Herbert Eugene Bolton: Historian of the American Borderlands

Herbert Eugene Bolton: Historian of the American Borderlands

by Albert L. Hurtado

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This definitive biography offers a new critical assessment of the life, works, and ideas of Herbert E. Bolton (1870–1953), a leading historian of the American West, Mexico, and Latin America. Bolton, a famous pupil of Frederick Jackson Turner, formulated a concept—the borderlands—that is a foundation of historical studies today. His research took him not only to the archives and libraries of Mexico but out on the trails blazed by Spanish soldiers and missionaries during the colonial era. Bolton helped establish the reputation of the University of California and the Bancroft Library in the eyes of the world and was influential among historians during his lifetime, but interest in his ideas waned after his death. Now, more than a century after Bolton began to investigate the Mexican archives, Albert L. Hurtado explores his life against the backdrop of the cultural and political controversies of his day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520272163
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/29/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 388
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Albert L. Hurtado is Travis Chair in Modern American History at the University of Oklahoma. He is the editor of Major Problems in American
Indian History,
second edition, and author of
Indian Survival on the California Frontier,
Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California,
and John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier, winner of the Caughey Prize from the west Western Historical Association.

Read an Excerpt

Herbert Eugene Bolton

Historian of the American Borderlands

By Albert L. Hurtado


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95251-5


The Scholars' Hard Road

In late December 1922 Herbert Eugene Bolton boarded an eastbound train at the Berkeley station and settled into his seat. Even in repose Bolton was a striking figure. At fifty-two years old, he was six feet tall with neatly trimmed sandy hair that was still full. Smiles broke easily upon his open face. He wore glasses over large blue, attentive eyes, and chain-smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes, but still looked fit in middle age. Bolton was chairman of the history department at the University of California, director of the Bancroft Library, and one of the most important historians of his day. Everyone in the history profession knew it. He was on his way to New Haven for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA).

The wintry landscape that slid past the Pullman car window triggered memories about his own past, as well as the history he had written. At some points Bolton's personal story and his grand narrative of the North American frontier seemed to merge. As the train sped across Nebraska, Bolton recalled his family's covered-wagon trek when he was only three. Seeking new farmland in the West, the Boltons had left Wisconsin in 1873. Busted, the family returned to Wisconsin, but this sad memory of frontier failure did not divert Bolton for long. Now riding down the Platte River Valley, "where ran the trail of the fur traders, the Oregonians, and the Californians, and along which Parkman came," Bolton saw only prosaic haystacks instead of teeming herds of wild animals. "I would much prefer to see buffaloes, or Pawnee Indians, who belong here." One of his friends interrupted this reverie with pleasant conversation, but Bolton "could not help looking out from time to time, to see if perchance I might get a trace of [Pedro de] Villazur or of [Pierre] Mallet, or of the Pawnee."

Through New York the rails paralleled the abandoned Erie Canal, which his New England ancestors had traveled. "I can see them now, peering over the edge of the railing of a can[al] boat drawn by a tow line. That brown-eyed girl is my mother." Not content with conjuring his mother, Bolton "saw old Leatherstocking or some of his associates 'moving noiselessly' through the thickets over the hills." As the train rolled through the Hudson River Valley, Bolton imagined that he could see Rip Van Winkle and all the heroes of Sleepy Hollow.

Herbert Bolton was a romantic. For him the landscape was a grand stage upon which heroic figures, historical and imaginary, acted their parts. In his imagination, long-dead explorers and literary heroes joined him in the places where they had lived so memorably. He admired their exploits, and—in his own mind at least—shared their glory. One cannot understand Bolton or his work without recognizing his romantic attachment to the people and places about which he wrote. Where did this romantic historian come from?

