Tahireh Hicks

As an undergraduate anthropology major in the 1960s, Frank P. Lobo made a startling discovery: according to his textbook, his existence was an impossibility.[i] A member of the Indigenous Acjachemen community of San Juan Capistrano, California, Lobo found himself reading about how, according to a well-respected anthropologist of the time, “the Acjachemem were extinct.” [ii] “This gentleman stated unequivocally that we no longer existed,” Lobo recalled several decades later. “This meant that well more than two dozen of my relatives, with whom I interacted every day, ceased to exist as Acjachemem…Extinction had been conferred on all of us.”[iii]

Frank Lobo (left) recording an oral history with Viejo Majel (right) in San Juan Capistrano, 1970. Image originally published in Lobo, et al, “Oral Histories,” Journal of the Southwest, 2005.

Upon reading the passage to his relatives and other tribal community members at a birthday party later that night, Lobo “was met with shocked silence and then with shouts and shrieks….Shouted comments of outrage soon degenerated into raucous laughter.”[iv] “The Acjachemem present,” continued Lobo with wry humor, “concurred that the statement made by the learned professor about our alleged extinction was somewhat premature,” and carried on the party.[v] But the unsettling text and his family’s reactions to it would fuel Frank Lobo’s subsequent quest to promote recognition of the Acjachemen tribe—also known as the “Juaneños” in reference to their historic ties to Mission San Juan Capistrano. As a graduate student at the University of Arizona in the early 1970s, Lobo acquired funding to conduct oral histories with Acjachemen tribal members which remain invaluable resources for scholars of Indigenous California.[vi] And throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, he joined other Indigenous activists from Orange County in submitting multiple petitions for formal recognition of the Acjachemen by the U.S. federal government.[vii]

Yet today, the ongoing efforts of Acjachemen activists to alter their tribe’s official status have so far proven unsuccessful, despite several thousand self-identified Acjachemen individuals organizing in support of federal recognition over the last four decades.[viii] And from the outset of this campaign, the Acjachemen have struggled with the awkward task of proving to outsiders their own authenticity as Indigenous people. In a 1980 Los Angeles Times article profiling the “Juaneños’” bid for recognition, journalist Leslie Berkman highlighted the Acjachemen’s general failure to “fit the traditional image of Indians.”[ix] “Those 18th-Century Juanenos [sic]… were raven-haired, brown-eyed and olive-complexioned,” Berkman explained in the now-dated and deeply problematic language of racialism, whereas “Repeated infusions of European blood have lightened their faces and tinted their hair various shades of brown, even blond. “[x] In short, the Acjachemen did not phenotypically fulfill Anglo-American expectations of “Indianness.”[xi] And indeed, Acjachemen activists had long taken appearances into account as they sought to convince officials of the legitimacy of their heritage. In striking photographs taken during the tribe’s 1950s push to secure compensation for stolen lands, for example, Chief Clarence Lobo can be seen dressed in recognizably “Native American” regalia—but which, notably, was not traditional Acjachemen regalia. Posing stoically in what he later identified as a “Sioux Indian chief’s headdress,” Lobo explained that he did so in order “to meet the white man’s expectations of how an Indian leader should appear.”[xii] Ironically, Clarence Lobo and other Acjachemen activists found themselves demonstrating to white onlookers their “Indian” authenticity by dressing inauthentically.[xiii]

Chief Clarence Lobo, ca. late 1950s. UCI/New University Campus Newspaper.
Chief Clarence Lobo and wife Bess Lobo at Acjachemen gathering in San Juan Capistrano, 1950s. Orange County Public Libraries.

Officially, however, the federal government’s present-day denial of Acjachemen recognition rests upon a set of unfulfilled criteria seemingly more objective than appearance and dress. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ most recent statements rejecting the Acjachemen petitions in 2011, “The totality of the evidence does not demonstrate that the petitioner’s mid-19th century ancestors formed a distinct SJC [San Juan Capistrano] Indian community within a larger Spanish-speaking, Catholic, Old Mexican/Californio community after 1862.”[xiv] Rather, the BIA report continued, the Acjachemen petitioners’ ancestors largely “appear to have been Indian individuals who became absorbed into the general, ethnically-mixed population of Old Mexican/Californio families.”[xv] Moreover, the BIA determined that a significant number of the individuals cited as Acjachemen petitioners’ ancestors “did not descend from California Indians at all, but were members of the general population…in the town of SJC during the Mexican period.” [xvi]  In essence, the BIA determined that since 1862, the Acjachemen of San Juan Capistrano were legally and culturally indistinguishable from the town’s non-Acjachemen ethnic Mexican community. With their claims to both cultural continuity and genealogical authenticity deemed unverifiable within the historical record, the Acjachemen failed to satisfy Criterion 83.7(b) of the Code of Federal Regulations’ title 25, thereby barring them from a government-to-government relationship with the United States.[xvii]

But how reliable are the official documents that led to this conclusion—from mission baptismal records to the U.S. Census—as gauges of an individual’s cultural identity and heritage? Do the BIA’s findings about the “true” Mexican heritage of self-identified Acjachemen individuals necessarily undermine their claims to California Indigenous authenticity? Perhaps in the shifting racial landscapes of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Southern California, such public records hid just as much as they revealed.

In 1980 interviews, Acjachemen leaders Clarence Lobo and Raymond Belardes offered an intriguing, alternative explanation for their tribe’s perceived cultural extinction during the first half of the twentieth century. According to Belardes, a significant number of Acjachemen tribal members had been deliberately “raised as Mexicans.”[xviii] On paper and in public, Lobo further explained, many Acjachemen families had “denied their Indian blood and called themselves Mexicans”—a logic that, significantly, framed the labels “Indian” and “Mexican” as more or less mutually exclusive.[xix] But privately, these San Juan residents “had known they [were] Indian.”[xx] Beginning during the second half of the nineteenth century, they simply “went underground” in order to escape anti-Indian discrimination.[xxi]

First page of Article IX of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Nicholas Philip Trist Papers, 1795-1873, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

What exactly was to be gained through this strategic embrace of a primarily “Mexican” identity over Native American identity—what some scholars have even labeled a form of racial passing?[xxii] After all, the systemic disadvantages faced by the region’s ethnic Mexican population in the wake of the U.S.-Mexican War have been well documented, from the dispossession of Californio lands to targeted anti-Mexican violence.[xxiii] Yet crucially, the Mexican “Californios” who remained in California after the U.S.-Mexican War had received U.S. citizenship through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a fact that also implicitly defined them as legally “white” despite many having mixed-race heritage. The disconnect between the Californios’ legal “whiteness” and Anglo newcomers’ perceptions of Californios as non-white set the stage for the Californios’ gradual decline in political, economic, and social power during the second half of the nineteenth century. Though legally guaranteed “the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens of the United States,” Californios found their influence in the region undermined by Anglo-Americans’ discriminatory policies and practices.[xxiv] But for some mission-affiliated California Indigenous families, this same legal disconnect associated with “Mexican” identity may have actually presented an opportunity for limited social and racial redefinition.

Because of the Acjachemen’s history of forced Hispanicization under the Spanish colonial mission system of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, by the 1850s, many Acjachemen community members possessed Spanish surnames and spoke Spanish in their homes. Even more than a century later in the 1970s, anthropologists Frank Lobo and Susan Lobo found that their own ability to speak “the particular Californio Spanish that is spoken in San Juan Capistrano” still proved essential to their research with the Acjachemen community, since “many of the older people felt most comfortable and expressive using Spanish.”[xxv] Moreover, many nineteenth-century Acjachemen individuals had maintained close cultural and social ties with the town’s ethnic Mexican Californios claiming “Spanish” ancestry, most notably through marriage and through affiliation with the Catholic Church.[xxvi] And perhaps most importantly, the Acjachemen and other Indigenous Californians had legally been made citizens of the Republic of Mexico under the Mexican Constitution of 1824.[xxvii] Thus, although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and later California constitutional conventions drew sharp lines between California’s “Indians” and the former Mexican nationals who adopted U.S. citizenship, indigeneity and Mexican citizenship overlapped significantly prior to the U.S.-Mexican War.

It appears, then, that in the aftermath of the war, members of the Acjachemen community may have discovered benefits to downplaying their “Indianness” while playing up the cultural traits they shared with the region’s non-Acjachemen ethnic Mexicans.  Despite the many challenges Californios faced during the second half of the nineteenth century, they could also claim a certain level of protection derived from their legal status as white U.S. citizens, no matter how tenuous. Indigenous Californians, on the other hand, found themselves increasingly targeted by the U.S. settler colonial state without the limited protections afforded by U.S. citizenship. As the historian Benjamin Madley has powerfully shown in his award-winning An American Genocide (2016), the U.S. conquest of California inaugurated a de facto policy of Indian “extermination” through both state-sanctioned and extralegal violence. Meanwhile, as Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer, Jr. have outlined in We Are the Land (2021), the newly formed state government denied Indigenous Californians the right to vote in 1849, and during the 1850s, “passed laws that prevented California Indians from testifying against Whites, serving on juries, or working as lawyers.”[xxviii] Given this multi-pronged assault on the rights and very existence of California’s Indigenous population, Clarence Lobo’s assertion that Acjachemen families had strategically “denied their Indian blood and called themselves Mexicans” begins to make sense.

Beyond the Acjachemen leaders’ own explanations for their community’s perceived “Mexican” identity, tracing specific individuals across the historical record reveals fascinating further instances of slippage between the “Mexican” and “Indian” labels in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century San Juan Capistrano. Gregorio Humiliano Rios, for example, was recorded in Mission San Juan Capistrano’s 1829 baptismal register as the illegitimate “Yndio” son of the Juaneña “Yndia” Magdalena Canienseguinaim and the Californio Silverio Rios. Yet following the U.S.-Mexican War, Rios was listed in all U.S. Census documents as “white,” along with the rest of his family.[xxix] A photograph of San Juan residents taken in the mid-1880s by G.W. James (above) was accompanied by the description, “A Mexican family lounging under a ramada at (or near?) Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, ca. 1885.” But several decades later, San Juan resident and founder of the local “Club Hispano Californio” Alfonso Yorba identified the three individuals in the center of the group as “Leona – San Juanena Mission Indian,” “Fuliz – San Juanena Mission Indian,” and “Benuta – San Juanena Mission Indian.”[xxx]

“Description of Registrant” section from Clarence H. Lobo’s WWII Draft Registration Card, 26 October 1940. World War II Draft Cards Young Men, 1940-1947, via Ancestry Library.

Moving into the early decades of the twentieth century, the public records related to Chief Clarence Lobo himself provide an excellent demonstration of how one California Indigenous family may have navigated the state’s system of racial categorization. Born in 1912 in San Juan Capistrano, Lobo first appeared in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census listed as the “white” son of “white” parents John and Hope (Esperanza) Lobo. In 1930—the only year in which the U.S. Census included “Mexican” as a category in the “Race” column—the teenage Clarence Lobo and the rest of his household were recorded as “Mexican.” But on his WWII Draft Registration Card from 1940, the 28-year-old Lobo self-identified as “Indian.”[xxxi] Despite previous public records indicating that Lobo was either “white” or “Mexican,” Lobo later reflected, “Society didn’t let me forget I was an Indian…. It was dumped in my face.”[xxxii] While on paper, Lobo’s Indigenous identity had remained obscured, this fact evidently had only a narrow impact on how others treated him and on his personal sense of cultural identity. With the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act in effect and new state measures providing California Indian individuals with limited monetary compensation for stolen lands, the incentives of embracing a primarily “Mexican” or “Californio” identity seem to have faded. After decades spent “underground,” as tribal leader David Belardes later put it, the Acjachemen community finally “cautiously came out” during the mid-twentieth century.[xxxiii]

Unfortunately, however, the community’s close association with Mexican identity in the town of San Juan has posed a problem for tribal recognition ever since. Within the legal and cultural landscape of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the submersion of Indigenous identity beneath a publicly Mexican one represented a creative strategy of survival. In the face of oppressive and violent anti-Indian policies, individuals’ choices to hide their California Indigenous ancestry can hardly be seen as voluntary. And yet this same strategy of survival now continues to prop up the myth of Acjachemen cultural extinction. Despite recent surges in Indigenous visibility in the town of San Juan Capistrano and across Orange County, the quest for federal recognition has progressed little since Frank Lobo first laughed at the textbook version of his tribe’s history all those decades ago.

