The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation

The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation

by Miriam Pawel


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781632867339
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 09/04/2018
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 50,223
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Miriam Pawel is an award-winning reporter and editor who spent twenty-five years working for Newsday and the Los Angeles Times. She was recently an Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow and a John Jacobs Fellow at the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.

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The Pioneer

Long before the discovery of gold conferred upon the state its universal, enduring epithet, the land imbued California with its seductive, lyrical promise.

Its name was bestowed by early Spaniards, in homage to a popular sixteenth-century romance novel about an island paradise ruled by Queen Califia. In the centuries that followed, explorers discovered the wonders of Yosemite, the fertile valleys, natural ports, blooming deserts, and breathtaking coastline.

Then came the Gold Rush, catapulting California forward with the warp speed that would become one of the state's defining characteristics.

In the spring of 1848, the population of San Francisco was 575 men, 177 women, and 60 children. Within a year, the city had close to twenty-five thousand inhabitants. Doctors and lawyers abandoned practices; tradesmen, laborers, and professionals from around the world arrived in California by boat and stagecoach. In the early days, the mines yielded as much as $50,000 a day in gold (more than $1.5 million in 2016 dollars), money that fueled the region's explosive growth. First the pioneers sought fortunes in gold, then they created the infrastructure and provided the services demanded by this brave new world. An American frontier that had been gradually inching westward suddenly leapfrogged across the country. Californians improvised, unburdened by tradition, open to experimentation. They devised routines, invented machines, and established lifestyles that suited their needs. They could not wait for supplies and knowledge to migrate from the East. They had neither time nor inclination to adopt the staid wisdom or customs of the Eastern establishment.

California was a land "now engrossing the attention of the civilized world with its future importance," Polish immigrant Felix Wierzbicki wrote in California As It Is, and As It May Be, the first book published in English in California. The 1849 guidebook foresaw transcontinental railroads, millions of residents, trade with China, and a booming agricultural economy. "It is not necessary to be gifted with an extraordinary foresight to predict that as soon as the industry and enterprise of the Americans take a fair footing on this soil, the commerce of the country will grow daily."

The carpenter John Marshall had first spotted gold in early 1848, just as officials were signing the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and ceded California to the United States. When the Gold Rush began, California had only a makeshift government. Suddenly, the need for laws became urgent. Congress proposed that California skip territorial status and move directly to statehood. But lawmakers deadlocked for months over whether to allow slavery, a decision that could upset the fragile compromise that had been crafted to hold the Union together. In a pattern destined to be repeated, Californians took matters into their own hands. They called a convention and adopted a constitution that banned slavery, on pragmatic rather than moral grounds. Delegates argued that the nature of work in California was unsuitable for slavery; left unsaid was the fear that large slaveholders could have posed unwelcome competition. The free state of California joined the union on September 9, 1850, which would become an official holiday, Admission Day.

The story of those early years, wrote California's first great philosopher, Josiah Royce, was the story of how "a new and great community first came to a true consciousness of itself." Writers like Royce witnessed that evolution and penned words that shaped lasting visions of California: A land of immigrants. A place of reinvention. A spirit of openness. An incubator of innovation.

That was the world that drew a young German named Simon August Schuckman.

The boy known as August was the second son of Friedrich Kixmöller Schuckman and his wife, Caroline Wilhelmine Luise. Because the Schuckmans had property but no male heirs, Friedrich's father had taken his bride's surname, Schuckman, when they married. Friedrich and Caroline had eight children; five boys and one girl lived into adulthood.

Born July 10, 1827, August grew up in Wüsten, a tiny town in the principality of Lippe-Detmold, in the middle of what was then Prussia. His father operated an inn. August's older brother stood to inherit the family business, leaving the younger son an uncertain future. As revolution spread across Europe in 1848, August, believing he would soon be drafted, made his way north to Hamburg and used savings to book passage to a new life. Two months shy of his twenty-second birthday, August Schuckman arrived in New York on May 8, 1849, on the ship the Perseverance.

He was among almost one million Germans who emigrated to the United States in the decade that followed, driven by political and economic upheaval. By 1855, German immigrants were outnumbered only by those from Great Britain. Many had read about California, both at home and once they arrived in the new land. They had heard about the exploits of John Sutter, a Swiss German (né Johan August Suter) who founded, with his son, the city that became Sacramento; gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. The Emigrants' Guide to California, published in St. Louis in 1849, was quickly translated into German, the first of numerous guidebooks that outlined ways to reach the new frontier. Travel "around the Horn" could take nine months and cost $600; cutting across Panama saved time but entailed a dangerous, disease-ridden land crossing; the overland route from Missouri cost as little as $55, the most popular option.