Bolton was not born to be a romantic professor of history. Far from it. He came into the world on a small farm in Wisconsin on July 20, 1870. He was the fourth in a family of eleven children, three of whom did not live to maturity. The circumstances of his birth and early family life are the common stuff of nineteenth-century rural America. His father, Edwin Latham Bolton, was born in Leeds, England, and migrated with his family to Utica, New York. They worked at the weavers' trade, as they had done in England. According to family tradition, young Edwin took up surveying and led the Boltons out of the mills and across the country to western Wisconsin, although family mill earnings may have financed the move. In 1856 they settled on a farm in Wilton near Kickapoo Creek, about twenty-five miles from La Crosse. There the Boltons became independent farmers, working the raw land to build a new life for themselves.

Bolton's father was an immigrant, but his mother, Rosaline Cady, was not. She came from old New England stock. Ten generations back, one of her forbears, Richard Warren, had arrived in the New World aboard the Mayflower. She even had a distant connection to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her family had been settled in Vermont for two centuries before her father and mother moved to Wisconsin in the 1840s or 1850s. The children of Edwin and Rosaline were culturally and genetically Anglo-American right down to the soles of their feet.

By the time Herbert entered the world, the eighty-acre homestead near Wilton was doing well. Edwin built a larger house to accommodate his growing family. His rheumatic condition, a legacy of his Union Army service during the Civil War, was the only cloud on the horizon. In the early 1870s his illness was still manageable, but it would steadily grow worse. In 1873 the prospect of new lands on the Nebraska frontier filled Edwin with optimism. He sold his farm and moved his family to a new homestead near Lincoln. It was a bad year to go west: grasshoppers and drought ruined the farm before it was fairly begun. The Boltons returned to Wisconsin, and Edwin bought another farm there, but it was not as productive as the old one. Located at LaGrange, the new farm had poorer soil, fewer resources, and a mortgage. The Boltons had to scratch harder than ever. Even so, the family was poorer at the end of 1873 than they had been at the beginning, when they had turned their hopeful faces west.

Large families like the Boltons' were the rule on American farms where children soon became useful. The Bolton boys were of inestimable value on the farm. By 1880 three of them were teenagers, old enough to work at men's jobs. Even Herbert could pick berries and do light farmwork. Everyone worked an "eight-hour" day, Herbert's older brother Frederick joked: "8 hours in the forenoon and 8 more in the afternoon!" Hoeing, weeding, and harvesting occupied the farmer's sons in season. Caring for livestock, building fences, repairing barns, and countless other farm chores took whatever time remained. There was work to do at the neighbors' places, too. Planting, haying, harvesting, cutting, and hauling wood all demanded labor that the Bolton boys could supply in return for produce, handmade clothes, or other goods; they sometimes got cash but rarely. As soon as Herbert was big enough, he became his older brother Fred's constant work partner. A life of hard labor seemed to stretch endlessly before them.

Constant hard work was not the only discipline that the Bolton boys knew. Their Methodist parents "were both quite religious and we received rather strict, but wholesome counsel," Fred recalled. "Had we told a lie, committed a theft, or damaged others' property, the punishments would have been severe." Swearing, smoking, and playing hooky from school were also infractions worthy of punishment. Fred thought that he and Herbert inherited their drive and perseverance from their father. "He was the personification of those traits." The elder Bolton augmented his income by teaching school in the winter, an occupation that probably first inspired Fred and Herbert to become teachers. Fred and Herbert wanted to escape rural life and understood that education offered them a way to do it. Both parents encouraged their children to get an education, and the boys often saw their father studying when he took a break from farmwork. In January 1883 Edwin gave Herbert some advice in the autograph book that his mother had given him for Christmas: "Make the most of the advantages you may have. E. L. Bolton." Herbert took his father's counsel to heart.

