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

Lot 20

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Item 20. Colton’s Three Years in California, with humorous Gold Rush illustrations—“An essential work documenting the transition of California from a remote Mexican province to a pulsating, gold-driven American state” (Kurutz).

20. COLTON, Walter (1797-1851). Three Years in California.... New York: A. S. Barnes & Co.; Cincinnati: H. W. Derby & Co., 1850. 456 pp., engraved frontispiece portrait of Sutter by Burt, 12 engraved plates on tinted grounds (6 portraits by Burt, 6 views and comical mining scenes by J. W. Orr), large folding facsimile (“Declaration of Rights in the Constitution of California...”), engraved map (Valley of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, J. W. Orr, N.Y., 14.5 x 8.5 cm; 5-3/4 x 3-3/8 inches), text illustrations, ads on front endpapers. 8vo, original brown blindstamped cloth with gilt vignette of the Great Seal of California on upper cover, spine gilt-lettered. A bit of trivial binding wear and a few small expert repairs at spinal extremities, mild to moderate foxing to interior, a few short clean tears to folding facsimile, generally a fine, bright, tight copy.
First edition. Cowan I, pp. 52-53: “The facsimile...‘Declaration of Rights’ often missing.” Cowan II, p. 137. Graff 839. Gudde, California Gold Camps, p. 391. Hill, p. 58. Howell 50, California 45. Howes C625. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 20. Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 151a. LC, California Centennial 239. Norris 827. Rocq 5644. Walker, San Francisco’s Literary Frontier, p. 21. Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 46: “Colton’s entries graphically depict the news and results of the gold discovery in the coastal towns. Excellent engraved portraits of Sutter and other pioneers”; Maps of the California Gold Region 146. Zamorano 80 #20. The lively, humorous plates by John William Orr (1815-1887) are “A United States Deserter, from the Fort at Monterey, on His Way to the Mines, upon the Back of a Mule Which the Vulture Claims”; “A California Party on a Pic-nic Excursion”; “One of the ‘Upper Ten’ in the Diggings...”; “An Alcalde at the Mines Examining a Lump of Gold...”; “Degree of Fortune in the California Gold-Diggings...”; and “Come, Old Fellow, You Had Better Knock Off, and Go Home with Me....” Wood engraver Orr was born in Ireland, came to the United States at an early age, and studied with William Redfield in New York City. Orr established studios in Buffalo (1837) and New York City (1844). “He was one of the best known wood engravers of his generation” (Hamilton, Early American Book Illustrators and Wood Engravers, vol. 2, p. 127). ($300-600)


Walter Colton, the former editor of the North American in Philadelphia and first American alcalde at Monterey, wrote one of the most colorful, breezy, and fact-filled accounts of the conquest of California and the early days of the gold discovery. It is an essential work documenting the transition of California from a remote Mexican province to a pulsating, gold-driven American state. The majority of the book is written in journal form and opens with the raising of the American flag at Monterey on July 10, 1846. Colton, in the first chapters, covers the Mexican-American War in Alta California and news of the campaign in Mexico. In addition, he provides engaging and often humorous and satirical descriptions of life in the old capital. Along with Robert Semple, Colton achieved a historic first in California history, the founding of a newspaper appropriately called the Californian on August 15, 1846. His account of printing the first number is a monument to resourcefulness. He modestly stated: “Though small in dimensions, our first number is as full of news as a black-walnut is of meat.”
Writing earlier than the other great authors of the Gold Rush, J. D. Borthwick (q.v.), Bayard Taylor (q.v.), and Frank Marryat (q.v.), Colton left a breathtaking account of the placers in 1848 and early 1849 before the waves of gold seekers swamped the Sierra. His description of the first news of the gold discovery is unsurpassed. On May 29, 1848, he wrote: “Our town was startled out of its quiet dream to-day, by the announcement that gold had been discovered on the American Fork.” Early in June, Colton dispatched a messenger to see what all the excitement was about and the messenger came back on June 20 with yellow lumps in his pocket. This started the rush out of Monterey and inspired Colton to compose one of the most memorable quotes of the Gold Rush: “The blacksmith dropped his hammer, the carpenter his plane, the mason his trowel, the farmer his sickle, the baker his loaf, and the tapster his bottle. All were off for the mines, some on horse, some on carts, and some on crutches, and one went in a litter.” Gold fever had struck, and in short order his town was deserted. Colton himself made a tour of the mines in October and November and met R. B Mason and W. T. Sherman on the Stanislaus River. Throughout his text are electric descriptions of those heady early days when gold could be simply picked off the ground. Demonstrating his rhythmic prose style, Colton made the following observation of the Argonauts on November 8, 1848: “Such a mixed and motley crowd—such a restless, roving, rummaging, ragged multitude, never before roared in the rockeries of man.”
Three Years in California was the sequel to his Deck and Port (1850). Colton corrected the final proofs for this momentous book in March 1850. He then fell ill and died on January 22, 1851. The preface is dated Philadelphia, July 1850. Colton dedicated the book to that great Californio, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. The humorous etchings, not found in later editions, are in keeping with Colton’s wit. Three Years in California received glowing reviews upon publication. The Washington Republic wrote: “While the reader is instructed on every page, he will laugh about a hundred if not a thousand times before he gets through this captivating volume.”
Anticipating brisk sales and future printings, the book was printed with stereotyped plates by Richard C. Valentine of New York. Barnes & Company reprinted the title in 1851, 1852, 1854, 1856, 1859, and 1860. The Land of Gold, published in 1860 by D. W. Evans & Company simply reprinted the earlier work using the stereotyped plates. In 1949, Stanford University published a facsimile edition with an introduction by Marguerite Eyer Wilbur. The Arno Press (New York, 1976) also produced a facsimile.

——Gary F. Kurutz

Item 20. Map accompanying Colton’s Three Years in California.

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