Squibob Does Sacramento Valley in 1849

“Of Major Importance”—Wheat

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281. [MAP]. DERBY, [George Horatio]. [Title enclosed in circle] The Sacramento Valley from the American River to Butte Creek, Surveyed and Drawn by Order of Genl. Riley, commang. 10th. Military Dept. by Lieut: Derby, Topl. Engrs. September & October 1849. [below upper neat line, at left] S. Doc. Ex. No. 47. Part 2nd. 1st. Sess. 31st. Con. [Washington, 1850]. Lithograph map showing an area north of the confluence of the Sacramento River and Butte Creek and south of Wolf Kills-Puta Creek-Sacramento-Sutter’s Fort-Columa, delineating parts of Sacramento River, Butte Creek, Feather River, Yuba River, Bear Creek, American River, emigrant routes, etc.; neat line to neat line; 55.5 x 44.3 cm; overall sheet size: 57 x 45.5 cm. Uniform age toning and waterstaining, marginal chipping (slight loss of neat line at lower left margin).

     First edition. The map appeared in Philip Thomas Tyson’s Report of the Secretary of War, Communicating Information in Relation to the Geology and Topography of California (Senate Executive Document No. 47, 31st Congress, 1st Session, Washington, 1850), the first scientific report of the gold discoveries. Cowan I, p. 235. Cowan II, p. 648. Howes T455. Kurutz, The California Gold Rush 643a: “Wheat noted that this was ‘probably the earliest work of a true scientific research to emerge from the Gold Rush.’” Wheat, Books of the California Gold Rush 212. Wheat, Maps of the California Gold Region #149 & pp. xxvii-xviii: “Of the maps which were actually produced in 1850, those of Lieutenant George H. Derby are of particular interest. Derby, though better known today as a brilliant humorist (he was the author of Phoenixiana and The Squibob Papers), was a trained and competent topographer.... His Sacramento Valley from the American River to Butte (made in the fall of 1849 [and other maps from the Tyson report] are all maps of major importance.”

     The present map on a generous scale of 4-1/2 miles to an inch presents a detailed view of the region that includes gold diggings, towns, ranchos, trails, grazing regions, waterways, areas inhabited by Native Americans, presence of wild cattle, elk, and antelope, etc. Derby presents a comprehensive view of the topography and vegetation of the Sacramento Valley, the branches of the Sacramento River, the roads across the Valley and into the mountains to the gold region. Many text notes by Derby on the map are useful for research today, such as that found on the “Benecia [sic] Road” to Sacramento City: “Impassable during the Rainy Season.” Kenneth Thompson in his article “Historic Flooding in the Sacramento Valley” (Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 29, No. 4, November 1960, pp. 357-358) refers to Derby’s map, citing it as an early example that deflated earlier emigration puffery downplaying the flooding potential of the Sacramento Valley. While acknowledging the damage wrought by hydraulic mining on the Sacramento and other Rivers, Thompson points out that the more invasive types of mining were not the primary cause of flooding, which was, in fact, historic.

     Like Ord’s map (see herein), this was a map eagerly embraced by goldseekers since it showed great detail and locations of gold digging and discovery. Furthermore, it was the work of someone who had boots on the ground in the California Gold Region. “Its initial printing was 5,000 copies, most of which were undoubtedly read with excitement by prospective gold-seekers” (William H. Goetzmann, Army Exploration in the American West 1803-1863, Yale University Press, 1959, p. 257). Regarding Derby’s humorous bent, Goetzmann (p. 255) states that “Derby kept up a running fire of humor during this tour in California that was perhaps, in a unique way, also a contribution toward the ‘development’ of the trans-Mississippi region. And while unique in themselves, his works can serve to call attention to the numerous literary and artistic efforts of the frontier soldiers which have been largely overlooked. Derby’s influence was great. It touched Mark Twain, impressed Lewis Gaylord Clark of the Knickerbocker Magazine, and caused Thackeray, so it was said, to term him ‘America’s first wit.’”

     Francis P. Farquhar, “The Topographical Reports of Lieutenant George H. Derby,” California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2 (June 1932), pp. 99-123:

George Horatio Derby led a double life. On the one hand he was an officer of the United States Army and an engineer of ability; on the other hand, a humorist and wag of great ingenuity and originality. He was a graduate of West Point, was wounded in the Mexican War, made reconnoissances in California in 1849-1850, dammed the San Diego River, and built lighthouses on the coasts of Alabama and Florida. His practical jokes, his witty and facetious sayings, his brilliant conversation, are legendary. The few recorded instances indicate the richness of the vein. Over the signatures of “John P. Squibob” and “Phoenix” he contributed articles to the California papers which have placed him among the foremost of American humorists.

Noteworthy and brilliant as it was in these two fields, Derby’s career was, nevertheless, a brief one. He was born at Dedham, Massachusetts, April 3, 1823, was graduated from the Military Academy in 1846, and died after a long illness on May 15, 1861, at the age of thirty-eight. Had he lived to participate in the Civil War and to give out in maturer years the sparkling product of his humor, to what heights might he not have attained!....

Of quite different character are Derby’s professional writings. Of these, perhaps the most important is his report on the lower Colorado River. Two other reports, one on the Sacramento Valley in 1849, and one on the Tulares Valley in 1850, are deserving of much more attention than they have been given. They contain lucid descriptions of the regions and of the episodes of the reconnoissances. These reports have heretofore been buried in the obscurity of old Congressional documentary publications, poorly indexed and difficult of access. The maps which accompany the reports are of equal importance historically, and these, too, are not discoverable.... Derby’s reports were written with a full sense of his responsibility as an officer of the United States Army, and, sorely as he must have been tempted at times, there is no trace of hoax or satire to be found in them....

In 1849 Derby was ordered to duty in California. He arrived at Monterey June 1st and went at once to Benicia to report to Captain William H. Warner, his senior officer in the Topographical Engineers.... Derby was ordered to report to Brigadier General Bennet Riley, who attached him to his staff during a visit to the interior.... During the summer of 1849 a small detachment of troops had been sent to Johnson’s Rancho, on Bear River, to establish a post for the purposes of preventing conflicts between the Indians and the increasing number of settlers at the mines of the Yuba and the Feather rivers. In September, Derby was ordered to survey and mark out a reservation for this purpose and to examine other potential sites in the Sacramento Valley. [The present map is the depiction of that survey.]

George R. Stewart, in John Phoenix, Esq., The Veritable Squibob: A Life of Captain George H. Derby, U.S.A. (New York; Henry Holt & Company, 1937) emphasizes Derby’s survey as shown on this map as a pivotal point in Derby’s life, because his humor might not have blossomed except in the “California of the Gold Rush, where a good egg was worth a dollar and a good joke was above the price of rubies.” See also the U.S. Corps of Topographical Engineers website with an article on Derby:


Sold. Hammer: $375.00; Price Realized: $459.38.

Auction 23 Abstracts

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