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

Lots 27 & 27A

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Item 26. Davis’s Sixty Years in California—“If Harris Newmark’s recollection could be acclaimed as the ‘Pepys Diary of Los Angeles,’ Davis’s highly detailed recollection could rightly claim that appellation for the entire state” (Kurutz).

27. DAVIS, William Heath (1822-1909). Sixty Years in California: A History of Events and Life in California; Personal, Political and Military, under the Mexican Regime; during the Quasi-Military Government of the Territory by the United States, and after the Admission of the State into the Union, Being a Compilation by a Witness of the Events Described. San Francisco: A. J. Leary, Publisher, 1889. xxii, 639 pp. Thick 8vo, original purple pebbled cloth, spine gilt-lettered, marbled edges. Spine sunned and with a few stains, head of spine with 2-cm-square chip, foot of spine frayed, corners bumped, hinges broken, front free endpaper absent; title detached, lightly soiled, and short (1 cm), clean tear to blank outer margin, text very fine. Preserved in a brown board slipcase.
First edition. Adams, Herd 659: “A scarce book with chapters on the cattle industry of California.” Barrett, Baja California 647. Cowan I, p. 64. Cowan II, p. 160. Graff 1020. Gudde, California Gold Camps, p. 393. Hill, pp. 396-97. Howell 50, California 407: “One of the most trustworthy sources for the period before 1850.” Howes D136. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 27. Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 170a. Libros Californianos, pp. 47, 50-51 (Powell commentary); pp. 67-68 (Hanna list). Norris 939. Rocq 9092. Streeter Sale 3006: “Good copies of the first edition, such as mine, are rather scarce.” Walker, A Literary History of Southern California, p. 37: “Episodic and discursive, light-hearted and amiable, [Davis] supplements the more effective contemporaneous accounts found in Pattie, Dana, and Robinson.” Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 55. Zamorano 80 #27. ($100-300)

27A. DAVIS, William Heath. Seventy-Five Years in California: Recollections and Remarks by One Who Visited These Shores in 1831, and Again in 1833, and Except When Absent on Business Was a Resident from 1838 until the End of a Long Life in 1909. San Francisco: [Lawton & Alfred Kennedy for] John Howell–Books, 1967. xi [9] 345 pp., color frontispiece portrait, 19 plates (4 folding, some in color). Large 8vo, original gold cloth. Very fine in slightly faded and chipped d.j.
Third edition, edited and corrected from Davis’s own copy of the 1889 original edition, with added illustrations, maps, and reference tools. Howell 50, California 1261: “The definitive edition of the most readable book on 19th century California.” Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 170c. Norris 940. ($50-100)


