965. This fifth fire, which flared throughout the Chinese and Mexican immigration experiences and the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II, has been at the core of California's history, Wyatt argues.
From the journals of a Gold Camp mineress to Amy Tan's novels, from Ansel Adams's photography to Roman Polanski's films, Wyatt brings into dialogue a wide range of powerful, moving voices.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A marvelous short history of our most populous state...[Wyatt] elegantly employs fire as a metaphor for the five milestone events and phenomena in his survey of California...The later part of Wyatt's account, with all its popular figures, evokes the freshness of an E.L. Doctorow novel. Which means he has created a history you will want to read."—Newsday

"David Wyatt elegantly entwines the public and personal in this elegiac salute to California, our strangest, saddest, most enchanting state."—Carolyn See, author of Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America

"It's a fascinating beginning for the reader taken by this idea of history swept along by flames."—Christian Science Monitor

"Wyatt has looked beyond the plastic Hollywood stereotypes to uncover a rich and wildly diverse history. Five Fires is an urgent retelling of the mythology of the Golden State."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"A big-picture view of California's history, told with verve and considerable learning...Wyatt has much to relate, and he does so exceptionally well, yielding a happy (and rare) instance when the reader emerges wishing that a longish book would go on just a bit longer."—Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A big-picture view of California's history, told with verve and considerable learning.

Wyatt, a native Californian and professor of English at the University of Maryland, ranges freely among several disciplines, including history, literature, linguistics, and natural history, to shape a panoptic account of California history. Wyatt views the state as having been shaped by a complex of catastrophes—ethnic clashes, ecological conquests, fires, and earthquakes—and discerns their influence still working itself out today. There is, he demonstrates, nothing new under the sun, citing the writings of early politicians who founded their careers on a "rhetoric of purity and exclusion" (think of Bob Dornan) and the recollections of 19th-century immigrants, who arrived in the Golden State intending to remake themselves, just as their equally optimistic counterparts do today. Wyatt returns again and again to the theme of cultural collision, convincingly threading together discussions of Spanish chronicles and early American military reports with incisive readings of Robert Towne's script for the movie Chinatown and Raymond Chandler's L.A.-noir novels. "California remains the place," Wyatt writes, "where Americans draw the battle lines over difference"; witness the trial of O.J. Simpson, whom, refreshingly, Wyatt does not invoke, and the Zoot Suit riots of the 1940s, which he considers at length. He combs an astonishing trove of overlooked sources, including the memoirs of the Native American chronicler Pablo Tac and of Chinese, Japanese, African-American, and Hispanic immigrants over the years. It does not add up to a happy story, and state boosters will not be pleased with the author's view of a California shaped then and now by virulent racism and official malfeasance at every turn.

Wyatt has much to relate, and he does so exceptionally well, yielding a happy (and rare) instance when the reader emerges wishing that a longish book would go on just a bit longer.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195127416
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 3/28/1999
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

David Wyatt is a professor of English at the University of Maryland at College Park. He is the author of The Fall into Eden: Landscape and Imagination in California and Out of the Sixties: Storytelling and the Vietnam Generation.

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Read an Excerpt



The Spanish and American Conquests

The Spanish who invaded California in 1769 and the Americans who displaced them in the 1840s were both gold-seeking cultures. Only the second wave of conquest found what it was looking for. But while the Spanish dreams were certainly material, their most vivid legacy was spiritual. The two secular institutions they imported were the presidio, which housed the military, and the rancho, the key unit of the civilian economy. Neither matched, in either influence or reach, the Franciscan missions. These twenty-one sites witnessed one of the most systematic of all the European attempts to convert and order the energies of Native American peoples: for six decades the missions controlled the lives of some 90,000 souls. Christianized Indians were trained in Spanish and taught how to farm and build with adobe; more than 24,000 were joined together in Catholic marriage. Broken up and abandoned in the 1830s, after California passed from Spain to Mexico, the missions devolved into romantic ruins, sites on which writers like Bret Harte could focus a longing for the "delicious monotony" of colonial rule.

As emblem of the Spanish and Mexican period in California history, the wild oat serves to remind us that the survivals from that period have little to do with imperial designs. The oat arrived by accident, and it worked its changes quietly, enduring through all the subsequent immigrations. Installing itself as an irrepressible though undramatic presence, it marked California as no longer the province of the "native." Viewed as the marker ofhistorical change, the oat betokens the violent displacements that resulted from the arrival of the Spanish and the persistence of the Mexican legacy after New Spain was in turn displaced by the American conquest.

