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The Outer Coast by Richard Batman (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $18.95; 349 pp., illustrated)

January 05, 1986|Gerald Haslam | Haslam's "Snapshots: Glimpses of the Other California," has just been published by Devil Mountain Books. and

"The Outer Coast" hid half-a-continent away from America's population centers in 1769, when Richard Batman's narrative begins. It was the far ocean, the far land, "the extreme edge of the world," extending from Mexico to Alaska. It was also busy, with various entrepreneurs and nations seeking to exploit and possess it.

California was its core: California for sea otters; California for hides; California for land. And for characters.

Batman's cast is remarkable. Some--Padre Junipero Serra, Capt. James Cook, Daniel Boone, Mariano Vallejo--are well known. Others are not: Lewis Burton, who while asleep, "delivered long narratives, orations, and even sermons, but when he awoke he remembered nothing," or "El Cojo" Smith, who amputated his own foot, extracting the protruding bone with a pair of bullet-mold forceps.

Mariners loom large in the history of the outer coast, men like Joe O'Cain, who established the contract system for gathering sea otter pelts, and Richard Henry Dana, whose classic "Two Years Before the Mast" is summarized in Batman's pages, were two of many involved in the constant sniping at Hispanic authority from the sea.

While Batman's writing style is not scintillating--strangely repetitive in places--it is generally crisp, and Batman manages some memorable sections. Describing the 1789 confrontation at Nootka Sound between Capt. James Colnett and Capt. Esteban Jose Martinez that nearly led to war between England and Spain, he summarizes with considerable irony: "Thus we finally have it, the story of two innocent men, each trying to remain calm and reasonable only to be outraged by the arrogant and unreasonable behavior of the other." Human nature seems not to have changed much in 200 years.

Such events and characters are compelling, and the larger picture shows Spanish, then Mexican, rule establishing itself, then stretching thinner and thinner. That this review is written in English makes clear the outcome, but how it came about is fascinating.

By 1841, the first American emigrants in covered wagons stopped at the Green River in Wyoming where they met "a band of fur trappers with whom they spent a day in camp." It was an encounter with singular symbolic portent, an old frontier meeting a new one, for the emigrants who followed that first train would sweep even the outer coast into the thrall of Manifest Destiny, and the fur trappers, who had established overland routes to that distant domain, would never again rendezvous.

"The Outer Coast" surveys an interesting, not widely understood aspect of Western history, and Batman demonstrates his ability to digest considerable and varied research, then convert it into a readable text for non-specialists. If historians find little new in it, general readers will encounter a complex world with characters as noteworthy for their humanity as for their considerable--if not always positive--accomplishments.

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