Whether or not the Acjachemen community will eventually be able to gain federal recognition under the current BIA guidelines remains uncertain. Although tracing individuals through available records clearly proves that slippage between “Mexican” and “Indian” identity was commonplace in San Juan, it is impossible to use these same records as a guage of now-deceased individuals’ personal senses of identity and cultural authenticity. Did Acjachemen individuals truly become absorbed into a larger ethnic Mexican population, or did they maintain their sense of Indigenous identity in the privacy of their homes? Public records alone cannot answer this question. Oral histories and the memories of present-day community members, on the other hand, likely provide the best evidence of the continuity of Acjachemen identity in San Juan since the nineteenth century. But as long as the federal recognition process privileges the racial and ethnic labels recorded in official documents like the Census, it will be diffficult for the tribe to change its formal status. Moreover, the question remains as to whether or not cultural continuity should even factor into the federal recognition process at all, given the state’s historical role in systematically suppressing Indigenous languages and cultural practices well into the twentieth century.

It is clear, however, that the multiple layers of colonialism that have shaped California’s history continue to generate a unique set of challenges to California Indigenous recognition in the present day, especially among mission-affiliated populations who had the greatest extended contact with the Spanish and Mexican systems. Having survived the Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. brands of colonialism in the region, the Acjachemen of San Juan Capistrano now face an uphill battle to prove that their cultural authenticity also survived intact. And as long as the BIA grounds its determination of authenticity in public records, the entanglement of California Indigenous and ethnic Mexican identity in San Juan will form yet another roadblock in the long quest for tribal recognition.  

Tahireh Hicks is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at USC. Born and raised in Southern California, she earned an A.B. in History from Princeton University in 2017 before returning to Los Angeles for graduate school. Her research examines the intersecting racialization processes of California Indigenous and ethnic Mexican families in Southern California during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing on themes of identity, racial passing, and cultural persistence.

[i] Frank P. Lobo, Susan Lobo, and Kelina N.T. Lobo, “Oral Histories with the Acjachemem of San Juan Capistrano,” Journal of the Southwest (Tucson: Vol. 47, 1), 2005; “Indian Life Study to Be Described,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1964, E8.

[ii] While Acjachemem is linguistically the correct pluralization of the root Acjacheme for describing tribal members as a collective, Acjachemen is generally the favored autonym among community members themselves. Juaneño, the name the Spanish gave to the community of Indigenous people associated with Mission San Juan Capistrano and converted to Catholicism, is still currently used by a significant number of tribal members but has increasingly fallen out of favor, whereas Acjachemen is most widely accepted. For this reason, I use Acjachemen unless quoting another source. For a detailed explanation of terminology describing the Acjachemen people, see Lisa Louise Woodward, “The Acjachemen of San Juan Capistrano: The History, Language, and Politics of an Indigenous California Community” (PhD diss., University of California Davis, 2007), 6-8.

[iii] Lobo, et. al., “Oral Histories.”

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Bureau of Indian Affairs, Proposed Finding Against Acknowledgement of The Juaneño Band of Mission Indians Acjachemen Nation (Petitioner #84A), Carl J. Artman, November 23, 2007; Bureau of Indian Affairs, Juaneño Band of Mission Indians (Petitioner #84B) Final Determination, Larry Echo Hawk, 15 March 2011.

[viii] It should be noted that the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation has been officially recognized by the state of California since 1993, although the struggle for federal recognition continues.

[ix] Leslie Berkman, “The Cry of the Juaneno Indians: ‘We Exist!,’” Los Angeles Times, June 8, 1980, OCA1.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] For representations of traditional Acjachemen regalia and dress, see Acjachemen storyteller and educator Jacque Tahuka Nuñez’s excellent website, Journeys to the Past, http://journeystothepast.com.

[xiv] U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, “Final Determination Against Acknowledgment of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation,” Federal Register 76, no. 54 (March 21, 2011): 15337, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2011/03/21/2011-6470/final-determination-against-acknowledgment-of-the-juaneo-band-of-mission-indians-acjachemen-nation.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Larry Echo Hawk, Juaneño Band of Mission Indians (Petitioner #84B) Final Determination, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 15 March 2011, 103.

[xvii] U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, “Final Determination,” 15337.

[xviii] Berkman, “Cry of the Juaneno Indians,” 9.

[xix] Ibid., 7.

[xx] Ibid., 9.

[xxi] Julie Fate Sullivan, “Juaneno Indians Sing Chief’s Praises,” Los Angeles Times, April 19 1996, 2.

[xxii] See, for example, Lisa Louise Woodward, “The Acjachemen of San Juan Capistrano: The History, Language, and Politics of an Indigenous California Community” (PhD diss., UC Davis, 2007), 134-135. I am hesitant to fully adopt the language of racial passing to describe the Acjachemen’s history given the layered meanings of passing within African American history. Most notably, as Allyson Hobbs highlights in A Chosen Exile (2014), African American passing generally involved a “social death,” as Black individuals who “passed” for white generally were cut off completely from family members, friends, and community. There is little evidence that Acjachemen individuals “raised as Mexicans” experienced a similar loss of social connection, though the phenomenon certainly resulted in devastating losses of cultural knowledge.

[xxiii] Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, [1966] 1998); Miroslava Chavez Garcia, Negotiating Conquest: Gender and Power in California, 1770s-1880s (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2004); David Torres-Rouff, Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1771-1894 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[xxiv] Article IX, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, 1848; Pitt, Decline of the Californios, 282-283.

[xxv] Lobo, et. al., “Oral Histories.”

[xxvi] Lisbeth Haas, Conquests and Historical Identities in Southern California, 1769-1936 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 210.

[xxvii] Maria Josefina Saldaña-Portillo, Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States (Duke University Press, 2016), 133-135; Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer, Jr.. We Are the Land: A History of Native California (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021), 110-11.

[xxviii] Akins and Bauer, Jr., We Are the Land, 138.

[xxix] Records accessible via Early California Population Project (Huntington Library) and Ancestry.com.

[xxx] “Mexican family lounging under a ramada at (or near?) Mission San Juan Capistrano, Orange County, ca. 1885,” C.C. Pierce Photography Collection 1860-1960, USC Digital Library.

[xxxi] 1920 U.S. Federal Census, 1930 U.S. Federal Census, and WWII Draft Registration Card accessible via Ancestry.com.

[xxxii] Berkman, “The Cry of the Juaneno Indians,” 7.

[xxxiii] Sullivan, “Juaneno Indians Sing Chief’s Praises,” 2.

By Abby Gibson

Bran, water, buttermilk, and salt. Mrs. Love was compelled only a few months earlier to cook up sumptuous feasts in the plantation kitchen for her enslaver, Robert Love, and his family, but now she kneeled on the dirt floor of her own home in front of her own hearth mixing together these four simple ingredients for her sons to eat. Stoking the fire until it was big enough, Mrs. Love cleared some space in front of it to lay wilted cabbage leaves, one for her eldest, Nat, and another for her youngest, Jordan. She then poured the bran and buttermilk batter onto the leaves, laid another leaf on top of the mixture and raked hot coals from the fire on it until it was baked into what the Love’s called “ash cake.

A sketch of Mrs. Love making ash cake with Nat and Jordan in Tennessee featured in The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (Los Angeles: Nat Love, 1907).

On this simple and meager fare, the Loves nourished their first weeks of freedom. Ash cake sustained them as they cultivated tobacco for themselves on their twenty-acre farm just outside Nashville, Tennessee. For Nat and Jordan, ash cake is what gave them the energy they needed to spend their early teenage days meticulously pulling hornworms off their precious tobacco leaves and to prepare the crop for sale. During the harsh winters of 1865 and 1866, the homely cake saw the Loves through. For Nat Love, however, ash cake did more than feed his body during the unstable transition to life after slavery. The meal also fed his narrative self. Ash cake is a key symbol that anchors the first part of Nat Love’s self-published autobiography of his life as a slave, small-scale farmer, cowboy, and Pullman rail car porter, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” by Himself, published in 1907. A sketch of Mrs. Love kneeling down in front of the hearth to make the cake with her young sons eagerly looking on in anticipation accompanies Love’s remembrances of this meal, offering a glimpse into the small and confined domestic space of the recently emancipated Love family. The home and hearth were now their own for the first time, and no matter how limited the menu, “mother very cheerfully proceeded to make the best of what we had.”

About halfway through his autobiography, Nat Love introduces a second meal that feeds his narrative self, this time at a very different time and place in his life: buffalo steak on the Great Plains during his career as a roving cowboy. On the long and arduous journeys on horseback driving as many as two thousand Texas steers from the home ranch near the Rio Grande River, east through the vibrantly colored deserts of the New Mexico Territory, up past the Rockies in the Colorado Territory, and then along the Platte River into market in northwestern Nebraska, Nat Love the former slave-turned-cowboy sustained his literal and figurative body on the flesh of this hoofed ruler of the American grasslands. “On these trips we often encountered big herds of buffalo,” he explains in the tenth chapter of Life and Adventures, “and these supplied us with meat, and such meat! A buffalo steak fresh from a still quivering buffalo broiled over coals is a dish fit for the Gods.” A decade earlier in Tennessee, Nat Love the ex-slave waited, perhaps impatiently, in front of his mother’s hearth for ash cake. But Nat Love the cowboy, perennial roamer of the West, no longer waited for his food. He rode on horseback with his .45 Colt and lasso in hand to secure for himself a “dish fit for the Gods.”

A sketch of Nat Love on horseback hunting buffalo on the plains featured in Life and Adventures of Nat Love (Los Angeles: Nat Love, 1907).

What can ash cake and buffalo steak tell us about the nature of Nat Love’s journey across the North American continent as he narrated it in Life and Adventures? Quite a lot, I think. The ash cake Nat Love consumed at his mother’s hearth in the immediate weeks after their emancipation operate in his autobiography as an embodiment of immobile slavery. It is what fed him as he stayed in place as a poor subsistence farmer in Tennessee, barely removed from the plantation space that had once enslaved him. The cake itself also kept Love proximate to his enslavement as it was the food enslaved peoples often brought with them to the field to eat a quick meal during breakfast and dinner breaks. It kept him alive during those early days of freedom-making on the tobacco farm, but it was never quite enough. Buffalo steak, on the other hand, was everything that ash cake was not. The rich meat came from a magnificently mobile animal that roamed the plains, far from the southern spaces of bondage he had known as a child. The buffalo was fast and required an equal range of speed and mobility to subdue it. Love prepared and ate the steak not at the farm table, but while en route to the ranches of the “Cattle Kings” scattered across the trans-Mississippi West. It nourished him far more than the ash cake in more ways than one. On this grassland fare, he ate a “dish fit for the Gods,” a far cry from his mother’s make-do ash cake in Tennessee.