William H. Davis, the noted California pioneer and merchant, wrote the most extensive memoir of California for the time period it covers. If Harris Newmark’s recollection (q.v.) could be acclaimed as the “Pepys Diary of Los Angeles,” Davis’s highly detailed recollection could rightly claim that appellation for the entire state. The text is indispensable for its account of pre–Gold Rush Alta California, providing a wealth of detail on its pastoral days. As one of H. H. Bancroft’s assistants stated: “Though not an educated man, he had excellent powers of description and a marvelous memory of little incidents and details of events.” Sixty Years in California is an essential companion to the firsthand accounts of Richard Henry Dana (q.v.) and Alfred Robinson (q.v.).
What makes Davis’s narrative so valuable is that he lived through such a compelling time and knew just about everyone of consequence. A native of Hawaii and son of a Boston shipmaster and Polynesian mother, he arrived in California in 1831 working for his uncle Nathan Spear. Like several other Yankees, he adapted well to Californio society, married into the influential Estudillo family, completely sympathized with the upper classes, and delighted in describing their graceful social manners and customs. This was a halcyon time period. He recalled, “The native Californians were about the happiest and most contented people I ever saw, as also were the early foreigners [like himself] who settled among them and intermarried with them, adopted their habits and customs.” Davis’s recollection of fifty-eight years (rounded off to sixty) abounds with delightful stories of horse races, rodeos, bear hunts, the thousands of elk living on Mare Island, picnics at Rincon Point, the missions, the great ranchos, encounters with Native Americans, and pre-Marshall gold.
As a prosperous merchant and trader, he traveled up and down the coast and describes in depth the hide and tallow trade, the doings of the various supercargoes, and the Californio economy. He assisted newcomers, for instance guiding Captain Sutter to Sacramento in 1839. Like others, the merchant foresaw the eventual American takeover and narrates the conquest through his own involvement. As a merchant, he did well by the Gold Rush, selling anxious Argonauts badly needed supplies at high prices. In June 1848, Davis claimed that he purchased the first gold brought into San Francisco from the mines. During this chaotic time, he speculated in various schemes including the founding of “New Town” San Diego and the town of San Leandro where he managed the Estudillo family estate. The great San Francisco fire of 1851 and business miscalculations cost him much of his fortune. Reflecting his acquaintance with men of prominence, he filled his book with profiles of such notables as William Richardson, Jacob Leese, Mariano Vallejo, W. D. M. Howard, and Sam Brannan.
Sixty Years in California does suffer somewhat from the author’s efforts to cram in every possible detail. It follows no real chronological or topical order but consists of a conglomeration of incidents, anecdotes, profiles, and lists. The reader must be prepared to navigate through this rich yet disjointed mass of text without an index. However, such lack of structure in a lengthy memoir was not uncommon for that era. Fortunately, the author did provide a detailed table of contents which he thankfully repeated at the beginning of each chapter.
Davis’s book, as documented by his biographer Andrew Rolle, first evolved out of a series of articles about the early days that he contributed to the San Francisco newspapers of the late 1880s. In addition, Bancroft, in his efforts to record as much pioneer history as possible, paid Davis to dictate his “historical testimony” to one of his assistants. It consisted of over 300 pages and was entitled Glimpses of the Past. The great historian, commenting on this recollection, praised Davis not only for his excellent memory and personal history but also for his knowledge of “commercial methods, and social manners and customs of native and foreign pioneers.” Bancroft gently criticized him for a failing typical of reminiscences: the tendency to “eulogize everybody” and suppress unfriendly comments. When Bancroft’s primary author, Henry L. Oak, denied Davis permission to publish parts of his dictation in The Century Magazine, Davis decided to produce his own book-length manuscript. He easily found an eager publisher in A. J. Leary of San Francisco, and when the book was published, it received the kudos of the local press. Shortly after its publication in May 1889, a little pamphlet designed to promote sales was published, entitled Reviews of “Sixty Years in California.” It consisted of favorable reviews from San Francisco and Alameda County newspapers.
Encouraged by the positive reception to his book, Davis planned to publish an expanded and revised second edition. Despite his best efforts to publish what he called a literary “monster,” he died with his dream unrealized. Fortunately, under the skillful editing of Douglas S. Watson, John Howell–Books in 1929 published an enlarged edition which took the narrative up to the pioneer’s death. Called Seventy-Five Years in California, the library edition sold for $10.00 and the deluxe editions for $125.00 and up. The extra-illustrated copies included a fascinating array of original letters, bill-heads, and leaves from books. In 1967, John Howell–Books published a new edition of 2,500 copies with further embellishments, edited by Harold A. Small, who also presented a fine history of the earlier editions.

——Gary F. Kurutz

Additional sources consulted: Biographical Files, California State Library; Andrew Rolle, An American in California: The Biography of William Heath Davis, 1822-1909 (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1956); “Two Pioneer Records,” [book review] in Overland Monthly, New Series, vol. 14 (July 1889), pp. 103-107.

Item 27A. Roundup at San Gabriel Mission

Item 27A. William Heath Davis (1822-1909)

Item 27A. Yerba Buena in 1837

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