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Auction 12: The Zamorano 80 Collection of Daniel G. Volkmann Jr.

Lot 12

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Item 12. Edwin Bryant’s What I Saw in California—“the first book published about California since the American takeover, [which] set a standard for the avalanche of books that would soon be written about this new El Dorado” (Richard H. Dillon).

12. BRYANT, Edwin (1805-1869). What I Saw in California: Being the Journal of a Tour, by the Emigrant Route and South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, across the Continent of North America, the Great Desert Basin, and through California, in the Years 1846, 1847. New York: D. Appleton & Company; Philadelphia: Geo. S. Appleton, 1848. 455 pp. 12mo, original slate blue blindstamped cloth (rebacked by a rather heavy hand, original gilt-lettered spine preserved, new front endpapers). Shelf-slanted, binding worn (particularly at edges and corners, with small portions of board exposed), interior fine and clean. Author’s presentation copy signed twice: “Presented to Wm. Findlay by His friend and fellow-traveller in the Far West—Edwin Bryant....”
First edition. Barrett, Baja California 375. Cowan I, p. 27-28. Cowan II, p. 81 (citing the second edition). Garrett, The Mexican-American War, p. 145 (not citing the first edition). Graff 457. Hill, pp. 36-37. Holliday 146. Howell 50, California 1475. Howes B903. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 12. Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 95a. Libros Californianos, p. 41 (Powell commentary); pp. 65-66 (Hanna list): “Describes Southern California—rarely accounted for by writers of that time.” Mintz, The Trail 65. Norris 429. Plains & Rockies IV:146:1: “Camp called the Bryant work, ‘one of the most detailed and reliable of all the overland journals’ and rated it with Clayton’s and Schmölder’s books as the three competent guides to be published in 1848.... One of the classics of California.” Streeter Sale 3147. Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 26: “The prime and almost the earliest authority on the California of the discovery period.” Zamorano 80 #12. ($1,000-1,500)


Bryant, blessed with the skills of a journalist, produced an overland account and description of California at the time of the Mexican-American War of consummate quality. With the discovery of gold, his book, written with the firsthand knowledge of a person who had recently crossed the continent, became a veritable best-seller, eagerly read by would-be gold seekers. As historian Richard H. Dillon wrote in the introduction to a facsimile edition: “The Gold Rush made Bryant an authority and a celebrity overnight. His book, published in 1848, had no real rivals.” Furthermore, it was the first book published about California since the American takeover and set a standard for the avalanche of books that would soon be written about this new El Dorado. Reprinted and quickly translated into several languages, its fact-filled, dynamically written descriptions of the newly conquered golden land hastened the stampede to California.
In his preface and writing in the third person, Bryant ably laid out the goal of his book: “His design has been to furnish a volume, entertaining and instructive to the general reader, and reliable and useful to the traveler and emigrant to the Pacific.” In all these categories he succeeded. Bryant spent two years in California and traveled to as many places as any one individual could expect to visit and met just about every important personality of that crucial time period. Because of this, he gained a knowledge few could match and when he returned East to prepare his book for publication, the editor of the Californian wrote: “We know of no man better qualified to write such a work.”
Bryant’s work begins with his great overland journal. He left his post as editor of the Louisville Courier on April 18, 1846, to obtain a “a faithful and accurate description of the ‘Land of Promise.’” At Independence, he met up with a California-bound company led by William H. Russell. Along the way, Bryant maintained a detailed journal written with the choicest language of his era. His daily account left literate Americans with an accurate picture of what to expect. The company arrived in Alta California at William Johnson’s Bear River rancho in August. In his book, Bryant reflected on the tragedy of the Donner Party, devoting an entire chapter to their pitiful story. He also included a table of distances.
The overland journalist arrived in California at an incredibly pivotal time. The war with Mexico had just broken out and Bryant soon became directly involved. Consequently, he was able to provide a first-rate account of the rapid succession of events that transpired. During this time, he met such important figures as Captain Sutter, Dr. John Marsh, William Leidesdorff, Mariano Vallejo, Jacob Leese, Joseph Folsom, Robert F. Stockton, Stephen Watts Kearny, and Thomas O. Larkin to name just a few. Bryant himself joined Frémont’s California Battalion as a first lieutenant in Company H as it headed south to suppress a rebellion of the Californios in Los Angeles. Bryant’s peregrinations gave him the opportunity to closely observe California’s Hidalgo culture in its waning days and he penned an absolutely fabulous picture of life in the ranchos, pueblos, and missions equal to that of Dana (q.v.) or Robinson (q.v.). The fandangos, meals, and hospitality he enjoyed must have impressed his eastern audiences. He also provided a synopsis of California’s climate, natural features, agriculture, and ranching economy. Following the conquest, General Kearny appointed Bryant as the alcalde of San Francisco. While in this rapidly changing port, he devoted himself to his book, and on June 2, 1847, left California to see his manuscript published.
Even without the discovery of gold, What I Saw in California would have been well received and remembered as an irresistible invitation to settle in California. Contemporary reviews in the national press praised its accuracy and authority. Gold fever, however, changed its intended purpose, causing it to be reprinted several times. In response to the California mania, Bryant’s publishers produced an edition in 1849 with an appendix giving valuable descriptions of the gold fields and advice on the best routes to California by R. B. Mason and Joseph Folsom, reprinted from the Louisville Courier of December 9, 1848. The 1849 edition included that all-important item, a map of California with routes, published by J. H. Colton. A short announcement of his book appeared in the San Francisco Daily Alta California for January 11, 1849. An advertisement for the fourth edition boasted that 4,000 copies had already sold. Its price was $1.25.
Attesting to the value of Bryant’s text, it was republished around the globe, including English, Dutch, French, Swedish, and Belgian editions. Word of Bryant’s book made it to the “land down under” and in 1850 it was published with a Tasmanian imprint. Australian publisher Henry Dowling wrote: “It is believed that this publication will supply the desideratum so much needed in the Australian colonies, to meet the numerous inquiries with reference to the new state of California.” The Australian edition also included Felix Wierzbicki’s California As It Is (q.v.).
In 1888, Bryant’s account was republished in dime novel–style under the title Rocky Mountain Adventures (Franklin edition). The Fine Arts Press of Santa Ana in 1936 produced a fine press edition but did not include the Gold Rush text. In 1967, Lewis Osborne of Palo Alto created a facsimile of the fifth edition with an introduction by Richard H. Dillon, and in 1985, the University of Nebraska Press published a facsimile of the first edition with an introduction by Thomas D. Clark.

——Gary F. Kurutz

Item 12. Bryant’s autograph presentation note in What I Saw in California.

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