Herbert's introduction to history no doubt came from his father. Full of vivid tales about his Civil War experiences, Edwin also told admiring stories about the heroes of the American revolutions, such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Simón Bolívar. Poor as he was, Edwin subscribed to two periodicals that inspired Herbert and Fred, the Chicago Inter-Ocean and the Youth's Companion. The boys walked five miles to the post office to pick up the latest issues. The Inter-Ocean opened their eyes to world affairs and a life beyond rural Wisconsin. The Youth's Companion fired the boys' imaginations with adventure stories by Jack London, Barrett Willoughby, and Samuel Woodworth Cozzens. Cozzens's serialized "The Lost Trail," a story about two boys who went to California with a trading caravan, was a particular favorite of the Bolton boys. The southwestern setting for Cozzens's vivid tale with its deserts, mesas, and perpetually blue skies was dramatically different from western Wisconsin. The story was full of youthful heroism and narrow escapes from Comanche and Apache Indians, who were the villains of the piece. Cozzens even described the mission San Xavier del Bac, near Tucson, as "one of the most interesting relics of the old Spanish rule to be found in the country." Cozzens's exciting serial was doubtless Herbert's introduction to the Southwest as a place of romance and adventure.

With incessant labor the Boltons made a go of their hardscrabble farm, but in the late 1870s Edwin's rheumatic condition grew debilitating. He began teaching in the summer as well as the winter in order to replace the income that he could no longer earn by manual labor, but even this occupation became too much for him. He died in 1885 at age forty-nine, leaving Rosaline with eight children and the widow's share of his Civil War pension. Forty-one years old and pregnant, Rosaline was responsible for a poor farm and a large family. Every dollar counted. From Edwin's pension Rosaline received eight dollars a month plus two dollars for each child under the age of sixteen. Herbert and his five younger siblings thus added twelve dollars per month to the family treasury, but only briefly. He turned sixteen in 1886. One year later his thirteen-year-old brother, Johnnie, was thrown from the driver's seat when his team bolted; he was killed in the fall. Herbert's maturity and Johnnie's death reduced the family income by four dollars per month.

All of the boys pitched in to keep the farm and the family together. Fred went to La Crosse to teach school and sent money home. Herbert started high school in Tomah, where he worked for room and board at a local hotel. School was a common topic in the letters of the two education-minded brothers. "I get along very well with my studies," Herbert wrote, "all except English Language and that I detest." Teachers had already noticed that tall, blonde, good-looking Herbert was a likely prospect for their calling, because they sometimes allowed him to teach classes. He was in the same business that Fred was, "teachin skule," he once joked, because the teacher was sick. Herbert liked school, although he described many of his fellow pupils as "country Jakes." Of course, he was a country Jake also, fresh from the farm. In high school he studied history, but at fifteen Herbert did not think of this subject as a professional option. He studied "very hard evenings as well as day time. Don't have much time for mischief."

But Herbert did find a little time for devilment. He cut school once to look over the old Bolton farmstead at the Ridge, perhaps wishing that his father had not left his good farm for a dream in Nebraska. Sometimes he got a "good 'solemn lecture'" at school for failing to keep up with his homework, but these occasions were rare. Another time, spring weather inspired Herbert and some friends to skip school and go fishing. They were caught in a cold rain, but Herbert persevered and returned home with a bit of doggerel that described his experience:

Thirty-six trout.
Fisherman's luck:
Wet ass
And a hungry gut.

He was not above a practical joke. One night Herbert and some friends saw one of their schoolmates visiting his girl. They "tied the [barn?] doors when he was up there and he stayed till morning too." If this adventure became common knowledge, it would have set small-town tongues wagging. "He don't know who 'twas," Herbert told his brother, and "you needn't tell him ever either."

Rural life was not Herbert's idea of an attractive future, but the countryside had its charms for an active boy. He loved to saddle a horse and ride around the country with his friends. In Tomah Herbert made a name for himself as an athlete. He played baseball with the local team, the unfortunately named Skunks. Herbert was the fastest sprinter in high school, and the best broad jumper. He would always revel in the outdoors and in physical activity as long as they had nothing to do with farming.

