Herbert Spencer calls attention to the fact that all history is perverted, and aptly cites the remark of a French king who, wishing to consult some historical work, called to his librarian, "Bring me my liar!"
The incident illustrates a truth that is known to all who have had occasion to verify disputed points in either biography or general history. That it is almost always difficult, and sometimes impossible, to get at vital facts, is apparent to those who have ever taken pains to investigate epochs of history, or to search for the exact truth concerning contemporary events.
Often idle rumors have been repeated until public opinion has been firmly grounded in error, and often the reverse of the facts has been sent forth with the stamp of truth. Distortions of this character are to be looked for in all cases where deep religious feelings or bitter political contests are factors; but it may surprise the reader to learn that many errors have crept into the pages of histories that deal with facts about which there should be neither dispute nor ill-feeling.
The development of society in California here and there affords striking examples of controverted history, particularly with reference to the life and labors of Fremont and his men, the character and habits of the native Californians, and the work and purposes of the famous Vigilantes. These phases of history are likely to be disputed always.
The sole purpose of this work, where debated points have confronted the author, has been to sift the facts and reach the truth--but for the most part the annals of the state afford an interesting and consistent story of American life under picturesque circumstances.
In some aspects the early years of California's history--after the discovery of gold in 1848--remind one of the simplicity of the ancient Greeks, Emerson's description of the days of Hercules might well apply to pioneer life in California in the few years just following Marshall's good fortune; for "the manners of that period were plain and fierce. The reverence exhibited is for personal qualities--courage, address, self-command, rude justice, strength, swiftness, a loud voice, a broad chest."
Certainly there was even less luxury and elegance than in Homeric Greece, save that inventions here and there--matches, the improvements in clothing and houses, fire-arms, and like additions to human comfort--had lightened human toil in some degree.
"A sparse population and want," says the Sage of Concord, "make every man his own valet, cook, butcher, and soldier, and the habit of supplying his own needs educates the body to wonderful performances."
Such were the environments of Agamemnon and Diomed in Homer's story, and such, too, were the conditions that confronted the rought and ready men of brawn who rounded the Horn, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, or made their way with oxen over the untrodden wilds that stretched from the Missouri to the hills of the Sacramento, where there was gold for the gathering.
Columbus needed a planet to shape his course upon, and Copernicus, Newton, LaPlace, and Galileo required the star-strown depths of space to enable them to fulfill the bent and genius of their natures. The restless and aggressive American of 1848 and 1849 was ripe for the great fields of opportunity that lay in the rich mountains, the fertile valleys, and the sunset slopes of the Golden West. And in no other epoch of our country's history, save, perhaps, in the days of the Revolution "that tried men's souls," were there ever such opportunities on the one hand and such hardships on the other as tested the strength and manhood of the actors in the days of the California Argonauts.
To write of the Mediterranean shores of America, as Charles Dudley Warner has aptly called California, is to tell of a country of wonders and unexplored possibilities, and to recount the story of the conquest and occupation of this fair land is to deal with one of the most romantic and striking eras of American history. Here and there shadows fall across the pages of that alluring story, as in the mistaken zeal of Fremont and his men, the brutality of some of the early settlers toward the inoffensive natives, the disregard of the rights of the original Californians by their conquerors, and the lawlessness and licentiousness of large parts of the population; but for the most part the narrative deals with rare powers of endurance, the inventiveness and good fortunes of brawny men, the trials and privations of the early mothers of the state, and the growth of an emire in a region destined to play a wonderful part in the history of the coming centuries.
There are elements of the poetic in almost every page of the story; and the activities of to-day, the cities and factories, the fields and workshops where new Californians now carry on their vocations, are not beyond the allurements of historic association. The pathfinders wrought not far from the preent centers of population, the sound of old monastery bells rang forth centuries ago where steam whistles are heard to-day, and the romance of the Bonanza Kings was enacted on the very soil that is now dedicated to the uses of the new time. The charm of incident, the poetry of circumstance, the thrill of adventure in a brand-new land belong to the state with which this work deals, the wonderland of song and story made famous by Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and the Poet of the Sierras.
The San Francisco Call has truly said that the story of California is one of the most interesting in the annals of mankind. The writer who thus characterized the history of the state cleverly presents a picture that may well finish this introductory chapter:
Beginning as a tale of adventure on the part of the cavaliers and freebooters of Spain and of England, exemplified in the romantic personalities of Cabrillo and Drake, it is soon transformed into a story of missionary zeal, telling of the labors of Junipero Serra and his colleagues; then slowly changes into an idyl of pastoral life whose continuity is rudely broken, first by revolution, and then by a magic-working discovery of gold that brings the restless foot of American enterprise to the land, and begins an era that changes every existing institution and creates a new commonwealth.
With the change in the nature of its civilization a change comes over the story of the state, but it remains as interesting as ever. In place of the old records of adventurers, missionaries, and lordly rancheros, we have now the story of gold hunters, miners, merchants, railroad builders, founders of schools, churches and universities--men of every class and grade of the pioneer type. The story of the work of those men and of their sons constitutes the world's greatest historic romance of modern times. In no other part of the globe, among anything like so limited a population, has been done so much during the last fifty years to advance human welfare. We have carried the industries of mining and of horticulture to a perfection unknown elsewhere. Our ship-builders have established themselves among the foremost of the age. In the application of electric energy to the needs of industry, not only in cities, but in rural districts, we lead the van of progress, and in many another department of industry we hold rank among the foremost.
Nor have the achievements of the Californians been confined to the attainment of material good. We have already furnished many a brilliant name to the list of scientists, poets, painters, singers, sculptors, musicians and orators whom the world honors. In short, the profuse fertility of the state has been almost as notable in the domain of the intellect as in that of the production of fruits and of gold.