Using ash cake and buffalo steak as instructive symbols in Nat Love’s Life and Adventures, I aim to redescribe his transcontinental journey as an ongoing pilgrimage from a state of immobile enslavement to a state of mobile freedom. This pilgrimage constructed the wide open spaces of the American West–particularly the enormous plains–as sacred because of the extraordinary range of mobility this landscape offered him. Taking my cue from Love’s recurring emphasis on his constant movement across the West by both cattle trail and iron rail in Life and Adventures, and placing it in conversation with pilgrimage studies and spatial studies of American slavery that have emphasized immobility as the essential condition and experience of enslavement, I argue that Nat Love’s narration of his unfettered mobility as sacred in his autobiography also narrates as sacred the spaces of the West in which he able to make his freedom real. And just as freedom was not a single moment in time that simply “happened” with the demise of slavery at the close of the Civil War but rather an ongoing process of claiming ownership of the freed self, Love’s perennial movement through the landscape as a cattle driver and a rail car porter was an unending pilgrimage towards that ideal of making his freedom real through a rejection of his life at a standstill in favor of a life lived in motion.

Using a framing of pilgrimage as a kinetic ritual of movement combined with the spatial study of slavery, I argue that Nat Love’s intertwined exterior journey across the West and interior journey from enslavement to freedom is a pilgrimage for the following reasons. First, I take a very broad view of pilgrimage in line with recent work on the topic as a journey undertaken in pursuit of a place or state of being that embodies an ideal. For Love, that ideal is a freedom produced through movement to and through the West, in contradistinction with the immobility he experienced in Tennessee. Second and related to this last point, in leaving the South behind and striking out West, Love sought personal transformation. As he explains, “I wanted to see more of the world and I began to realize there was so much more of the world than what I had seen….it was hard to think of leaving mother and the children, but freedom is sweet and I wanted to make more of an opportunity and my life than I could see possible around home.” Love launches his pilgrimage West in order to “make more” of his life than was possible in his current condition and location. He undertook his journey West–first to Dodge City, Kansas–in the hope that he would experience a change in body and spirit as he crossed over the Mississippi River on foot. In seeking this transformation as he moved across space, Love’s narration of his choice to go west is also very much within the “before-and-after” tradition of post-Civil War slave narratives and the genre of American autobiography writ large.

However, this goal of wholesale transformation from who he was in Tennessee to who he would become on the plains is not the whole story of Love’s pilgrimage. The limited pool of scholars who have studied Love’s narrative have erred in overemphasizing a discontinuity with his enslaved past. Rather, Love continually threads his Tennessee past through the book, stressing that it followed him during his travels across the West. He is certainly changed by his newfound freedom along the cattle trails in the West–evident in his rechristening as “Deadwood Dick” in 1876–but that change is only intelligible because of where he started. Without the first five chapters on his days confined in the immobility of slavery, the bulk of Love’s autobiography of his days as a roving cowboy would be stripped of its heart and meaning.

For instance, Love marks his transformation into “Deadwood Dick” after winning a horse roping contest in Deadwood, South Dakota with reference to who he was while enslaved in Tennessee: “To see me now, you would not recognize in the bronze hardened dare devil cowboy, the slave boy who a few years ago hunted rabbits in his shirt tail on the old plantation in Tennessee.” Love’s contrast here between the “dare devil cowboy” in Deadwood and the “slave boy” in shirttails on Robert Love’s plantation points to a nuanced representation of the transformation he experienced out West that a framework of ongoing pilgrimage can help us to see more clearly. Although Love is no longer the enslaved boy he once was because of the mobility that has empowered him in the West, he is still tethered to that immobilized boy in spirit; his presence lingers in Love’s narrative imagination of himself. Love’s transformation out West is intelligible to himself (and to us as readers) only with this tragic history close to his heart and mind. For this reason, his journey to freedom is marked less by a clean and irreversible “break” from his static state before he launched his pilgrimage West, than it is a continuous, ongoing transformation that continues to happen as he exists in motion. The buffalo steak tastes sweeter to him than it would have without the taste of ash cake still on his tongue.

Nat Love as “Deadwood Dick” in the Dakota Territory, circa 1876. Kansas Historical Society.

Love maps the landscape of the American West as a place he knows just as intimately as his home as his mother’s hearth in Tennessee by way of his movement through it on horseback along cattle trails and in Pullman cars along iron railway tracks. His intimate knowledge of the western landscape is kinetic knowledge; he knows it because he has never stopped moving through it. For instance, Love indicates his intimacy with the lands surrounding the Texas- Tamaulipas borderlands in a chase sequence with a group of Mexican cattle drivers south of the border in chapter 11. Setting off at a gallop away from the saloon where he had thrown around a few drunken insults aimed at the men drinking at the saloon with him, Love breathes a sigh of relief when he sees the Rio Grande river: “I sighted that welcome stream and on the other side I knew I was safe. Crossing the Rio Grande and entering Texas at the Eagle Pass, I rode straight to the old home ranch.” He recognizes the river not only as the border between Texas and Mexico but as a friend arriving just in time to save his neck. Love knows the Rio Grande when he sees it because he has crossed it with steers in tow many times on international cattle drives. Reading Life and Adventures, one is struck by the level of specificity and precision Love brings to his kinesthetic mapping of the West. He never misses a chance to demonstrate his intimate knowledge of the vast lands of the West and its cattle trails.

It is important to note that Love is able to inscribe his freedom into the western landscape as he rides through it on horseback because he considers it to be “empty” land there for the taking. Of course, Love’s sacred western spaces were not empty lands at all, but spaces that were long held as sacred and essential by the Native peoples who had lived and continued to live there during his cattle-driving career. Indeed, Native people figure into Love’s autobiography sparingly and in their brief appearances, they serve merely as narrative devices to indicate Love’s remarkable transformation into a bona fide cowboy. For instance, Love recalls his “first Indian fight” along the trail to the home ranch in the Texas panhandle as a sort of baptismal moment when he forever left behind fear: “[after the first fight he] seemed to lose all sense as to what fear was and thereafter during my whole life on the range I never experienced the least feeling of fear, no matter how trying the ordeal or how desperate my position.” For Love, the West exists as a blank canvas on which he can track his transformations along the trail and paint his map of freedom. The Native people who appear scattered across the pages of the autobiography merely become one part of this demanding landscape that he must overcome on his pilgrimage to mobile freedom. This is a difficult history, one that forces us to confront that the freedom and opportunities many freedpeople sought in the West during the Reconstruction era was a part–although certainly not the driver–of the settler colonial process of Native land dispossession. Recent scholarship has explored this sensitive and complicated history of Black freedom on Native land in the West after the Civil War, a history of which Nat Love and his claiming of freedom through western movement is a part. Love’s mapping of freedom in the West sweeps aside the preexistent and ongoing sacred claims to the land he came to know so well, something that all readers of Life and Adventures must bear in mind.

Title page of Nat Love’s autobiography, 1907. University of North Carolina.

Ultimately, for Love, the contours of the supposedly empty western landscape were known to him not just to serve strategic, life-saving purposes in times of danger (although it was absolutely this in no-small part), but also as a soul-nourishing land.  Love writes that during his cattle drives back and forth across the Mexican border and up into the northern plains and back again, he and his cowboy comrades were constantly making note of landmarks and trails that would help them when they made their return trips during the next season. His deep familiarity with the Rio Grande River, the cold-blooded and sudden shifts in extreme weather common to Indian Territory and west Texas, the buffalo trails-turned-cattle-trails winding their way through the landscape, and his skills in navigating the endless sea of grass in the Great Plains empowers Love in his narrative not only to survive and do his job well, but also to claim for himself the freedom through movement he sought out West. In the tenth chapter, “We Make a Trip to Nebraska,” Love narrates an image of himself that captures the heart of his pilgrimage: “Mounted on my favorite horse, my long horsehide lariat near my hand, and my trusty guns in my belt and the broad plains stretching away for miles and miles, every foot of which I was familiar with, I felt I could defy the world.” His change in condition from enslavement to freedom, from immobility to mobility moves in parallel with his “dwelling in motion” along the trail. He is at home and he is in a state of becoming free while en route.

Abby Gibson is a third-year PhD student with the USC History Department and Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. Before arriving at USC, she received her BA in American History and Film Studies at Pepperdine University and MA in American history at the University of Oklahoma. Abby is interested in the history of religion and spirituality in the West, particularly the spiritual inspiration of western places that have drawn so many to the region. Her work has most recently appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of The Journal of Alta California.

By Layne Karafantis

The Institute on California and the West was fortunate to be able to work closely with Dr. Layne Karafantis over the past two years. Layne, an historian of science and technology, added significantly to our work on the Aerospace History Project. Alongside project director, Peter Westwick, Layne worked on oral histories of aerospace pioneers and pushed forward her own work on several fronts pertaining to post-WW II science, technology, defense, and systems engineering. As Layne completes her postdoctoral appointment, we wish her only the best, we thank her for her collegiality and hard work, and we look forward to continuing our collaborations and friendship moving forward. 

We’re honored to share this piece Layne recently wrote as part of our Aerospace Oral History Project.

Many of the men and women working on the Apollo program felt great patriotism and passion in their quest to land humans on the Moon. Shelby Jacobs, however, was more concerned with breaking barriers on Earth. During his 40-year career in aerospace, he accomplished a number of technological and managerial feats that supported the space program, but as a Black man in an industry dominated by white engineers, his larger ambition sought to expand workforce representation and equality. His life story, recently captured in an oral history for the ICW Aerospace History Project, offers a compelling window into the obstacles and opportunities that aerospace presented. 

Jacobs with the Apollo space capsule.

“Throughout my life, including my career, my story is about moving from the back of the bus to the front of the bus,” said Jacobs. “The fantastic things we were achieving in going to the Moon and going to the space station—they were all subordinate to what I was going through 24/7 every day. I was a part of aerospace achievements, yes, but I could not get as much joy and pleasure out of that, as I was overcoming the entire arena to get them to move from limited tolerance to some degree of acceptance.”

Born in Texas in 1935, Jacobs learned about discrimination at a young age. “There were three separate school systems. There was a Black, a Mexican, and a white school,” said Jacobs. “Every day I had to walk by the Mexican school and the white school en route to the Black school. For this reason, I was very much aware of the segregated environment and the limitations we had.”

During World War II, the Jacobs family relocated to Southern California for increased economic opportunities. While Shelby’s father made substantially more money as a janitor at North American Aviation (where Jacobs would work twenty years later), they experienced difficulties due to segregated housing in Los Angeles. Eventually, the Jacobs’ settled in Val Verde – in the northwestern portion of Los Angeles County near Santa Clarita, also known as “the Black Palm Springs.” According to Shelby, “It was designated such because we had an Olympic-size swimming pool…Its purpose was to dissuade Blacks from going to the beaches and recreation areas in Southern California.”

Jacobs at a high school track and field competition.

Despite de facto segregation and discrimination present in 1950s Los Angeles, Jacobs was determined to succeed. He had always known that he would accomplish the unexpected. “Without even knowing it,” he said, “I was excluding all of those areas to pursue something else, something that Blacks didn’t generally do…I didn’t want to limit myself to what we were permitted to do.” A high school track athlete and class president, he decided to pursue an engineering degree at UCLA on a scholarship. When Jacobs’ mentors cautioned him that there weren’t any Black engineers, he remained undeterred: “I was able to maintain an optimism that things can be done—even from the back of the bus, I can see the bus driver.”