This chapter deals with the years in which the wild oat took sway. In it, I interweave the words and stories of five California writers: Juan Crespi, the Franciscan who discovered San Francisco Bay; John Charles Fremont, the spearhead of the American conquest; Mariano Vallejo, first citizen of Mexican California at the time of the Bear Flag Revolt; Juana Machado, a native of San Diego who lived through and wrote about Alta California's two "changes of flags"; and Pablo Tac, a Luiseno Indian born near Oceanside who, in his travels and his mastery of many tongues, defined the cultural and political borders that Native Americans who survived the conquests were so rarely able to cross.

The entry on page 1514 of A California Flora reads as follows:

A. barbata Brot. SLENDER WILD OAT ...—Common weed in waste fields and on open slopes, largely replacing native grasses; native of Old World.

Philip Munz here condenses a drama of eighty years into a sentence fragment. The wild oat accompanied the first post-Columbian immigration to Alta California, and its spread corresponded to the decline of the Indian population of the region, an area that had contained more people than any other in prehistoric North America. The oat introduced itself into a geography that was home to the continent's largest number of microclimates and Native American language groups. The people of Indian California spoke 113 known dialects, although these languages did not memorialize themselves in any written record. Their final word may have been spoken by Ishi, California's last "wild" Indian. As he lay near death in 1916, he turned to his friends and said, in English, "You stay, I go."

The largely uncultivated California that the Spanish invaded was to become, in little over a hundred years, the most productive agricultural region in the world. Tribes along the Colorado River had planted corn, beans, and pumpkin, but agriculture entered California on a systematic scale only with the mission fathers, who brought grapes, orchard fruits, grains, and livestock. Beyond the small areas of mission control lay the vast plains and foothills of the Central Valley, home to hundreds of species of wildflowers and dense thickets of chaparral; the Coast Range and the Sierra, with their madrone, live oak, sugar pine, and redwood; the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, dotted with greasewood or Joshua trees; and the hundreds of microclimates that might support azalea, snake cholla, or the Santa Cruz pine.

California's plant life has consistently mocked conventional notions of abundance and scale. In the 1840s Lansford Hastings rode, he claimed, through thousands of acres covered with oats six feet high. A wheat farmer of his acquaintance "received one hundred and twenty bushels to the acre" and harvested in the next year, from the same ground, sixty bushels that came up spontaneously. Hastings's testimony is perhaps not to be trusted; his own Emigrant's Guide lured the Donner Party to disaster by recommending a cut-off he had never ridden. The more sober Bayard Taylor weighed in, however, with his own tale of California as "the Brobdignag of the vegetable world," citing apples and pears weighing three pounds apiece. At an 1859 San Francisco horticultural fair, he wandered through piles of onions as large as his head: "Upon one table lay a huge, dark-red object, about the thickness of my body. At a distance, I took it for the trunk of some curious tree; but on approaching nearer, I saw that it was a single beet, weighing 115 pounds." According to Taylor, the owner of the beet had planted it in the spring of 1858. After the harvest he planted the beet again the following spring, hoping to obtain seed from the specimen. But the beet "devoted all its energies to growing bigger" and refused to go to seed.

More than two hundred commercial crops were developed in twentieth-century California. On a piece of land near Santa Rosa were "perhaps grown a greater number of varieties of plants from regions near and remote than were ever elsewhere grown on any four acres of the earth's surface." The words are those of Luther Burbank, the intrepid California Mendel. Burbank, who immigrated to California in 1875, brought with him ten tubers of the Burbank potato, a strain he had developed out of his obsession with engineered versions of fruits, flowers, and vegetables. Burbank imagined an utterly plastic botany; he would cross-graft or cross-pollinate anything. The pamphlet series he inaugurated in 1893 detailed promiscuous experiments that led to the plumcot (a cross between a plum and an apricot), the spineless cactus, and the Shasta daisy.

Burbank ambitiously imported seeds and cuttings from Japan. When it came to people, however, he recoiled from intermingling. Writing in the wake of World War I, he argued that "it becomes at least a very serious question as to whether the recent altogether unprecedented influx of immigrants of many widely divergent races are not supplying material that, blended with the existing American stock, may produce results as startling and on the whole of as doubtful value as those produced among plants indiscriminately hybridized." The man who shipped thousands of plant species into California and mingled them with such abandon could not extend the same encouragement when it came to the "human plant."

