California’s foremost cultural historian, Kevin Starr, wrote in
his Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era
that “American literature in Southern California begins” with
the publication of Reminiscences of a Ranger. This rollicking
book is the most important chronicle of Los Angeles during those rough-and-tumble
days of the early 1850s as it transitioned from a Mexican town to a “semi-gringo”
town. It also is the first cloth-bound book to be printed, bound, and
published in Los Angeles, which in itself signaled the town’s progress.
Like so many others, Bell came to California in 1850 as a
gold seeker, failed to strike it rich, and headed to Los Angeles in 1852
in search of better prospects. When violence was becoming so commonplace
in “El Pueblo,” he joined the Los Angeles Rangers to campaign against
the banditti that roamed the streets and countryside. Not one to pass
up a good fight, the Kentucky-born Bell left Los Angeles in 1856 to accompany
William Walker’s filibustering expedition in Nicaragua, then joined the
forces of Benito Juárez in Mexico in 1859, and finally enlisted in the
Union Army. Surviving the Civil War, he returned to Los Angeles, practiced
law, fought local corruption, and from 1882 to 1888 published The
Porcupine, a periodical aptly named for its stinging style.
Bell wrote Reminiscences of a Ranger from 1878 to 1881.
His journalistic skills permeate the volume allowing him to capture the
flavor of Los Angeles during the violent and raucous early 1850s when
his rangers struggled to bring peace to a town better known as “Los Diablos.”
He covered the activities of such then-well-known characters as Joaquín
Murieta, Jack Powers, Jim Savage (“the Tulare King”), and scores of others.
While much of the volume focused on brawls, lynchings, drinking, gambling,
and other assorted vices, it also offered a wonderful view of the mixing
of cultures in Southern California. His eloquent accounts of fandangos,
fiestas, a stagecoach race, and a cattle stampede demonstrate another
side of life. Bell wrote with sympathy concerning the plight of the Indians
and Californios. Rightly proud of his literary endeavor, Bell plugged
the volume in The Porcupine, writing “It is unique, fresh, sprightly,
combining the grave and the gay, the sad and mirthful, history as cheery
as fiction, seen from the bright side of life. 457 octavo pages; gold
embossed; bound in cloth; $2.00 postpaid.” Typical of books bound in that
era, it was issued in different colors of cloth including blue, green,
It is not clear how well Bell’s book sold upon publication.
One story had it that a fire destroyed most of the first edition, but
as documented by Lawrence Clark Powell, Bell sold the Holmes Book Store
a cache of 200 copies in 1904. Because of the book’s compelling subject
matter and breezy style, several later editions have been published beginning
in 1927 with Wallace Hebberd. The 1933 edition issued by Primavera Press
used Hebberd’s leftover sheets and added a new title page. A three-volume,
slipcased production of 1,500 copies came out between 1965 and 1967 as
a seasonal gift issued by Advertisers Composition Company. In 1999, the
prestigious University of Oklahoma Press brought out another edition
with a fine introduction by John Boessenecker.
——Gary F. Kurutz
Additional sources consulted: Biographical Files, California State
Library; Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics (Los Angeles:
The Ward Ritchie Press, 1971), pp. 279-91; Kevin Starr, Inventing
the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (New York &
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 31-34; Franklin Walker, A
Literary History of Southern California (Berkeley & Los Angeles:
University of California Press, 1950), pp. 51-59.