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California, Here I Come! : MIGRANTS WEST: Toward the Southern California Frontier. By Ronald C. Woolsey with an introduction by Gordon Morris Bakken (Grizzly Bear Publishing: 221 pp., $18.95)

December 22, 1996|KEVIN STARR | Kevin Starr is the state librarian of California and author of numerous books on California history, including "Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California," published earlier this year as the latest installment in his "Americans and the California Dream" series by Oxford University Press

Those who say Los Angeles has no past are in error. Founded in 1781, Los Angeles is among the oldest of our North American cities. Its history, moreover, has become increasingly popular as a guide to its future. Since Los Angeles' future is in a very real way the American future as well, this city's history, linked to the development of contemporary Los Angeles, is on the verge of becoming a national concern, such as the history of New York City has always been.

Sometimes in this process, the most unprepossessing books can, if properly assimilated, prove of surprising value. Take "Migrants West: Toward the Southern California Frontier," for instance. It provides, most basically, 10 biographical portraits of Los Angelenos in the 1850s, the first decade of California's American statehood. Because the experiences of these figures occurred so early, however, they are of a defining sort. They represent, in human terms, the DNA code of this city. Simple strands of experience in the city's first decade as part of the U.S., straightforwardly presented 140 years later, as Ronald C. Woolsey presents them, are possessed of a sudden power of illumination because they show persistent patterns.

Cities, after all, have DNA codes: structures, formulas and patterns of experience at the times of their founding that, like the double helix, orient a city on its pilgrimage through time. Boston, center of Puritan learning in the 17th century, today supports many of the great universities and libraries of the nation. New York in the 17th century--eclectic, worldly, mercantile--set the pattern for the late 18th century city of Alexander Hamilton, chief theoretician and protagonist of New York as commercial capital, whose law chambers, appropriately enough, were on Wall Street. The grander a city becomes, the wider its gyre around the double helix--and the DNA formula has a way of sustaining itself through time.

At first hand, Woolsey's collection of portraits of pioneer Southern Californians appears to be a straightforward compendium of biographies. As such, "Migrants West" is a successful book--indeed very useful book--both as enjoyable narrative history and as the kind of book that stays on a shelf and is pulled down often for reference. Woolsey writes well and has based his book not only upon all relevant primary and secondary sources in print, but also upon exhaustive researches into the collections of the California State Library in Sacramento, the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, the Huntington Library in San Marino and the Seaver Center for Western History at the Los Angeles County Museum.

What makes "Migrants West" even more valuable, however, is that Woolsey has exquisitely selected his profiles of Southern California pioneers so as to suggest in each of them larger patterns in the Los Angeles / Southern California experience. A favorite word of novelist Henry James was "reverberations": the subliminal suggestions, that is, that come from experience. The portraits in "Migrants West" possess such reverberations to the full. Figure after figure in this book is in dialogue, experientially and imaginatively, with the enduring question of Southern California identity--Mexico and, in and through Mexico, the larger question of the Anglo-Latino cultural dialogue.

Don Abel Stearns, for example, a Massachusetts Yankee who arrived in Southern California in the early 1830s and prospered as a ranchero and trader--having become a Mexican citizen and a Roman Catholic and having married a member of a socially prominent Californio family--epitomized possibilities of assimilation into Latino culture that still haunt (or energize) the collective psyche of the region. His friend Hugo Reid, a Cambridge University-educated Scotsman, also arrived in Los Angeles in the early 1830s and married a Native American woman. Reid wrote the first comprehensive and sympathetic description of Native Americans in the Southland. Like Stearns, Reid incorporated within himself an equally important dialogue: that between Euro-Southern California, whether Anglo or Hispanic in origin, and the earliest Californians, who, archeological records suggest, had made Southern California a place where people, in increasing numbers, wanted to live for more than 30,000 years before Europeans arrived. These early inhabitants had long been settled here before the tragedy of contact that, for all the good intentions of church and state, left them a severely diminished people.

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