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.
While conducting research in The Huntington Library’s online catalog, I had a sudden moment of intellectual inquisitiveness about what books became part of the library’s very early collection. Curious, I searched for call numbers 1-10 to see what rare books were catalogued first. Call numbers go into the hundreds of thousands, so it is uncommon for a researcher to encounter numbers so low, and I was eager to know which books could claim such distinct digits. Of course, these books are much more than an arbitrary call number. They are indeed fantastic pieces of the history of California and the West and they take us to the uncertain, busy, and violent world of the mid-nineteenth century.
The very first book entered in the library’s catalogue? “American Nationality” by Thomas Starr King (1863).
Thomas Starr King. Minister, orator, patron saint of California. Supporter of Lincoln, the Union, and the California Volunteer’s murder of Native Americans. Call number one in The Huntington is a copy of King’s “American Nationality,” a speech he delivered in San Francisco on July 4th, 1863. It is said that King’s oratory was influential in keeping California committed to the Union–helping to ward off pro-Confederate groups and an 1861 vote to form an independent Californian republic. Lincoln may have even praised King as the man who “saved California for the Union.” The extent of King’s influence has been debated by historians but consider the context in which this speech was given. As King argued that it was God’s plan for America to fly under one flag, the grounds of Gettysburg smoldered. Though the battle is now described as the turning point of the war, in July of 1863, nothing was preordained.
This uncertainty was not limited to the battlefield, for while winning the war was no doubt the North’s primary goal, Republicans were also working towards the cause of creating a modern, centralized state. The people, land, and resources of the West (especially California’s) were important to this project. With only 32% of Californians voting for Lincoln in 1860, and Confederate sympathizers clamoring in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, the voices of King and other western Republicans aided in the battle to win hearts and minds for a new vision of the country.
Putting the West in this context forces us to see the Civil War as a national story. For the federal government, defeating the South and conquering the West were dual projects, and even from California King certainly understood this. “Victory for the Government means imperial peace for generations,” he argued, championing “one imperial Republic…wide as the ramparts of the Eastern and Western mountains, continuous as the tide of the Mississippi.” His ultra-patriotic, imperial vision was pro-union, anti-slavery, and very pro-Manifest Destiny. USC/ICW’s Skyler Reidy will tell you, as he did me, that this had devastating effects on Native American populations. King held several fundraisers for the California Volunteers who engaged in some of the most gruesome campaigns against the state’s indigenous people. This violence was not antithetical to King’s beliefs, but a critical part of them. Securing the West for the empire he envisioned meant removing those who stood in the way. And while King would not live to see Reconstruction, his ideas would, as the Civil War turned into the Indian Wars, and expanding the country went hand in hand with reuniting it.
Californians sent a statue of King to Statutory Hall in the U.S. Capitol Building where it would sit as one of the state’s notable figures. He was eventually replaced by Ronald Reagan in 2009, but for many decades King sat next to Junípero Serra as the state’s honored persons; one the founder of the Californian Missions, the other an orator who helped save California for the Union. In this light, though the call numbers are arbitrary, there is something seemingly fitting about King’s piece being number one at a library, in California, that prides itself on its collection in the history of California and the West. But perhaps more than that, when King’s piece was collected by the library in 1916, the Library’s boosters and financiers, such as Henry Huntington, had a particular view of this history, one where Anglo domination of the West was very much the story of the West, and one that King would have felt at home in.
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 work focuses on the fantasies and realties of the West as a site of sectional reunion after the Civil War.