When Jacobs left UCLA to care for his mother in Val Verde, he remained committed to a career in engineering. While attending junior college, he was hired to design rocket engines at North America Aviation’s Rocketdyne division. His skill and determination had paid off, yet he could not live near the facility in Canoga Park, and commuted more than 30 miles each way to work. “Later, Pacoima came into being in the San Fernando Valley,” he said. “Blacks could live in Pacoima, but that was the only other place in that area. If you know the history of Southern California, between Pacoima and L.A. there were not that many places that Blacks could live.”

Jacobs encountered discrimination both at work and in social circles, but maintained his composure so that he could achieve his goals. After a worker made a racist comment in his presence, Jacobs recalled, “I realized that if I hit this guy, or went off on him, or told him off, it would be adverse to my own career. I didn’t even raise my voice…I learned how to take exception in a manner that says you can disagree without being disagreeable. Violence is not the only way to resolve conflict. I was learning that kind of stuff early in life.”

Jacobs, center, with a group of friends.

Jacobs continued to deescalate conflict and forge forward in his career. He soon transferred within North American Aviation to its Downey-based Space Division, where he supported vehicle assembly for the Apollo program. His most iconic achievement was an adaptation of the camera system that captured stage separation footage from Apollo 6, which led to his later recognition as a “Hidden Figure” in local and national media. To Jacobs, however, engineering feats were only part of the picture. “My personal success in aerospace was more about surviving socioeconomically and making socioeconomic progress,” he said. “Doing my job was a means to exercising a degree of freedom in new territory. I was doing things that they said I couldn’t do. That was a full-time job.” Jacobs remained passionately committed to breaking glass ceilings and by the 1980s he reached the executive level at North American Rockwell, where he spent the last 15 of his 40 years in the aerospace industry.

Jacobs receiving an award from North American Rockwell.

Looking back on his journey and myriad accomplishments, Jacobs asserted, “I’m encouraged that we’re able to make a difference, and the fact that I can see the difference here is evidence that it can be done.” Since his retirement, Jacobs has served as a community mentor. “My purpose has been to be able to demonstrate possibilities,” he said. “That’s why I never overreacted to the accolades of achieving things in space. I was more focused on giving back to my family and setting positive examples for all.”

Jacobs at an exhibit about his life and contributions to the space program.

The transcripts of all the ICW aerospace oral histories are available in the Huntington Digital Library; there are currently 64 interviews online, with more to come. Jacobs’ particular story of perseverance and faith is available here:


Or, Why I Struggled to Write about James Miller Guinn

Laura Dominguez

Americans passed another year by toppling monuments and denouncing ghosts. 

The violence that swept Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 burned public symbols of white supremacy into the American psyche. Those who still cling to these material objects under cover of “heritage” find themselves defending historical persons, events, and ideas at odds with prevailing notions of what is right and just in our time. Others charge that preservation of racist monuments, placenames, and other markers masks maintenance of oppression. The power to interpret the past in the public square has rarely belonged to the disenfranchised.

Spurred by violence against Black and Brown people, activists dragged monuments to the ground, splashed them with paint, tagged plaques, pitched statues into bodies of water, and performed ancestral rituals in emptied spaces. These spontaneous heritage practices are global, occurring in far-flung places where people have long resisted state violence and colonization. We witnessed them again after the police murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. These killings reawakened a beleaguered public to the realities of systemic racism in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that especially ravaged the bodies and lives of the marginalized.  

The National Park Service removes a statue of Confederate General Albert Pike from 3rd and D Streets in Washington, D.C. after protesters pulled it down in June 2020. Victoria Pickering/Flickr.

An issue at the heart of these events is the definition of “heritage” itself. While heritage policies and practices in the U.S. have long privileged material and aesthetic values, local jurisdictions are beginning to explore what community practitioners have long known: that all heritage is intangible, dissonant, and affective. Heritage scholar Laurajane Smith describes it as “a cultural and social process which engages with acts of remembering that work to create ways to understand and engage with the present.”[1] Heritage is experiential and emotional, forged through social relations that help us make sense of our identities, feelings of belonging, and roles as civic actors. It is a performance, a form of negotiation that takes place. We might see the action in our streets as an emerging counter-heritage of anti-racism, a new, yet deeply rooted strand of resistance that challenges received wisdom about the past and suggests new commemorative possibilities.

In Los Angeles and elsewhere in California, Fr. Junípero Serra is an obvious target. A year ago, members of Tongva, Chumash, and Tataviam tribal communities gathered at the eastern edge of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, where a statue of Fr. Serra stood. It took twenty people to pull the figure to the ground. Organizers paired the toppling with a blessing ceremony, expressing solidarities among Indigenous and Black communities in resistance to, and healing from, the violence of white supremacy. The event was yet another milestone in the battle over the missionary’s legacy, which grew with efforts to canonize him beginning in the mid-twentieth century.

Statue of Junípero Serra near Los Angeles’s Plaza, c. 1961. Los Angeles Examiner Collection, University of Southern California Digital Library.

Long revered as the “father of the missions,” Fr. Serra represents one figure among many in Los Angeles whose legacy demands re-contextualization. Having inherited colonial methods of marking and preserving heritage, our civic leaders now seek repair. In late 2019, the mayor’s office convened a working group of scholars, architects, artists, writers, organizers, and city staff to reimagine how the city acknowledges and engages with our past. This year-long effort wrestled with a paradox of L.A. history, how a city that promises reinvention might also steward its past. The group’s recommendations shift the city’s role from gatekeeper to facilitator, asking how institutions “that so often trampled on community memory [might] reconnect with histories of Los Angeles that are smaller, less predictable, and less subject to top-down or official control.”[2] Now more than at any other time, the city is contemplating justice in how it remembers.

These questions fuel me. I study how different generations of Angelenos have reckoned with the past through the places that matter to them. I think of everyday buildings and landscapes as archives of dissonant memories. I am drawn to places where marginalized peoples resisted white settler efforts to erase them from land and story; where Black, Indigenous, and immigrant communities repaired connections to their ancestors and to one another. Put another way, I strive to understand the forerunners of today’s “statue abolitionists.”

Like my peers, I’ve struggled to find seeds in the archives over the last fifteen months. The pandemic changed how historians access our sources. Unable to visit physical collections, we turned to digitized materials. I found myself reading nineteenth-century tomes about Los Angeles, written mostly by white men (and a few women) who were complicit in building and maintaining an exclusionary society. Their voices are not the ones I hoped to encounter in the early stages of this project.

Yet reading their words helps shift attention from objects to process, away from the monuments themselves toward their makers. It’s a necessary first step.


This is how I met James Miller Guinn. It was a turbulent introduction. At first glance, his essays about L.A. revealed him to be an architect of well-worn racist narratives about so-called vanishing Indians, languid Mexicans, and enterprising Euro-Americans. His stories have long saturated our civic memory.

Born in 1834 to Ohio settlers, Guinn trained as a teacher at Oberlin before volunteering for the Union Army in 1861. He saw heavy combat during the Civil War. Like many veterans, he repaired to California for his health when his service ended. Following a brief chase after gold in Idaho, he settled in Southern California in 1869 and resumed his livelihood as an educator, reformer, and historian.

Undated portrait of James Miller Guinn. Anaheim Public Library photograph collection.

Despite my initial misgivings, Guinn became a useful emissary taking me back. I wondered if he was a window into the eyes of post-Civil War westward settlers who pinned hopes on Southern California, just as their forebears had done with the Old Northwest territories. What of their ancestry and heritage did Guinn and others bring with them to California, despite their belief in an Edenic rebirth? Did they believe that they were importing a historical sensibility to California that did not yet exist?

J.M. Guinn was a man of institutions. In 1883, he became a founding member of the Historical Society of Southern California (HSSC) and one of its more prolific writers. He advocated safeguarding the state’s heritage, especially its artifacts, buildings, and documents. “Literary pot-hunters and curio collectors” were robbing California of its “historical treasures,” he fumed, and the state had fallen behind other western states and territories in collecting and displaying its history.[3]

Guinn knew Los Angeles was changing. An irony of his quest to remember is how little twenty-first century Angelenos know about him and his fellow HSSC founders.[4] Within his lifetime, the 1876 arrival of the transcontinental railroad ushered in a real estate and population boom and placed new pressures on existing residents. Guinn feared the exuberance of newcomers for mythic tales of California would hasten historical amnesia, warning vigilance against “fads and fakes.”  

Guinn argued that settler societies had a civic obligation to preserve historical materials for posterity. Investment in public history distinguished Anglo American settlers from Spanish and Mexican colonists and Indigenous peoples.

Guinn’s case for historical societies rested on the trope that California was an exceptional place. He pleaded with an audience of white citizens, politicians, and keepers of the public purse. “Wisconsin, with less wealth and half a century less history, has spent a million dollars on her historical building and library,” he charged. “When Kansas and Nebraska were uninhabited except by buffaloes and Indians, California was a populous state pouring fifty millions of gold yearly into the world’s coffers.”

Guinn believed white settlers were the makers and authors of official history. His grief for the disappearing heritage of early American conquest did not extend to losses of Indigenous or Mexican heritage. He ignored the city’s African heritage altogether. He borrowed sentiment from Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis,” betraying anxiety over the so-called “end” of the epoch of western expansion. If the closing of the frontier demanded commemoration of nineteenth-century tales of exploration, settlement, and vanquishment, California seemed to be falling behind in the race to remember. Historical societies were not merely private institutions maintained by a few scholar-citizens, but a measure of the health and fixity of the settler state. Surely that endeavor was worthy of public funds, Guinn insisted.

Guinn envisaged the gratitude future scholars of Los Angeles would feel for the HSSC. Preservation was sacred work that few could pull off. Yet for all its ambition, the HSSC was a humble organization. Its origins in a “dingy and smoke-begrimmed” room of Temple Block, doubling as a courtroom for “tramps and drunks and other transgressors,” embarrassed Guinn.[5] The building where they debated and labored mattered. Ideally, it would legitimate this coterie of settler historians, those charged with drafting creation stories for the new colonial regime. Their words helped justify the erasures of bodies and knowledge and normalized the rights of white settlers to seize land.

View of Temple Block, looking south on Main Street at Spring Street, c. 1885. California Historical Society Collection, University of Southern California Digital Library.

Sensing how deeply Guinn wished to leave his own mark, I sat with several of his essays for a few weeks. I looked for him in the footnotes of other scholars, hoping to understand the influence of his ideas. In addition to his ruminations on historical authenticity, preservation, and conquest, I was struck by his attention to Los Angeles’s built heritage and the connections he drew between discipline and place.

Guinn’s essays about the built environment exposed his attention to darkness. If contemporaries like Helen Hunt Jackson and Henry Dwight Barrows introduced Americans to sun-drenched adobe courtyards, Guinn revealed where violence and punishment took place. For example, readers expecting a tour of great architecture in his 1896 essay “Historic Houses of Los Angeles” first had to wade through his reflections on prisons and lynchings. He described in detail two structures – the “Cuartel Viejo” and the “Nuevo Cuartel” – which both served double-duty as military quarters and jails for lawbreakers and political prisoners.

Constructed in 1786, the old jail crumbled as U.S. immigrants arrived in the 1830s. Guinn surmised that “the hateful memories of it that still cling to the minds of some of its former occupants may have hastened its decay.”[6] A one-room adobe prison replaced the old in 1841. Guinn noted that a local vigilance committee, having “delegated itself the authority to relegate the morals of the town,” liberated many a prisoner.  Liberation, of course, lasted only as long as an escorted walk to the hillside gallows or the nearest gate post or crossbeam.[7] 

Tomlinson and Griffith corral, 1870. A lynching victim has been removed from the view. Ken Gonzales-Day Collection, Claremont Colleges Library.