In the sequoia gigantea and the bristlecone pine, California lays claim to the world's largest and oldest living things. Its hospitality to vegetable growth was to elevate California, by the 1940s, to the position of the nation's major farming state. Agricultural dominance came quickly: for a time during the 1870s, California was the nation's largest wheat producer. In 1900 it grew 95 percent of the nation's apricots. During World War I Mexican workers were imported to harvest the cotton, which, in the 1970s, would become the state's largest cash crop. In 1923 California produced 60 percent of the world's raisins. During these years Los Angeles and Orange Counties became the richest agricultural counties in the United States, with the value of their dairy and livestock products vying with that of their citrus crops.

The status crops were oranges and grapes, and I spent my childhood among them. I was born in South Central Los Angeles in 1948 and grew up in the tinder-dry summers of San Bernardino. Located sixty miles due east of Los Angeles, the town of some 100,000 was known as the hub of the "Inland Empire." San Berdoo was a town one passed through, on the road over Cajon Pass from the Mojave Desert or on the Santa Fe railway tracks, which began in Kansas. People knew the San Bernardino Valley as the spawning ground of the Hell's Angels or as host to the row of whorehouses on D Street to which notables like Allan Sherman might drive out from L.A. Our town was also home to the first McDonald's and to the National Orange Show. The show featured huge human figures—I seem to remember one of Rita Hayworth—constructed entirely out of citrus fruit. In 1957, when my parents moved to a new development in the tablelands above the city, the yellow stucco house we bought for $11,000 had been built in a recently tractored orange grove. To the east the bright green trees still filled the view, but the houses moved steadily eastward and by the time I graduated from high school the groves were gone.

As a boy, I drove by one of the two original navel orange trees that still stood, gnarled and gigantic, behind an iron fence on Magnolia Avenue. In 1873 Luther and Eliza Tibbets had rooted California's first navels in a field near Riverside. The trees had come from Bahia, Brazil, and were of a type known as the Washington navel. A missionary in Brazil had sent the original budwood to William Saunders of the Department of Agriculture, who in turn had shipped two trees to the Tibbetses. Three years later, A. B. Chapman of San Gabriel introduced the Valencia orange to California. A seedless orange that ripened in winter and a juice orange that ripened in the fall and summer soon established California as the nation's leading supplier of citrus fruit.

California's modern viticulture dates from the arrival in 1849 of a Hungarian immigrant named Agoston Haraszthy. After a sojourn in San Diego, Haraszthy moved north to San Francisco and bought land near Mission Dolores, where he planted the muscat grape, the foundation of the state's raisin industry. He had also brought with him the cuttings of a grape named zinfandel. But the cool, foggy summers on the bay persuaded Haraszthy that he had not yet found the best site for a vineyard. After sampling the wines produced by Mariano Vallejo in Sonoma, he bought several hundred acres from him, calling his vineyard Buena Vista. When, in 1861, the state legislature appointed him commissioner of grape-growing and sent him to Europe, the future not only of California's but of Europe's wine industry was assured.

Like the wild oat, grapes were an import from Europe. But while Avena barbata simply colonized the New World hills and valleys, the root stock brought by Haraszthy would recolonize its continent of origin. In Grape Culture, published in 1862 after his return to California, Haraszthy claims to have "purchased in different parts of Europe over 100,000 vines." Sacramento refused to finance the distribution of these vines, and most were lost or scattered. But the techniques Haraszthy developed, along with his insistence on going beyond the mission grape, ensured that California would develop a stable and complex wine industry. When in the 1870s the grapevines of France were destroyed by phylloxera, a plant louse, it was the immune California root stock that helped replant the vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux. This cross-fertilization was anticipated by the double wedding, in 1862, of Haraszthy's two sons to Vallejo's twin daughters.

By the time I arrived on the scene, the vineyards in our part of the state had long since entered into decline. Hot southern California weather grew a grape too sweet, and the industry had moved north to Napa, Sonoma, and Modesto. On the drive from San Bernardino to Los Angeles, we often followed Highland Avenue or Foothill Boulevard through the dips and rises of a vast drainage filled with stream boulders, along the eucalyptus windbreaks that paralleled the high mountains to the north, past fields of dried-up grapevines writhing in the sun. Most of the wineries were melting back into the earth; it was as close as we came to ruins. My mother was killed on one of those roads, when I was twenty-two, and on the way back from inspecting the scene of the accident on a sunny October day, my father spotted a winery that looked open. "Let's get some wine," he said. He pulled into a ramshackle courtyard; in the center of it stood a sinister purple cone. As a man made his way to the car I watched the cone billow with reflected light; it was a pile of grape skins, ten feet high. My father asked for some wine. "Sorry, mister," the man said, "all we make is vinegar."

