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Monday, July 29, 2019

Mug Shots and Railroad Mythologies

In the early 1900s, the San Joaquin Valley—California’s geographical and agricultural center—was marked by the growth of community and opportunity brought about by the Southern Pacific Railroad’s longitudinal linkage of San Francisco and Los Angeles by way of the valley. The movement of passengers and cargo into, out of, and through the valley caused its population and its agricultural industry to grow tremendously. In the years following the 1876 completion of the railroad connection between San Francisco and Los Angeles, the residents of the valley’s northernmost county, San Joaquin County, may have viewed the maturation of their community with mixed feelings. Some may have felt deep satisfaction with the prosperity and opportunity the railroad had afforded the county’s agricultural towns, while others—especially those who had helped settle the valley—may have had feelings of deep mistrust and bitter resentment toward the Southern Pacific Railroad, whose past strategies of obtaining land throughout the valley had caused loss of property and even life.

Much of the animosity between settlers and the Southern Pacific centered around events that occurred in Mussel Slough, Kings County, in 1880. Settlers had migrated to the valley throughout the 1870s, encouraged by the Southern Pacific to occupy land that had been given to the railroad company as a subsidy. The settlers set about improving the acreage surrounding proposed railroad tracks by building homesteads and developing agricultural and irrigation projects, confident that when ready to purchase the land, they would not be charged for the improvements they had made through their own labor. Instead, the settlers, expecting to pay two-and-a-half dollars per acre, were faced with prices set by market demand, sometimes reaching as high as twenty dollars per acre. The settlers banded together to fight this injustice while U.S. marshals began evicting settlers throughout the area. On May 11, 1880, a small group of men, including a U.S. marshal, set foot on the homestead of Henry D. Brewer and were met by an assemblage of settlers, gathered to thwart such evictions. While it is unclear how the gunfight began—it has been attributed to a skittish horse knocking the marshal down, quickly followed by the chaos of gun blasts—it resulted in the deaths of seven men. The shootout, which made national headlines, was significant not only for the high death toll, but also for how the incident played into the charged mythos of the outlaw West and a burgeoning national resentment of big industry’s subjugation of the common man.

In 1901, just over twenty years after the tragedy at Mussel Slough, Frank Norris published his California novel The Octopus, a scathing denunciation of the railroad’s actions in the San Joaquin Valley. The novel contains a retelling of the events of Mussel Slough as the natural, violent result of the railroad’s greed and ruthlessness in the valley. Norris’s sentiment, coupled with a turn-of-the-century societal tension between agrarian lifestyles and the growth of industry, bitterly reminded many of the valley’s residents of the earlier animosity between the settlers and the railroads. Many valley residents agreed with Norris’s description of the reviled company as “the iron-hearted monster of steel and steam.”

Police record for Victorio Yopez, Description and photographs of San Joaquin County prisoners, Vault 308, California Historical Society.  
It is through the lens of both these historical facts and their resulting cultural mythology that we recently viewed two volumes containing mug shots and descriptions of people arrested in San Joaquin County between 1902 and 1907. Each record includes a black-andwhite mug shot as well as information about the alleged perpetrator’s physical appearance, alleged crime(s), victim(s), and sentence. In particular, we were interested in the types of crimes that had taken place on the railroad, the suspects and victims involved, and the motives surrounding their crimes. Over the five years covered in the prisoner logbook, eight crimes were recorded as being committed against either a railroad company itself or railroad passengers and personnel. The descriptions of the crimes are dispassionate and provide no insight into motives or into the targeting of the railroad companies. In most cases the trespasses against the railroad companies were clearly crimes of opportunity, often recorded as petit larceny: an overcoat, blankets, and materials such as brass and iron were all recorded as burgled items. Punishment for the thefts varied, ranging from ten days in the county jail or a ten-dollar fine to three years’ confinement in San Quentin. One cannot help but wonder, though, about the motives in two of the more interesting crimes, both of which could have resulted in loss of life. A seventeen-year-old Swiss immigrant, Ernest Intergant, was sentenced to thirty days in the county jail for removing a railroad switch lamp from a Santa Fe Railway line on November 20, 1903. Although his crime was originally considered a felony—removing a switch lamp could cause derailment of the railcars, resulting in major loss of life or cargo—his sentence was reduced to malicious mischief. Two years later, on December 16, 1905, Victorio Yopez fired seven shots at several men seated in a Santa Fe railcar. The prisoner logbook records Yopez’s occupation as “R.R. [Railroad] Laborer,” which certainly provokes curiosity over the motivation for the shooting. Yopez was arrested the following day, pleaded guilty to the crime, and was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in Folsom prison.