The historian seemed reluctant to judge the brutality of earlier decades. Though he reiterated the racial thinking of his era, I detected hints of regret. These carceral landscapes meant something to him, even as his fellow Anglo Angelenos built new symbols of modernity and civility atop them. He nodded to the contingencies in civic narratives, that the gallantry of the Mexican pueblo and the progress of the American city relied on punishment. The adobe sites he eulogized were palimpsests of light and dark, a messy heritage of past lives that set the tone for what would rise in the future. Tempering his belief in reinvention, he wanted his readers to see these ghosts when they set foot on the streets. Jails, it seems, had a palliative effect on settler psyches.

Along with memoirists like Horace Bell, Guinn placed and corroborated a heritage of violence in nineteenth-century Los Angeles. He articulated a repertoire of vigilantism – the oaths of vengeance, the courtroom theater, the processions, the public spectacles, the narratives of justice served, the burials – all rehearsed and performed again and again.[8] As historians John Mack Faragher and David Torres-Rouff both argue, mob rule in 1850s Los Angeles served to reconcile or balance the score among Anglos and Californios whose social bonds bore signs of fracture in the wake of conquest. Put another way, extrajudicial violence was a reparative practice within a fragile, inter-cultural community of Angelenos. It revisited a past moment of civic rupture and carried out an irreversible form of redress to restore honor to those wronged. It reminded participants of their mutual understandings, shored up their identities, validated their belonging, and reactivated social relations. And it was adaptable. When, for example, Anglo and Mexican Angelenos massacred Chinese immigrants in 1871, they performed once more their co-created heritage of violence as a way of adjudicating racial hierarchies.[9]

View of Calle de los Negros c. 1875, the scene of the anti-Chinese Massacre in 1871. California Historical Society Collection, University of Southern California Digital Library.

The authors of these early histories didn’t suggest reviving the practices of an earlier generation. They didn’t need to, not when these rituals explained how modern Los Angeles came to be. When Guinn constructed the scaffolding of Los Angeles’s civic memory, he made sure that violence was one of its posts.


These were the thoughts that flowed from my initial readings of Guinn and his peers last fall. In the short term, I was charged with writing an op-ed about Guinn, placing myself in his intellectual lineage. To wander about 1880s Los Angeles and see who else was asking questions about civic memory. But I couldn’t do it. Not in that form.

To write a successful op-ed, I needed to find something newsworthy about Guinn. Reeling from the tumult of last year, I tried to bring him into conversations about monuments, museums, preservation, and civic memory. But every time I tried to put words on the page, I stumbled.

The rituals and demands of Black and Indigenous protesters were clear. American cities have dedicated enough time and space to historical figures who enacted and maintained white supremacy, without meaningful context and reappraisal. To be blunt, if I respected protestors’ goals and found meaning in their practices, why was I trying so hard to come up with 800 words about another long-forgotten settler? I argued with myself for a month.

The problem was that figures like Guinn have maintained their clout over public commemorations of the past for far too long. Why should I dedicate more room to their triumphant and exclusionary versions of history? These early historians were devoted to the settler colonial project of seizing land, dispossessing its inhabitants, and crafting a folklore of Anglo dominance. In a local context, they helped construct what Smith terms the “authorized heritage discourse.” They wrote historical scripts and claimed the moral authority of eyewitnesses and truthtellers. We yet find their fingerprints on our institutions, local governments, civic practices, and historical monuments.

This is not to say that civic memory has been stagnant for 150 years. Rather, I argue that practitioners engaged in “official” forms of memory work haven’t yet escaped their historical framings and ways of reading cultural landscapes. We’ve normalized their ideas and forgotten about them as people. We still maintain what they settled.

J.M. Guinn (standing at left) at the Pioneer’s Picnic at Eastlake Park, present-day Lincoln Park in Los Angeles’s eastside, c. 1905. Photo by George Washington Hazard. Ernest Marquez Collection, Huntington Library.

We are long overdue in listening to other makers of civic memory. To make the case for a more just approach to civic memory today, I want to learn from those who rejected these official stories and discourses over the last century and a half. The people who inscribed their own versions of the past into civic spaces, despite efforts to marginalize them. Or who made their own places for storytelling and remembering. In so doing, I believe, they began a process of healing or repair for their communities.

Many of these protagonists are still elusive, leaving me with J.M. Guinn. I decided it was time to meet him beyond his words and laments.


A few miles from my home is Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, where many of Los Angeles’s early residents take their final rest. Today, the graveyard falls within the boundaries of Pico-Union.

The Rosedale Cemetery Association dedicated the cemetery in 1884, postdating the Historical Society of Southern California by a single year. The two institutions shared the goal of commemorating the greatness of Angelenos. Rosedale’s directors sought to modernize the burial industry on the outskirts of Los Angeles, giving families an alternative to the crowded graveyards in the city center. They made the radical decision to open the cemetery to anyone who could pay the burial fee, regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic position.

The cemetery’s design captivated the living. Los Angeles Times co-editor Eliza Ann Otis declared in 1892: “What a beautiful city of the dead is Rosedale Cemetery, with its broad circling driveways, lined on either hand with graceful palms; with its emerald expanses of lawn, its growing flowers, pouring out their rich perfume, and its many elegant and stately monuments of white and colored marble.” The same fecundity that characterized Southern California’s citrus belt blessed the cemetery with groves of “orange trees…yellow with their ‘apples of gold,’ complementing the sway of palms and pepper trees.” Flowers, too, “smile[d] above the silent sleepers.”

Rosedale’s founders had reason to believe in the permanence of their vision. They were, after all, planning for eternity. The trade magazine Monumental News wrote in 1908 that Rosedale boasted one of the best collections of California flora of any regional park. It was a triumph over burial grounds of the past, “where weeds flourished and where trees and flowers withered and died for lack of care.”  

Families surround decorated graves of Grand Army of the Republic veterans at Rosedale Cemetery, undated. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

The landscape looks and feels different today. Administrators switched off the water during recent drought years. Patches of green lawn checker plains of dry vegetation, thriving in places where living family members have tended to the earth. The ground is uneven, peppered with fallen and weathered tombstones. Medleys of palm, pine, and oak trees offer some shade, though much of the landscape is exposed to the sun. Monuments show signs of rising damp and creeping moss. The cemetery remains elevated and walled off from the surrounding boulevards.

I persuaded my husband to visit J.M. Guinn’s gravesite on Halloween. The date was coincidental, although I welcomed the idea that others (among the living) might be wandering the grounds. A security guard flagged us down as we ascended the driveway. He surveyed us, asking if we were there for family or for entertainment. I hesitated a beat: “Family, of course.” He studied me a moment, then gave us permission to photograph our family gravesite, but no others. “This is not a place for tourists,” he warned us, “and people are looking for trouble today.” We assured him we meant no disrespect, but I wondered how closely we’d be watched. I asked for a map, but he didn’t have one and couldn’t point us to the section where Guinn was buried. “Good luck,” he said, waving us forward. We were on our own, looking for a single grave among tens of thousands.

I weighed the ethics for a moment. True, the ancestors I sought were historiographical, not familial. I was standing on private (and sacred) property, but my subject led a public life. A civic life. He, too, had asked questions of the dead. I decided he would forgive my curiosity. There was an intimacy in this ritual of research that exceeded my usual experiences in an archive, and the pandemic pushed me to pursue it. 

Without a map or roadside markers, we drove blindly through the cemetery. As we neared the northeast corner of the site, we noticed a collection of graves dating to the late 1910s. Since Guinn died in 1918, this seemed a good place to start. Our only guidance was an undated photo from the crowdsourced website “Find a Grave.”

I stepped gingerly through this section, making note of familiar names. Nearing a uniform collection of headstones (marking the graves of Spanish-American War and World War I casualties), I noticed an older mexicana in my peripheral view. She showered water on a thirsty corner with her own garden hose. Her purple handcart was filled with dozens of orange cempasúchil. Flor de muertos or marigolds, the flower of the dead in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. She labored in this section alone, watering the graves of her beloveds.

All around us, others carried out maintenance work. Much of it was seasonal: watering burial sites, turning the soil, spreading fertilizer and grass seed, and laying flowers. Some repairers came with their families, gathering in small (masked) groups. They brought picnic baskets and blankets, inviting their ancestors to join them for a meal in honor of Día de Muertos, also known as Todos Santos. A few worked alone; these solitary repairers were all women. I recognized the rituals they were performing, having tended to my own ancestors’ graves in this way.

Rosedale Cemetery, now operated by Angelus Funeral Home, faces a fate similar to thousands of historic cemeteries across the U.S. Its maintenance costs outstrip the financial resources of its owners, and fewer living people are making a habit of repairing the land themselves. It seems an inevitable cycle of forgetting.

Mexicans and other Latinxs, however, still travel to Rosedale to remember. In late October and early November, the living assemble offerings for the spirits of the dead: candles, flowers, images, food, and other personal tokens. We craft altares in private homes and in parks, plazas, and, yes, cemeteries. While much of this intimate ritual occurs within families, activists and storytellers often dedicate public ofrendas to those who died unjust deaths.

Last year was different. The pandemic devastated Latinx communities, leaving more people to mourn with fewer able to gather in remembrance and community.  Nonetheless, the landscape bore traces of this ritual as we strolled the grounds. The Santa Ana winds had calmed, but they still carried the aroma of copal across the cemetery. We wandered for an hour before we stumbled upon Guinn’s family headstone. His headstone was cast from rough granite, the names James Miller Guinn (1834-1918), Dapsileia Marquis Guinn (1844-1929), and Edna Marquis Guinn (1885-1910) inscribed on one of its faces. The other face bore the names Mabel E. Guinn (1875-1968), Howard J. Guinn (1886-1958), and John Joseph Guinn (1924-2012). Each member of the Guinn family also had their own lawn plaque, marking individual burial sites.

Guinn family headstone, October 2020. Photo by the author.

The generational connections between the Guinn family and Rosedale struck me. I noticed, when returning to Find a Grave, that his descendants (including John Joseph Guinn) had left virtual flowers and messages for him on the site. He was clearly beloved, a source of family pride, and an ancestral anchor. His children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren treasured their roots in Los Angeles. Standing there, I felt like an interloper, and my view began to soften.

I wondered, for example, if the Ohio-born Guinn experienced homesickness and if his crusade for institutional remembering was a salve. I thought of the affective reasons why a person longs for the past, particularly a person who makes a life far from where they spent their formative years. I felt for him, remembering that he found his way to California as a broken young man, all-too familiar with the fragility of life and community.

Standing at his grave also reminded me of the ways that our imprints on the land outlive the spans of our waking lives. What a humbling experience to meet him here in conversation, 102 years after his death, still asking some of the same questions about landscapes, memory, and storytelling. I imagine he, too, would have pondered the archival potential of this craggy cemetery.

In many ways, Guinn was wrong about what Los Angeles’s future held. There he was, buried among other settlers and immigrants, in a mostly Latinx neighborhood, where rituals of remembrance continued to travel across the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexican people, history, and culture persisted, despite an abundance of nineteenth-century declension stories.

But did he mean harm? Despite being entangled in racist systems, did he celebrate violence, loss, and despair? It’s hard to know. His commitment to telling the truth was no less earnest than my own. Perhaps the only certainty either of us holds is that a future generation will know more than we knew in our own time and will, inevitably, correct us.