Like so many immigrations to California, that of the wild oat was neither advertant nor licit. In An Island Called California, Elna Bakker likens the arrival of this opportunistic annual grass to an "invasion" and a "catastrophe." Before the Spanish, California had been host to shoulder-high native grasses that covered foothill and valley in a striking but delicate pattern, punctuated in spring and summer by an eruption of wildflowers: the yellow mustard, the purple gilia, the white sage. In the wake of the white man's arrival, immigrating species radically and quickly altered this plant community. Chaparral and forests resisted the invasion, and in some places they have held their own even against fire and development. But California's grasslands underwent a vast, unheralded reseeding. "No other plant community in Western North America," Bakker writes, "has changed so much, over such large areas, and in so short a period of time."

So began the chain of displacements that would mark California's postconquest history. The wild oat came to dominate native and imported weeds and grasses and changed the look of the place. "When mother nature started sowing her ancient Mediterranean wild oats over coastal California," Edgar Anderson writes, "she set the landscape pattern for years to come. It is the wild oats which grow so quickly after the rains have come.... It is these little oat glumes (the chaff around the grains) which, by the million of millions, make the coastal hills glisten in the sun.... it is these delicate and graceful grasses, ripened to tinder, which are one of the chief California fire hazards."

It can be argued that Avena barbata is the most opportunistic and successful immigrant ever to have entered California. It is a "wild oat" seed that Steinbeck's famous turtle catches under his shell, drags a distance, and deposits under a scraping of earth in the third chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, thus prefiguring the Joads' transplantation from Oklahoma to California. But long before that jalopy set out on Route 66, the wild oat had done its landscape-altering work.

When and how did the wild oat arrive? Most likely with the Spanish, in the 1770s. Anderson speculates that the oat entered California in the hay that the Spaniards brought for their stock animals, or in the seeds of field crops. Perhaps a few panicles slipped in with mud that was caked on cargo or in piles of discarded ballast. Once it had arrived, however, the movement of horses and cattle into the small interior valleys sped the oat's progress. By the time Joseph Walker and Zenas Leonard came across the Sierra in 1833, the oat had largely replaced the native perennial bunchgrasses in the San Joaquin Valley and so allowed newcomers to envision the "entire Central Valley as a great grassland." As invaders from the United States began to rove the valley, they helped complete the oat's conquest. In The Resources of California (1863), John Hittell observed that "the wild oat, in the year 1835, was found only south of the bay of San Francisco; but about that time, when the white men crossed frequently from the southern to the northern side of the bay, the oat was sown in a natural way by horses and cattle, and it spread rapidly over the Sacramento Valley and the coast region." The Spanish had unknowingly planted the oat, and the arrivals from the United States harvested it. The pattern thus set by the first "fire" was that each "catastrophe" made way for the next.

If this botanical process has a human voice, it is that of Father Juan Crespi, the Spanish explorer who was to sow but not to reap. For more than two hundred years the Spanish "discovery" of Alta California—Cabrillo had entered San Diego and Monterey Bays in 1542—lay fallow. The expulsion of the Jesuits from New Spain in 1767 and the appointment of Jose de Galvez as visitador-general opened the way for the Franciscans to move north from Mexico. In 1769 the Sacred Expedition entered California by land and founded Mission San Diego. Some fifty years of Spanish rule followed, to be ended by the Mexican revolution of 1821. In 1846 the burgeoning American presence culminated in the Bear Flag Revolt; in 1850 California was admitted to the Union.

Crespi was one of the most diligent recorders of the Spanish arrival in California. He marched with Captain Fernando Rivera and twenty-six soldiers in leather jackets in the first overland party to reach San Diego. They arrived on May 14, 1769. Meanwhile, the first Spanish ship had entered the port on April 11, under the command of Lieutenant Pedro Fages Gaspar de Portola, the overall commander of the Sacred Expedition, arrived in San Diego by land in late June. Two weeks later Portola, Fages, and Crespi struck north for Monterey. A century and a half earlier, in 1602, Sebastian Vizcaino had surveyed the bay but had, in Herbert Bolton's words, "over-advertised" it. So the later explorers, on their arrival at the much-praised bay, therefore failed to recognize it. Heading north, they stumbled on an even more impressive body of water, at a place they were to call San Francisco.