By the time August Schuckman headed for California, the perilous trip had become increasingly routine. Maps laid out detailed routes; books offered guidance on where to find water and grass for cattle; and additional ferries expedited the river crossings. A journey first made almost exclusively by men now included women and children. By 1852, an overland trip that had taken an average of 136 days could be completed in fewer than 90, though many took longer.

August was part of a record number of pioneers who crossed the Plains in 1852, following the Oregon Trail to one of the branches that headed southwest into California. More than fifty thousand people and a hundred thousand cattle and sheep crossed that summer, according to estimates, most in ordinary farm wagons drawn by oxen. They left behind ruts that lasted into the twenty-first century. Dysentery and cholera were common, and letter writers told of graves dug before travelers were even dead. They also wrote of the camaraderie. Women took care of other women's children; men warned other travelers of hostile Indians and dangerous river crossings; families cared for one another's sick and shared food and water when supplies dwindled.

August was vague in his accounts of his first few years in the United States, during which he worked as a hired hand on boats on various rivers and the Great Lakes. But he kept a diary when he joined a party that set out from St. Louis on March 10, 1852.

Six foot one, blue-eyed, sandy-haired, and strong, he hired on with a captain shepherding a group of fifty-three pioneers. They traveled up the Missouri River to Jefferson, where the captain stopped to buy seventy-two oxen and cows he planned to sell in California. Then they headed to St. Joseph, Missouri, their progress slowed as men on horseback chased after oxen that strayed into nearby forests. A month into the journey, on Easter Monday, they reached St. Joseph, minus three cows and two oxen.

The captain bought nine more oxen and eight horses and collected provisions that had been shipped up the river by steamer, and they set off. After six miles they reached the first mountains, where they stopped for six days to rest the cattle, which had walked more than two hundred miles. They set out again on April 24: nine wagons, eighty-one oxen, and eighteen horses. They traveled between eight and twelve miles a day, and by the fifth day, water and wood ran short and tempers flared. They stopped cooking with water and rationed it out to drink.

Two months and three hundred miles into the trip, they reached Fort Kearney in Nebraska, low on provisions and in revolt against their captain, who had been skimping on food. The officer in charge of Fort Kearney listened to their grievances — and their threats to shoot the captain — and told the travelers all he could offer was return passage to St. Joseph. Eager to reach California, the emigrants made peace and pushed on along the well-worn trail.

On May 13, they reached the Platte River, which August described as three times wider than the Weser, the river that bordered his Prussian hometown. He marveled at the herds of pronghorn antelope, which he thought at first were a type of deer. They saw occasional herds of buffalo. But the most common animals were wolves, which circled the camp at night and howled.

A week later they crossed the Platte by ferry, taking two hours to get everyone across. Out of wood to cook by fire, they ate zwieback and ham. On May 26, they passed what August described as "a clot of earth straight up about 300 feet," later known as Chimney Rock.

Five days later, they reached Fort Laramie in the Wyoming Territory, a major trading post in the land of the Sioux. August was intrigued by their customs. "These Indians do not bury their dead," he wrote. "They weave baskets and put their dead into them and stand them in the tops of trees."

The travelers forged ahead on the dusty, crowded trail and on June 8 reached the head of the Platte River in Casper, Wyoming. More than a hundred wagons waited to cross, a boon for ferry operators who charged $3 per wagon and $1 per animal. By noon the next day, August's party had safely made it to the other side, swimming the animals to the far shore to save money.

Within a week, the party confronted their captain again and threatened to leave him behind. They demanded he provide two and a half pounds of food per day, which would last forty days, and promise to buy any food needed after. He counteroffered: If they would stretch the food for six more days, he promised milk for coffee. Fourteen men accepted that deal, while the rest insisted on their original terms.

On June 18, they saw snow-covered mountains of the Wind River Range in the distance as they approached a juncture known as "the parting of the ways." They took the more difficult Sublette Cutoff, which shaved four days off the trip, and began a forty-one-mile trek across a desert described in guidebooks as "the dry Sandy." They traveled mainly at night to avoid the extreme heat.

On July 26, they reached "the big Sandy," also known as the Forty-Mile Desert, a tough stretch in Nevada. They traveled again at night. "Here the measure of water cost 1 dollar," August wrote. "Here we lost 7 oxen who died of thirst. We also had to leave a wagon here. Here thousands of cows, horses, mules were lying about dead ... the discarded wagons by the hundreds were driven together and burned. Here we saw wagons standing that would never be taken out again, and more than 1,000 guns that had been broken up. Here on this 40 miles are treasures that can never be taken out again."

On September 1, they reached the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada and camped for several days before starting the ascent. "After 15 days of crossing these mountains, letting our wagons down by rope and tying trees behind the wagon, we came to a little mining town called Hangtown," August wrote. "Very bad town. Close to where gold was discovered. Here I will go work for a while."