For now, I must reckon with what I share with Guinn. I call greater Los Angeles my home because my ancestors migrated to this region from Mexico and Ohio in the last century. My blended background means I am at once his settler kin and one of the Mexican American scholars he never imagined. My search for fragments and lore might have given him pause. Unlike the amateurs of his day, I am trained as a preservation practitioner and have helped maintain the very memory tools that need unmaking. I have an obligation to be, as Lorenzo Veracini suggests, a “worse settler.”[10]

Neither Guinn nor I descend from the ancestral stewards of this land. Yet we share an attachment to it. If I want my scholarly contribution to unpack what we might learn from the people who resisted Guinn’s constructions of civic memory in the past – to bring us a bit closer to reparative acts of remembrance – then I have to stick with Guinn a bit longer.

This also reflects the aspirations of the city’s Civic Memory Working Group. It is easier to topple symbols of the past that fail to serve the public interest than it is to repair the pain real people caused and felt, or to remake unjust systems. If we are to conceive more equitable processes for commemorating our shared past, we must challenge the colonial practices we’ve assumed responsibility for. We ought to unravel Los Angeles’s settler fantasies, reimagine the meaning of “expertise,” and disassemble the social, economic, and political barriers that constrain what we remember and where. We need a different definition of justice than the ones we have inherited. Dissonance, rather than concurrence, ought to guide us.

At this moment, the potential for transformation of our city’s memory, its conscience, and its cultural fabric is stunning. Let us be bold enough to encounter our ghosts.

Laura Dominguez is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at USC. Her dissertation examines the ways racialized Angelenos repaired and maintained heritage practices in nineteenth and twentieth century Los Angeles. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and a master’s degree in historic preservation from USC. She previously worked in advocacy and education for the Los Angeles Conservancy and San Francisco Heritage and is a founding board member of Latinos in Heritage Conservation.

[1] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2006), 2.

[2] Christopher Hawthorne, “The River, the Freeway, and the Garden,” in Past Due: Report and Recommendations of the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office Civic Memory Working Group (2021): 5, https://civicmemory.la.

[3] J. M. Guinn, “Two Decades of Local History,” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California and of the Pioneers of Los Angeles County 6, no. 1 (1903): 47, doi:10.2307/41169606.

[4] Merry Ovnick, “Looking for the Founders of the Historical Society of Southern California,” Southern California Quarterly 97, no. 2 (2015): 159, doi:10.1525/scq.2015.97.2.156.

[5] Guinn, “Two Decades of Local History,” 42.

[6] J. M. Guinn, “Historic Houses of Los Angeles,” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Los Angeles 3, no. 4 (1896): 63, doi:10.2307/41167604.

[7] John Mack Faragher, Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles. (New York: W W Norton, 2017).

[8] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 18–20 and Yesenia Navarette Hunter, “Entangled Histories of Land and Labor on the Yakama Reservation in the 20th Century,” PhD Diss., forthcoming.

[9] David Torres-Rouff, Before L.A.: Race, Space, and Municipal Power in Los Angeles, 1781-1894 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 194–95.

[10] Lorenzo Veracini, “Decolonizing Settler Colonialism: Kill the Settler in Him and Save the Man,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 41, no. 1 (January 1, 2017): 2, doi:10.17953/aicrj.41.1.veracini.

Bill Deverell

We put Helen on the plane back to LA yesterday morning (thanks to my sister for taking her north to Denver in the wee hours).  I leave here tomorrow to drive to Rock Springs, Wyoming, about six and a half hours away, then on to Jackson on Tuesday to spend about a week with my buddies (aka “The Jackson Five”).  We are inordinately proud of ourselves that this will mark 23 years in a row.

This photograph is of a rock wall which wraps around the cemetery at the Sisters of Mount St. Francis Convent about 1000 yards from my mother’s house.  That’s lichen on the rocks.  I remember a Boy Scout leader telling us (some fifty years ago) that if we ever got lost in Colorado’s mountains, we could eat the lichen off the rocks for nutrients.  I thought then, and I still think now, that I’d have to be REALLY lost to eat lichen, or to think that it could offer me much in return.

The convent occupies a site special to my memories of growing up here.  In 1909, the Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal group that established a giant insurance operation to protect families in cases of lost income, built a tuberculosis sanitarium here.  For nearly forty years, members of the fraternal organization, some 12,000 in all, received free tuberculosis treatment here at the site.  Remember that TB was the nation’s #1 killer before antibiotics came along.  The treatment here, as well as at hundreds of other sanitaria, large and small, was pretty much the same.  Give the afflicted plenty of time in the outdoors – warm, arid climates were thought the best, even perhaps curative – keep them isolated from the general population, give them simple meals heavy on dairy products, and cool freshwater (from the mountains, if possible).  What captivated me as a kid, and still does, were the “Gardiner Tents.” 

Gardiner TB Tents.  Courtesy Penrose Library, Colorado Springs, Colorado.   

Designed by local TB physician Charles Fox Gardiner (who was said to have been inspired by the tipi structures of the local Indigenous Ute peoples), Gardiner Tents could be wooden or canvas.  Each had simple furnishings – a bed, a rocking chair, a wash basin, and a dresser – and were placed a strategic distance apart from one another.  Air circulation was maximized by use of those screen doors, that roof vent, and windows at the far end, and patients were encouraged to spend as much time outside, weather notwithstanding.  As a possible cure, it did not work.  

Two things amazed me as a kid growing up nearby.  One was the photographs of Gardiner Tents – as many as a hundred or more – spread out at the Woodmen Sanitarium or others in Colorado and elsewhere.  They looked every bit to me like the tents laid out by the U.S. Army in this or that western American theater of warfare against Indigenous people.  And, second, it was always a thrill to spot an old Gardiner Tent, repurposed as a playhouse or toolshed, in someone’s back yard.  I saw one just two days ago, so they persist.  The Woodmen sold the property just after the Second World War, given the helpful and hopeful discovery of Streptomycin. 

In 1952, the Poor Sisters of St. Francis (full name: the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration) purchased the property for $1.

Here is a time traveling opportunity to see the sanitarium as it once was: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yft_uoglRzM

Bill Deverell

Denver to Colorado Springs.  Yesterday we had a tour of Paddington Station School, the independent school in Denver that is run by my sister, Deb.  The school, which serves a very young population of day-care through kindergarten children, is in a beautiful 1880s Denver Public schools building.  My sister and her team have made it all the more beautiful – new gardens, new play structures, climbing walls on the way, great trees.  One of those trees was planted in memory of my Dad, with donations coming from our friends at Paddington and USC.  The school is as a school should be for the youngest of us: happy, lively, whimsical, safe, pretty.  The towering red stone school stands in contrast to all those tables, chairs, toys, and structures built at the eye-level (and lower) of very small people! 

Today, Helen and I drove my mom down to her home in Colorado Springs.  We’ll be here a few days with her, meeting some of her friends and neighbors, and she and Helen have some hanging flower pots to create. 

Sandstone towers near Garden of the Gods in Colorado. Photo by William Henry Jackson, 1870s.

With a little luck and time on my hands, I can probably walk to these eroded sandstone towers.  They are likely still there, though I bet their caps have fallen off, not far from either the house I grew up in (on Stonecrop Court, after all) or my mother’s place now.  This image was taken by the great landscape photographer, William Henry Jackson in the 1870s. 

I found out today that I can also walk to the site of the once-town of Edgarton.  It has to be only about two miles from where I type this in my late father’s study.  I had never heard of it until today, which is, as we say, “on me.”  When I was a teenager, I tracked an old stage route near my house, one that ran between here and Denver.  I found old maps, I went to where I thought the stage had run, and, sure enough, old tracks (much like overland trail wagon ruts) ran up the side of a hill near the church I grew up attending.  I knew that a homesteading family – the Teachouts – had lived right near there and had maybe worked on the stage line in some way or another. There is a Teachout Road just to the east here, still.  I also knew that this area had a couple of grim stories attached to it, but I did not know, as a kid, if they were true or not.  One had to do with a gun battle between Indigenous warriors and the Teachouts and others.  It looks like these battles happened, likely with horse-raiding Arapahoe and Cheyenne and not the Ute tribe (that spent summers in the area, coming east from the Colorado River and site of today’s Grand Junction). The other had to do with an unsolved murder of great intrigue.

A homesteader named David Edgarton built the Edgarton Hotel near that stage line in the 1860s.  It also went by the name of the Teachout Hotel, as the marvelously-named Leafy Teachout and her son, Harlow, ran it for a time.  Soon, a railroad, a post office, a ranch, and a town (Edgarton) took brief root here.  There’s nothing, or hardly anything, left, though I remember stone foundations and maybe the remains of a corral out near the creek I used to walk along to get to a fishing lake on the grounds of the Air Force Academy.  That lake, called Ice Lake, echoed one by the same name that was built by the Edgarton town folk for a local and reliable ice supply (I wish I’d known this earlier, as I’d have told the story to my doctoral student colleague Jordan Keagle, who is only days from defending his thesis about ice and the ice industry in the West). The later version of Ice Lake – they aren’t the same, but we don’t know where the first on was — is the one my pals and I went to many a summer day to try our luck against the little trout swimming in that shallow water.

In keeping with the practice of the day, many of Edgarton’s residents had tuberculosis.  They had come to Colorado in desperation, in search of dry air and, just maybe, a cure for the nation’s number one killer at the time.  It looks as though the residents worked in the forest – felling trees and processing lumber – in spots I knew so well as a kid and had no idea that all this had taken place so many years before I hiked around with friends.  When I was fourteen, a friend and I went out into these woods on some lark, backpacked with snacks and water.  In a little clearing, atop a small rise, we walked onto the remains of a cabin’s foundation.  We knew it was old.  We did not know it was haunted, at least not until we both – honest – saw an apparition rising from the scrub oak near the foundation.  We beat a hasty retreat.

I ran across the murder.  Edgarton’s residents were “upset” after a local rancher’s wife, Mrs. Kearney, and her young grandson were discovered dead near Edgarton in 1886.  It looked as though Mrs. Kearney had been about to serve dinner, but the table had been set for three.  Two dead in the barn, three place settings in the house.  The murder was never solved but, surely, the killer was someone known to Mrs. Kearney and her little grandson.  I can walk there, to where it happened, but I don’t want to.

Edgerton began its quick spiral to nothingness in the 1920s.  The highway, today’s I-25 that we drove today, connected Colorado Springs to Denver. It by-passed Edgerton, and that little village just fell away to ruins, memories, and myth.  If I have a spare hour here, I’m headed there. 

Bill Deverell

The “junction” in “Grand Junction” refers to the meeting of two rivers: the Colorado and the Gunnison.  The town, the biggest on Colorado’s western slope, sits in a long valley, green against the gray and red palisade cliffs looming above.  This is the fruit-growing center of the state, which you might guess by the name of a nearby town, Fruita.  Helen and I are just a tad early for the peach harvest; that will jump off in a few weeks and grow bigger (and juicier) in the Fall.  I’ve driven through here with John when you can smell the peaches in the breeze. 

Ute and other Indigenous people lived (and still live) in this region.  Nomadic hunter-gatherers, the Ute people moved several hundred miles each summer (and over steep Rocky Mountain passes) towards Pikes Peak, near where I grew up.  The western transit into the mountains from my hometown of Colorado Springs is still called Ute Pass.  European-American conquest and agricultural settlement came into the Grand Junction region relatively late in the 1880s.  From the middle of the nineteenth century forward, the Ute people were forced onto reservations.  Oil, gas, and other energy resources have made the Ute tribe among the wealthiest of Native American nations today. 