Crespi's letters to Mexico transform the first expedition to Monterey—and by extension, the Spanish experience of California—into a fable of missed opportunity. San Francisco never became a port that mattered to the Spanish, as Dana later made clear in "Twenty-Four Years After." In 1859 he observed that it had taken only a few years to transform the emptiness of Yerba Buena, the original settlement in the bay, into a "city of one hundred thousand inhabitants." Twenty-three years earlier, in the winter of 1835-36, during his first voyage to California, Dana's ship had floated into the Bay of San Francisco. It was a vast solitude. "Some five or six miles beyond the landing-place, to the right, was a ruinous Presidio, and some three or four miles to the left was the Mission of Dolores, as ruinous as the Presidio, almost deserted, with but four Indians attached to it, and but little property in cattle. Over a region far beyond our sight there were no other human habitations, except that an enterprising Yankee, years in advance of his time, had put up, on the rising ground above the landing, a shanty of rough boards, where he carried on a very small retail trade between the hide ships and the Indians." The Spanish had discovered San Francisco Bay, but as Dana's empty panorama makes clear, they did not develop it. A year after Crespi discovered the bay in 1769, a second expedition did locate Monterey and founded the Mission of San Carlos there. The prize had been won, and the capital of California was situated on a harbor far inferior to the one farther north, which sat in sleepy anonymity for eighty years more.

Crespi's letter to Francisco Palou, the president of Baja California, gives a swift summary, in Bolton's translation, of the discovery of San Francisco Bay:

Now I will tell your Reverence how on the 14th of July of last year, '69, we left this port of San Diego, traveling by land with faces toward the north, to go in search of the much praised port of Monterey. On the 14th of January of the present year we all arrived again on our return, having gone to the parallel of thirty-eight degrees, where lies the port of San Francisco. However, that of Monterey has become invisible to us, and we did not find it anywhere throughout the journey. And judging from what we saw all along the coast, using the greatest care that it was possible to observe and that your Reverence can think of, we did not find the port of Monterey before we came upon that of San Francisco, which is a very noble and very large harbor and is on the parallel of thirty-eight degrees, as I said. We were at that port about seven days, and I will go on explaining with all detail what we saw and explored up to that place. Unless the port of Monterey is beyond thirty-eight degrees (and then all the accounts and Cabrera would be proved wrong, which can hardly be believed, since we saw very clearly all that Cabrera in particular says of the coast, with as much exactitude as if he had been with us and told it to us) that is the place. Therefore, the best and most careful conclusion that we could come to is that Monterey has been lost or the land swallowed up.

Monterey has been lost or the land swallowed up. For a writer so given to precise and modest notation ("I am greatly in need of some handkerchiefs for the dust; four or six might be sent, since they are so far away—thick ones from La Puebla"), this surmise expresses a nearly intolerable embarrassment. We did not miss Monterey; it must have been "swallowed up."

Some sixty years later, Zenas Leonard would also find himself overcome by California plenitude. As his party made the first east-west crossing of the Sierra Nevada in 1833, it encountered "deep chasms" and "incredibly large" trees. "We spent no time in idleness," Leonard assures his reader, "scarcely stopping in our journey to view an occasional specimen of nature's handy-work." These mountain men had stumbled on Yosemite Valley and the Sequoia gigantea. Leonard's goal, like Crespi's, was also Monterey—rather than something he might find along the way—and he too refused to allow himself to be sidetracked. His lack of digressive vision ensured that the Yosemite would have to be rediscovered, as it was in 1851 by a so-called "battalion" of white men who wandered into the defile while trying to remove some recalcitrant Indians.

For Crespi, getting lost in natural space led to a moment of chagrin followed by an act of substitution. To displace the seeming failure of his journey, he offered up San Francisco as a substitute for Monterey: "if the ships do not find the port of Monterey after a time, a thing I doubt completely since it was sought by so many eyes and with so much care, inasmuch as the whole undertaking depended on it, we have in place of it this fine bay of San Francisco." Conquest by metonymy; Crespi has asked his superior to accept as token of success not the thing sought but the thing next to it. He had in fact found what he ought to have been looking for in the first place. But Crespi's culture proved unable to overcome its fascination with "over-advertised" Monterey, and a disinclination to capitalize on the potential worth of this and other discoveries—Francisco Lopez did, after all, discover gold in Placerita Canyon in 1842—was to mark the Spanish and Mexican occupation of California, in the minds of many invading Yankees, as a period of charming underdevelopment.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue 1
Ch. 1 The Wild Oat: The Spanish and American Conquests 11
Ch. 2 The Gold Rush: Men Without Women 50
Ch. 3 Exclusion, The Chinese, and the Daughter's Arrival 78
Ch. 4 The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire: The Culture of Spectacle 107
Ch. 5 The Politics of Water: The Shift South 135
Ch. 6 World War II: Los Angeles and the Production of Anger 154
Ch. 7 Relocation, The Japanese, and the Twice Divorced 182
Ch. 8 From Watts to South Central: Internalizing the Fire 204
Epilogue 237
Notes 243
Bibliography 263
Index 281
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