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J.S. Holliday, 82; Wrote Classic History of the Gold Rush Era

September 10, 2006|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

J.S. Holliday, who wrote a masterly history of California's Gold Rush based on journals and letters of the era uncovered during 30 years of painstaking research, died Aug. 31 at his Carmel home. He was 82.

The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, according to his son, T.A. Holliday of New Orleans.

A former museum director and university librarian as well as scholar, Holliday was known best for his book "The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience," which has remained in print since its original publication in 1981. A classic of western history, it is notable for an innovative narrative style that blends the voices of the miners and the families they left behind with Holliday's commentary and analysis.

"It is the great narrative history of the Gold Rush" based on firsthand accounts, said Gary Kurutz, a Gold Rush scholar and curator of special collections at the California State Library in Sacramento.

The book draws most heavily from the diaries and correspondence of William Swain, a farmer from Youngstown, N.Y., who traveled overland for seven months in 1849 to join the hordes of prospectors in gold-crazy California. Swain wrote thoughtfully and in great detail about his adventure, conveying his hopes for securing his family's future, his fear of failure, and a nitty-gritty view of the everyday struggles of a '49er.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 14, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
J.S. Holliday: An obituary in Sunday's California section on historian J.S. Holliday said he served during World War II as a Navy second lieutenant. The correct title of that Navy rank is ensign.

The result was what Kevin Starr, a California historian and former state librarian, calls an "inner history" of a defining period in the state's history. "He was after the domestic, psychological experience," said Starr, who described Holliday as a pioneer of the docudrama narrative.

Documentarian Ken Burns, who featured Holliday in his PBS series "The West," called himself a "huge fan" of the Gold Rush expert. "No one writes better about California's irresistible past," Burns said several years ago.

Born Jaquelin Smith Holliday II in Indianapolis on June 10, 1924, Holliday preferred to go by his initials; friends called him Jim. His father, William, was a steel company executive who had a great interest in western Americana.

At Yale University, the younger Holliday majored in history, but his education was interrupted by World War II service in the Pacific as a second lieutenant in the Navy. He returned to Yale after the war and earned a bachelor's degree in 1948.

That year, a rare-book dealer named Ed Eberstadt showed him Swain's diary, which was in a collection owned by Yale. Holliday was not impressed at first, even though the dealer described it as the "most important" diary of the many written by those who had stampeded to California a century earlier. Still, he agreed to take on the job of preparing the diary for publication.

Not until Holliday began to read diaries left by other '49ers did he begin to appreciate the treasure trove that Swain's represented. Most of the other diaries were "little more than daily recitations of miles traveled and weather conditions, with an occasional complaint or observation about food, dust or some other discomfort," Holliday later wrote. Many of them stopped after the migrant reached California or were abandoned due to illness or other difficulty.

Swain, by comparison, not only made diary entries nearly every day during his journey, he also wrote long letters to his family during the arduous months in California and his eventual return home. Holliday soon realized that Eberstadt had been right and that Swain's diary and correspondence were "so inclusive, so complete, as to be a rarity."

The Swain material inspired Holliday to do more than just correct the spelling and add footnotes. He vowed to "read every available diary and letter of 1849 and 1850" written by other miners and use them to enrich Swain's tale. He became a prospector himself, scouring libraries, newspaper archives and attics around the country for nuggets of Gold Rush history.

Starr noted that Holliday's thoroughness and perfectionism were not the only reasons that his research consumed decades.

"Jim was too much of an entrepreneur to be a strictly cloistered scholar," Starr said. "He believed in the transforming power of institutions like libraries, museums and historical societies."

And Holliday spent much of his career running them.

Professor and Editor

After earning his doctorate in history at UC Berkeley in 1958, he served four years as assistant director of the university's Bancroft Library. During the 1960s, he taught history as an associate professor at what is now San Francisco State University and was an editor at American West magazine.

He also was founding director of the Oakland Museum of California, but was fired less than two months before it opened in 1969 in a dispute with the facility's governing commission. The disagreement stemmed largely from Holliday's attempt to involve members of Oakland's African American community in the governance of the museum, which is devoted to California art and history.

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