Bill and Helen in Glenwood Canyon.

Leaving Grand Junction, Helen and I drive I-70 east and eventually rise into Glenwood Canyon; that’s us in the “canyon selfie.”  There are three transits tightly jammed between the canyon’s steep walls: the interstate, the Colorado River, and the railroad.  All have their perils.  Rafting companies offer any number of river adventures through here, and we saw several (as well as intrepid kayakers) moving through the whitewater.  I-70 is dangerous in winter, for obvious reasons, and also in summer, as in the summer of 2020, when the Grizzly Creek Fire burned for four months on both sides of the canyon and the river, triggering rock slides and shutting the freeway down for several weeks.  The fire burned 32,000 acres.  The Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad put down tracks – it is still hard to believe that they could do it – in the late 19th century; the tracks are now part of the Union Pacific web.  The canyon is only about 12 miles long, but it feels delightfully longer than that.  As beautiful as it is in the bright and hot summer sun, I like it even more in winter, though wintertime requires a special vigilance for blizzards and white outs. 

On through country I recognize: Dotsero, Gypsum, Eagle, Eagle Vail, Vail, and Copper Mountain.  Just at Copper Mountain, a beautiful and difficult ski mountain, you could take State 91 twenty-some miles (up and up and up) to Leadville — a remarkable resilient mining town sitting atop, or near, great deposits of gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper, and molybdenum (with its periodic table symbol of “Mo”).  Leadville once had fifteen thousand or more residents, a hundred and forty years ago, none more famous than silver titan Horace (“Haw,” for his three initials) Tabor’s widow, Baby Doe, and her two girls, Lily and Silver Dollar (full name Rosemary Silver Dollar Echo Tabor).  Silver crashed in the early 1890s when the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed (which ushered in the Panic of 1893).  Tabor, the “Bonanza King of Leadville,” bought his way into the U.S. Senate.  On his deathbed in 1899, he urged Baby Doe to “hang onto the Matchless,” the Leadville silver mine that had made him super rich.  Hang onto it she did, living in a nearby cabin, until she froze to death in an early spring blizzard in 1935.  Neither silver nor the Matchless ever did come back.

Down I-70, past Frisco, a town where I spent big chunks of winters and summers as a teenager.  Up and through Eisenhower Tunnel, bored straight through the Rockies in the late 1970s, and down the long, steep passage past Georgetown, Idaho Springs, and other former mining towns or hotspots.  Tailings yet show against the mountains on either side of the interstate; you can occasionally spot the leftover remains of iron and wooden equipment left in place a long, long time ago. 

Here to Denver, bustling as always, skyline growing, so much to do and see.  A day or two here, visiting with my sister and my mother, then we go south to Colorado Springs with my mom to mark the year since my dad passed.  He’d like it that we have this trip on our itinerary, and he’d like the tidbits of western and mining history along the way. 

Bill Deverell

Today we drove the full length of the Utah portion of Interstate 70, from the intersection with I-15 near the LDS Cove Fort all the way to the Colorado border.  We’re staying in Grand Junction this evening, at a very cool hotel on the campus of Colorado Mesa University (where many of my high school pals from Air Academy High went upon graduating). 

Today’s journey was long, hot, and beautiful.  Coming out of Vegas on the I-15, we rolled on towards the Virgin River and surrounding sandstone cliffs and canyons.  I’ve always loved this part of the drive.  I check out the Virgin River – named for one of Jedidiah Smith’s mates, Thomas Virgin, who saw it in 1826 – it had some water, green in short bursts, brown and muddy elsewhere.  Who knew that there was a Netflix show called Virgin River (no apparent connection)?  Not me.  An obligatory stop in St. George, which is probably the little town I know best in America (possible exception: the even smaller South Pasadena). It’s summer, it’s hot: Iceberg diner and its swirl soft-serve cones call to us. 

Coming out of St. George, we linger briefly in Leeds, population somewhere significantly south of 1000.  But I want to show Helen the sturdy stone one-room houses built by LDS pioneers and the CCC camp, where young men carved their initials (and those of their sweethearts) in the flimsy mortar between the stones and bricks of their labor camp houses nearly a century ago. 

On towards Cedar City and the rise in altitude, the different evergreens, the red sandstone gradually giving way to something more alpine.  Then the I-70 cutoff heading off towards Colorado.  Is there a lonelier stretch of freeway in the continental U.S.?  Yes, probably, but a lonelier interstate?  Lonely can be lovely, though, that’s for sure.  Helen loved the sentinel rock formations, the slot and other canyons spinning this and that way away from the road.  Fast drivers, testing fate and their reflexes at 100 mph.  At one point, in search of gas – you have to be careful on these long stretches – we followed a dirt road through what looked like volcanic structures towards a rumored town fifteen miles away.  That’s where we saw this beautiful little cabin.  Homesteader?  I doubt it. Probably a refuge for cowboys moving cattle around in weather.  And maybe, probably, not as old as it looks – maybe 1930s?  Regardless, something beautiful to see in the distance.  And, bonus: we were apparently very close to the tight canyon in which the famed silver metal monolith was found – and then quietly went away – in late 2020. 

Cabin on a lonely stretch of the I-70 in Utah.

On to Green River, where we found gas.  My gas pump was next to an SUV out of which stepped half a dozen young women in what I took to be Mennonite dress: high collars, long sleeves, bright colors.  One of them, a young girl of about 14, took over at the diesel pump, while the others went off to the convenience store.  I so wanted to talk to her, but I thought better of it, didn’t want to be inappropriate, prying, or rude.  I wish I had. Turns out that Mennonite communities are few and far between in Utah, and I doubt that there are many Amish at all (whose clothing, I think, tends towards more muted colors).  Of course, these could have been people traveling, just as Helen and I were doing.

Helen at the wheel.

From Green River we soon dropped into the long valley leading to Fruita and Grand Junction, and we met the Colorado River.  Helen had scouted both dinner and lodging – we stopped first for baby back ribs at Rib City (excellent) and then on to our hotel on the college campus.  We slipped into an easy conversation with Little Leaguers and their parents sitting outside at dinner.  The ballplayers had just played an important game, but there had been controversy over, of all things, pine tar on a bat.  One of the moms was reminiscing about something like this from MLB years ago – a “ballplayer in blue.”  “George Brett!” I offered, adding that, “I don’t mean to be eavesdropping.”  Laughter ensued, iPhones were brought to service, and the infamous event replayed.  “I think Mr. Brett is respectfully disagreeing with the umpire,” I said.  “I see your opinion, but I have a different view, sir.”  We all agreed that this was the spirit, if not the letter, of the exchange. 

I’ll never tire of being in these spaces.  I am so happy that my eldest is with me on this trip.  We rendezvous with my sister and mother in Denver tomorrow, once we have driven the gorgeous Glenwood Canyon alongside the mighty Colorado River.

Bill Deverell

June 5, 2021: Notes from the Mojave Desert.  I did not know until today that the Del Taco chain was founded in Yermo, California, in 1964.  Yermo, located in the Mojave about a dozen miles east of Barstow, once rocked.  Founded in the early 20th century, Yermo lived off of nearby silver mining operations and, especially, the tourist traffic to and from Las Vegas during the post-World War II era.  With something like 2000 people living there now (and no mailbox delivery by the US Post Office), Yermo is a shadow of its former self.  The US Marine Corps has a big logistics and equipment repair operation in Yermo and Barstow. Once upon a time, Yermo had seven bars, three motels, and twenty-seven gas stations that serviced all those Vegas-bound or Vegas-leaving cars.  Not so any longer.  When the I-15 opened in 1968, it bypassed Yermo.  Just as in the railroad days of yore, if the new transit conduit went around your town, your town up and died, or very nearly so.

Bill and his daughter, Helen, in the MGM Grand

I always drive the I-15 towards Las Vegas with my son, John, with me.  It is our annual road trip together.  But this year, at least on this trip, I have a different passenger: my daughter, Helen.  We are driving to Colorado to be with my mother and sister, as we mark the sad anniversary (June 11) of my Dad’s passing.  20 year-old Helen decided that she wanted to come along, and I am delighted to have her with me!  Today we made Las Vegas – that’s us at the check-in desk at the MGM Grand.  Tomorrow we drive to Grand Junction, Colorado, not far from the Utah/Colorado border.  On Sunday, we catch up to my mother and sister at my sister’s home in Denver. 

The MGM Grand is, if possible, even bigger than I remember it from a visit years ago.  It is jam packed.  People are out and about, dining and drinking and gambling, and they are having a ball.  Hardly anyone is masked – I still wear mine reflexively.  It is fun getting caught up in the energy of the casino and its many attractions.  Back in my youth – not quite as far back as Yermo’s heyday – I loved to play cards at casinos.  Tonight, though, I couldn’t bring myself to sit at the blackjack table. That old lure has given way – good thing, yes? – and, after wandering around in a slight daze for a little while, I came back to our room to visit and talk with my daughter.  That felt exactly right.

Ever wonder what lurks on the shelves of The Huntington Library? Or what book librarians first entered into the Library’s famed collection? Our graduate student Dan Wallace went in search of the early books that made their way into the catalogue and their significance in the history of the American West. As part of an ongoing series for the ICW blog, he’ll introduce one of these pieces and dig into that world.

Dan Wallace

Amid the turmoil of the Civil War, John Lyle Campbell traveled west and thought about rocks. Packed with the essentials—water, tools, 400 pounds of bacon—he and his party set out from Omaha towards their destination: Idaho and Montana territory. The region’s earthy-goodness delighted Campbell, who was a chemist and geologist by trade. He saw the vast country as a literal goldmine, teeming with potential that could “surpass the golden tales of the California fever.” In 1864, Campbell published Idaho and Montana Gold Regions, with hopes to “furnish the gold-seeker who is intent on Idaho, with a few notes of residence and research in that region.” The book aimed to inspire settlement in the region, and bring to Idaho what Campbell felt the territory lacked: civilization.

Campbell’s fifty-page tract defies easy classification. It functions as part guidebook, travelogue, history lesson, geological study, and booster tract for western land. He devotes plenty of time to the journey he and his companions took to Idaho territory. They left Omaha headed towards Fort Kearny, where they bid “adieu to civilization” and moved along the north side of the Platte. They kept a steady pace of roughly seventeen miles a day, trekking the “sterile plains” that creep up to the base of the Rockies. After a few nights in Fort Laramie, which was at that time garrisoned by an outfit of Ohio troops, the travelers moved due west through the South Pass which divides the Wind River chain of mountains to the north, and Oregon Buttes to the south. After weeks of travel the party made it to Lander Cut-off, the first federally subsidized road project west of the Mississippi, and on into Idaho. Throughout his journey Campbell provides tips for the would-be traveler: where to stay, and what to pack and eat. He offers some dos and don’ts of trail, such as the need for a horse, and the dangers of a diet with too much meat and too little fruit. He even offers a bit of quintessential western drama, regaling the reader of the frightful yet exhilarating time the party came face-to-face with a grizzly.