Herbert was a likable youth who liked other people. Affability was one of his most endearing traits, though he committed himself to solitary habits of study. In some ways, the adult would become almost monkish in his pursuit of scholarship, but the teenaged Herbert was no monk. He liked his friends and enjoyed parties. "Had a good time," he reported to Fred after attending a social. "I guess it wouldn't be me if I didn't, would it?" he added with a touch of self-awareness that pegged him as a good-natured, social animal. Yet Herbert's teen years were marked by unusual seriousness of purpose. He had his fun but worked to make a success of high school just as he worked hard on the farm. As he said, he would have to work hard if he ever intended "to be anybody, which I cert[ainly] do." Herbert's ambition to be somebody marked his whole life.

Girls noticed the blonde boy with the sunny disposition. They smiled at him, and he smiled back, although he sometimes reported that he was giving up girls in favor of hard work so that he could get ahead. One girl in particular commanded Herbert's attention: Gertrude Janes of Tunnel City—"snapping-eyed, beautiful Gertie Janes," as Fred remembered her. Herbert met her when carrying blueberries from the farm to sell at the Tunnel City trading post. Eventually she attended high school in Tomah, so Herbert saw a lot of her there. He kept her in sight on Sundays by going to church in Tunnel City. In his senior year Herbert liked Gertrude well enough to be jealous of a boy who competed for her affection. Consequently he planned to attend church a little oftener than usual, "till he has withdrawn from the field."

In the summer of 1888 Herbert worked as printer's devil at the weekly Tomah Journal. It paid six dollars per week and was preferable to "granging it," as Herbert derisively called farmwork. His stint with the weekly may have sharpened his interest in current events. "What are your politics?" he asked Fred. "I don't know what mine are, I'm either a Pro[hibitionist] or a Republican." Herbert's adult political sympathies seemed to hover around the progressive side of the Republican Party, but he made it a point not to discuss his party affiliation (at least not in writing).

Essentially apolitical in the partisan sense, Bolton had a keen sense of personal and institutional relations that would serve him well throughout his career. He probably acquired these skills in the Bolton family matrix. As historian Frank Sulloway argues, siblings must develop strategies for obtaining their shares of family resources such as food, shelter, wealth, affection, and encouragement. Thus each child develops a niche in the family and a way of maximizing his or her chances for survival. The fourth son in a very large family, Herbert capitalized on his innate strengths and developed talents that set him apart from his older brothers. His good looks, athletic prowess, pleasing personality, affability, sense of humor, good health, capacity for hard work, attention to detail, and ability to get along with people made Herbert a good son, a successful student, and a valued employee. These personal qualities served him well throughout his life.

Fred, the second son, blazed the trail of higher education and escape for Herbert, but his older brother's struggle for advancement showed that the scholar's life was not a perfect meritocracy. A certain amount of shrewdness was needed in order to succeed, and Herbert, even as a teenager, seemed to have it. In 1887 Fred wanted a teacher's job at Tunnel City, so he wrote to Mrs. Janes (Gertrude's mother), who was a school board director. After Fred's mother went to see Janes and the board clerk about the position, Herbert reported to Fred, "I guess they want you." Herbert was certain that his brother was the best man for the place, but it helped to know someone. His brother got the job.


Excerpted from Herbert Eugene Bolton by Albert L. Hurtado. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Note on Language

Introduction: The Border Lord

1. The Scholars’ Hard Road
2. A Gathering at Lake Mendota
3. Gone to Texas
4. Many Roads to California
In Stephens’s Grove
6. Foundations of Empire
7. Teachers and Students—Worlds Apart
8. Of Presidents and Politics
9. Race, Place, and Heroes
10. Exploration, Empire, and Patrimony
11. The Grand Patriarch
12. Bury My Heart at Corte Madera
13. Western Revolt and Retirement
14. Defending the Empire
15. The Fading Pageant
16. The Emperor Departs

Afterword: The Debatable Legacy

Abbreviations Used in the Notes


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Scholars curious about Bolton's résumé will discover much of interest."—Wall Street Journal

"The most comprehensive biography of one of America's most important historians. . . . A delightfully written book."—Southern California Quarterly

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