Six months after leaving St. Louis, the twenty-five-year-old immigrant had reached his new home in California — Hangtown, later renamed Placerville.

Practical and frugal, August stayed away from the frenetic, speculative life of the mines. Instead, he found steady work making money off those who came to get rich quick. Hangtown, about eight miles south of Coloma, where gold had first been discovered, was a hub for the mining community. Within a few weeks, August had a job driving a freight wagon from Coloma to Sutter's Fort, on the outskirts of Sacramento, about forty miles south.

August became friendly with John Sutter and began to venture farther afield. He took supplies by boat from Sacramento up the Feather River to Marysville, a German settlement where Sutter owned a cattle and hog farm. By the spring of 1853, August was still driving a stagecoach and scouting options to settle down and farm. "I will go up in this fruitful valley and get myself a large tract of land," he wrote. "I have gone up this river which has been named the Sacramento river to a little settlement named Colusa."

Colusa was a small town in a county of the same name, roughly sixty miles long and fifty miles wide, bordered on the east by the Sacramento River and on the west by the Coast Range. The name came from the local Indian tribe. The mines were on the other side of the river, so Colusa developed slowly; in 1850 there were only 115 residents. But as gold grew scarcer and pioneers became discouraged, they fanned out, settled land, and started businesses. At first the land was used mainly to graze livestock. Then Colusa farmers found they could make more money growing barley and wheat, which they sold as feed for horses that drew the wagons that resupplied the mining camps. By spring 1852, three steamboats — the Jenny Lind, Captain Sutter, and Orient — offered regular service up the river from Sacramento, a ninety-mile trip that took eighteen hours. The river traffic turned Colusa into a boomtown, with two hotels, a bakery, three blacksmith and wagon-making shops, a soda fountain, a vegetable depot, and a doctor. The 1852 census reported a population of 620& — 400 white men, 63 white women, 5 "negroes," 3 "mulattoes," 66 Indians, and 21 foreign residents. Soon hotels opened along the main routes, providing rest and food for travelers and their horses. There were hotels every few miles, their names reflecting the distance from Colusa: Five Mile House, Seven Mile House, Nine Mile House, Ten Mile House, Eleven Mile House, Sixteen Mile House, Seventeen Mile House, Nineteen Mile House, and Twenty Mile House.

Wary of the river, which often overflowed and swept away livestock on low-lying ground, August chose his first ranch land carefully and staked his claim. "I have taken up land 15 miles west of Colusa, on high land and very fine land near to a large range of mountains called the Coast Range," he wrote in 1854. "They are a great range which lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Sacramento Valley — that is what this valley is called now."

A remote county with cool winters, blazing hot summers, and lots of rattlesnakes, Colusa was not for everyone. But pioneers drawn to the sparsely settled farmland embraced the quiet, provincial lifestyle and put down roots that lasted generations. With little fanfare or effort to lure settlers, the low-key town grew to about forty-five hundred residents by 1862. "Those who came here came to stay," wrote local historian Justus Rogers a few decades later. "They remained, and the generation that succeeded them, inspired with the same love for their environments, knew no other and sought no other region to be dedicated with that sweet, endearing, soul-satisfying word, 'home.' "

Home for August by 1860 was a house next door to two of Colusa's leading citizens, fifth-generation American Will Green and his uncle Charles Semple. Charles's brother Robert Semple had been an early pioneer, cofounded the first newspaper, the Monterey Californian, presided over the constitutional convention in 1849, and then founded the city of Benicia. Inspired by his success, Charles and Will left their Kentucky home and headed for California. Charles scouted land where he, too, might found a city, and settled on Colusa. His nephew became editor of the Colusa Sun and author of the first history of Colusa County, one of about 150 history books about California counties published in the nineteenth century.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

The Mansion 1

1 The Pioneer 5

2 The Paris of America 18

3 The Yell Leader 28

4 The Roosevelt Democrat 39

5 Forest Hill 56

6 The Governor and the Seminarian 75

7 Fiat Lux 100

8 Down but Not Out 112

9 "Water for People. For Living" 130

10 The Turbulent Term 147

11 The Browns of Los Angeles 174

12 The Candidate 195

13 The New Spirit 212

14 Jerry and Cesar 232

15 To the Moon and Back 248

16 The Fall 263

17 Winter Soldiers 289

18 A Different Shade of Brown 311

19 Oakland Ecopolis 332

20 Son of Sacramento 355

21 Second Chances 371

22 Fiat Lux Redux 384

23 Past as Prologue 394

The Mountain House 412

Acknowledgments 421

Bibliography 425

Notes 431

Index 471

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The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty that Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous 5 months ago
Author's bias was a bit too obvious to make this a truly objective study but nevertheless very interesting.