Campbell’s Western Guide, image from the Library of Congress

Once in Idaho territory, Campbell informs the reader of the various mines and settlements in the region. As a geologist he was excited by the abundance of mineral potential that surrounded him. He told of gold mines that could be as great as those in California, as well as quartz lodes that might someday rival Colorado’s. He was impressed with various operations already underway, and their use of advanced practices. This included the hydraulic method, which had become common practice in California during the earlier rushes, but was not yet prevalent in other parts of the country. These new technologies, along with the sweat and labor of an enterprising miner, would make the riches of Idaho “parallel and indeed often surpass the golden tales of the California fever, at its height.” For these dreams to be actualized, Campbell felt the region needed more civilization. Already he saw “the first framework of civilized society laid across” the territory. But more work had to be done, and once accomplished, Idaho would become “the hoarded gem” that civilization would proudly “wear among its fairest jewels.”

“Map of the mining sections of Idaho and Oregon embracing the gold and silver mines of Boise and Owyhee, 1864,” Library of Congress

Campbell invokes the idea of civilization numerous times throughout his tract. For western historians it’s a word that calls to mind Indian boarding schools and forced assimilation; attempts to convert Native Americans to Euro-American customs lest they face violent alternatives. White Americans felt that Indigenous people, as the historian David Wallace Adams writes “lacked the very thing whites possessed—civilization.” Because Native Americans lacked “civilization,” it was easy for whites to justify their claim to western land. Campbell notes that Idaho territory was “for years abandoned as a wild for the Indian and the buffalo.” He not only puts Native Americans outside of civilized life, but also uses a common, racist trope of the nineteenth century that framed Native Americans as a part of wilderness, and not fully human.

“The Idaho Indian war,” 1877, Library of Congress

But what exactly was civilization? It may come as no surprise to see the word largely understood in terms of its opposite. In the very first edition of Webster’s Dictionary from 1828, civilization is defined as “the state of being refined in manners, from the grossness of savage life.” The definition contains within it a word that most white Americans felt represented Indigenous people. The very concept of civilization, then, inherently paints non-whites as its opposite. And it, of course, makes whites its progenitors. What fun it is to create the rules and decide you’re winning all in the same stroke.

The idea of being civilized also included notions of refinement and culture. If we were to look around the U.S. in last half of the nineteenth century, and point to civilization in these terms, what would be staring at? Perhaps it would be Constantino Brumidi’s fresco paintings in the U.S. Capitol Building. The artist’s style, rooted in the traditions of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, showcased the cultural refinement of the western, civilized world. “The Apotheosis of Washington” swirls together high art, deep symbolism, and national mythmaking atop the rotunda in the home of modern governance. OK, maybe “civilized” is giving congress too much credit. After all, just years before Campbell’s journey a man was nearly beaten to death with a cane on the Senate floor. Perhaps Central Park would be a better example. Fredrick Law Olmsted’s urban planning masterpiece gave city dwellers a green respite in the middle of New York’s gray hustle and bustle. Or maybe Idaho, despite its lack of civilization according to Campbell, was the best place to see it. Settlers moved west and claimed Indigenous land as their own, setting roots for a world made in their vision. The upstart town of Virginia City, with its blooming economy, or the mining operations near Bannock City (later Idaho City) were where the vision of civilization took place on a land deemed without it.

Brumidi’s “The Apotheosis of Washington,” Architect of the Capitol

But who exactly were those who embodied this civilization, besides white, and how did they go about creating this vision? Early in his career, W.E.B Du Bois wrote about civilization. He did not describe it in terms architecture, art, or commerce, but in terms of character. He wrote that its “foundation is the idea of the strong man—Individualism coupled with the rule of might.” That does not sound much like refinement and culture, but it does sound American, particularly Western. The image of the rugged frontiersman conquering the West has long captured the spirit of individual strength. Yet the person who Du Bois thought most represented these values was not Jim Bridger, but Jefferson Davis. Du Bois wrote “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization” as part of his baccalaureate work in 1890. The Civil War had ended, and Davis had lost. Still, Du Bois found him emblematic of the ethos of U.S. society.

Du Bois wrote that Davis represented “the advance of a part of the world at the expense of the whole; the overweening sense of the I, and the consequent forgetting of the thus.” He represented the heroic, manly individual who could conquer all. This type of individualism, which Du Bois saw as part of a “national selfishness,” was laden with problems. As he explained, for anyone to be “in the way of civilization is a contradiction of terms” as a “system of human culture whose principle is the rise of one race on the ruins of another is a farce and a lie.” In other words, there is nothing noble or refined about a civilization that, in order for it to succeed, needs to subjugate and eliminate other people. It was in the West where the “cool logic of the Club” advanced civilization “by murdering Indians,” brought on “a national disgrace called by courtesy, the Mexican War.” The advance westward typified many of the critiques Du Bois bestowed upon civilization. And while Campbell was not a strong man with strong armies, the push towards civilization he advocated for was still a potent form of dislocation and elimination. Campbell saw Indigenous people as removed from “the haunts of civilization,” and who belonged to a race that “fought that advance of the white man step by step.”

Consider Idaho and Montana Gold Regions, a book meant to inspire western travel. Pamphlets and books like this abounded in the West in the nineteenth century. They were not unlike the European travel books that Mary Louise Pratt describes in Imperial Eyes, which “gave reading publics a sense of ownership, entitlement and familiarity with respect to the distant parts of the world that were being explored, invaded, invested in, and colonized.” The document itself is an artifact of conquest. A written proclamation that Idaho, and by extension the West, belonged not to those who long made it their home, but those who could bring to it civilization. A civilization that created commerce and economy, refinement and culture, but also a sense of entitlement to pursue the former no matter the human or environmental cost, and a belief that the borders of the civilization are racially demarcated, and need to be protected by violence. In 1863, the same year Campbell published his book, the U.S. Army attacked a Shoshone camp along Bear River, in what is today Franklin County, Idaho. The Shoshone, by existing on their ancestorial lands, were viewed as foreign encroachers onto white settlement. The attack killed upwards of 400 men, women, and children. The Bear River Massacre, as it became known, is one of the more forgotten episodes of western violence perpetrated against Native Americans by the U.S. state. It was an event upon which Campbell’s ideal civilization would come to exist.

“View on Snake River,” 1849, Library of Congress

Native Americans continued to face forced assimilation and reservation systems as Idaho progressed into the twentieth century. Couple this with expanded mining operations, which included Pinkerton violence against unionizing workers, and a certain vision of a “civilized” Idaho began to take form, one that valued property rights and whiteness. As the century unfolded, the state didn’t see a major rise in dense, urban areas compared to other western states. It remained, for the most part, an outdoorsman’s paradise. A private region where those who wanted to be left alone and avoid urbanity could do so. These trappings led many former Los Angeles police officers to the region in the late-eighties and nineties. In 1986, The Los Angeles Times wrote about a number of the city’s former officers who moved to Idaho for the tranquility, only to find themselves neighbors to the many white nationalist groups who also made the region home. As the article explained, “some authorities consider the Aryan Nations to be among the most dangerous extremist groups in the country, and the presence of hardened LAPD alumni would seem to bode confrontation. But the relationship can be best described as a grudging coexistence tinged by animosity.”

The officers interviewed didn’t care for the extremist groups, but didn’t feel threatened by them either, believing that their stature was mostly a creation of the media. Despite being on opposite sides of the law, some believed that the reasons both groups were attracted to the area were not wholly different. Richard Girnt Butler, founder of the Aryan Nation, explained to the LA Times that “these policemen come up here to get away to a white, Christian community, but then they denigrate it by ridiculing us.” The officers, though, were quick to deny that race had anything to do with their decision to move. As evidence, they pointed to one of their neighbors, a former Chicago policeman and “colored gentleman.”

Today, Idaho is quietly becoming an idyllic travel destination. Many of its areas have taken to the craft beer scene. Couple this with retail, farmers markets, and outdoor recreation, and it provides a desired blend of consumerism and twenty-first century ideas of roughing it. But for all that makes Idaho a great place, and there is plenty, the region is not without its downsides. In 2019, High Country News reported on a “toxic wetland” that had occurred in Coeur d’Alene lake. The city is one of Idaho’s most gorgeous, thanks in large part to its location along the water. But because of the region’s long mining history that dates back before John Lyle Campbell, the lake has become polluted with “lead, mercury, arsenic, and other toxins [that] are bound up in the bed of Coeur d’Alene Lake.”

“Clouds over Garden Valley, Idaho,” image by Russell Lee, 1941, Library of Congress

In the fall of 2020, armed, right-wing groups flooded the streets of Coeur d’Alene and other Idaho cities for fear that Antifa and Black Lives Matter activists were planning to loot, riot and destroy property. The reports about leftist agitators were unfounded, though, and no demonstrations occurred. Still, the gun-toters marched the streets, ready to protect Idaho from movements aimed at creating racial justice. A Washington Post report puts the event into historical context: “Armed residents began patrolling the streets of cities including Coeur d’Alene, where Native American tribes once battled the Army and federal troops crushed mining strikes. An infamous neo-Nazi compound was bulldozed nearby in 2001 after a legal battle.”

These events are in line with what Du Bois saw in Jefferson Davis, and what he saw in civilization: the use of force and violence to patrol and reaffirm racial boundaries, and protect the interests of the propertied class. These are the parts of civilization that seem so flagrant that they may be considered outside of it. And yet, they are all parts of the whole. Perhaps it’s an obvious point that civilization contains within it both good and bad. But the things that we consider good are often built upon structures and institutions that were created by people whose vision and understanding of civilization was flawed. We are left to wonder if our civilization, built upon the history that it is, has gone as far as it can go?

As I write this, a movement has begun, spurred on by conservative legislators and activists in the Pacific Northwest, that aims to increase the size of Idaho by adding to it the Republican-leaning parts of Oregon and Northern California. The Greater Idaho project wants to redraw state boundaries to create a homogenous Idaho that takes seriously the issues that many in Oregon feel their government does not. As the project’s website explains, Democrats in Oregon “don’t protect us from rioters, forest arsonists, or school curricula that teach kids to hate Americans and Americanism.” Instead of moving to Idaho, the project wants to move Idaho governance to those in Oregon and NorCal and free conservatives from being held “captive in a blue state.”

“Scene in Garden Valley, Boise County, Idaho,” image by Russell Lee, 1941, Library of Congress.

But while settlers in the land continue to fight over the same issues that have divided the nation since its beginning, others are moving forward and envisioning an Idaho—a civilization—that works for all. Idaho reminds us to look to those who Campbell saw as barriers to civilization, as they continue to work for a region that they have lived in and cared for since time immemorial. Idaho’s Indigenous nations are today at the forefront of pushing for environmental and economic relief in the area. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has led the mission to clean the lake and keep it protected from future contamination. They have fought, and won, in cases to maintain their water rights. Together, the five tribes of Idaho have worked to combat climate change, and the real effects of it that are already on display in the region. They also work to bolster economic life that creates “significant economic and social impacts not only on the Indian reservations, but also in the communities surrounding them.” Amid the turmoil of the Civil War, John Lyle Campbell traveled west and thought about civilization. While it may seem odd, a place like Idaho revealed, and continues to reveal, plenty about the tensions and contradictions inherent in our civilization. Campbell’s world, where the pioneering individual could pursue his interests no matter who or what was in the way, seems to be the one we’re living in. But as we face the frightful realities of environmental change, and remain exhausted by the vestiges of white supremacy that have never gone away, we need to uplift those who are looking for an alternative. From there we can work towards the civilization that Du Bois asked for, where the interests of the many outweigh those of the individual.

Dan earned both his BA and MA in history from his hometown school, the University at Buffalo. He became interested in the American West after his grandfather told him about an uncle who went west and was never heard from again, and after finishing his MA in 2016 he headed to California to begin a PhD in history at USC. Dan’s dissertation is on mercantile expansion in the Gilded Age West.