Police record for Emma La Deux, Description and photographs of San Joaquin County prisoners, Vault 308, California Historical Society.  
Then there is the crime of Emma LaDeux (often spelled “LeDoux” in later published accounts), a thirty-year-old woman from Amador County, California, who attempted to take advantage of the Southern Pacific’s services in the San Joaquin Valley by using the railroad as an unwitting accomplice in her criminal activity. Among more than two hundred arrest records in the same San Joaquin County logbook, Emma’s stands out, not only because she is one of only three women or because her crime (poisoning her husband to death with morphine) is shocking in its premeditated violence, but because—unlike her contemporaries— she could just as easily be posing for a portrait, instead of a mug shot for a police photographer. The photograph reveals a young woman, head held high, her gaze veering slightly away from the camera. A scarf is wrapped around her long neck, and an elaborately decorated hat is perched fashionably at an angle on her neatly styled hair. Although she must have realized the severity of the charges she faced, her composure was unwavering before the camera.

On March 23, 1906, Emma LaDeux (aka Emma Williams or Emma McVicker) killed her third husband, Albert N. McVicker, in the lodging house where they were staying. Afterward, she stuffed his body into a trunk and arranged for it to be sent to the nearby Stockton station. The logbook does not detail the destination she had in mind for the body, but clearly the railroad provided the perfect opportunity to get it as far away as possible from the murder scene. Unfortunately for Emma, the untagged trunk sat too long on the station platform and the odor quickly alerted station workers that something was amiss. For three days she avoided the authorities before being arrested in Antioch by a local deputy sheriff named Shine. According to the Haggin Museum, which holds the trunk in its collection, Emma was headed to meet a Mr. Jean LeDoux, the man she had married a year before without first divorcing the unfortunate Mr. McVicker—adding bigamy to her list of punishable offenses.

After her arrest, she was brought back to Stockton to await trial. It might have been hard for jurors to believe that such a slight, refined-looking woman—at five feet two inches and 110 pounds—could have commited such a heinous crime. Nevertheless, on August 7, 1906, the jury found her guilty of murder in the first degree and the presiding judge, Joaquin County Superior Judge W. B. Nutter, made history by sentencing Emma LaDeux “to hang at San Quentin”—the first woman in California to receive the death penalty. Emma’s luck, however, may not have been all bad. An addendum to her arrest record, scrawled across the bottom of the page in red, hints at a potentially more positive outcome to her case: “Took an appeal and is still in appeal at this time—Sept. 12, 1907.” In the end, Emma spent two years in the San Joaquin County Jail before getting word that her appeal was successful, her death sentence commuted to life in prison. Nearly fourteen years from the day she killed her husband and sent his body off to the train station, Emma was released from San Quentin on parole and walked free.

San Joaquin County’s shift from a rural, agrarian community to a more industrialized, agricultural center brought about an influx of wealth and population that, in turn, led to an influx of crime—a common growing pain of newly developing communities. In fact, enough criminal activity took place on or against the railroad and its property that the Southern Pacific would eventually install its own agents to combat lawlessness on the rails. The San Joaquin County prisoner logbook provides a small glimpse of a wide range of crimes involving the railroad within the suddenly booming agricultural county, demonstrating only one of a myriad of geographic, economic, and cultural shifts caused by the railroad’s presence in San Joaquin County and in the greater San Joaquin Valley.

To learn more about the railroad’s industrial and cultural impact on California, please visit the California Historical Society’s exhibition Overland to California, on view from March 21 through October 20, 2019.
Written by Jaime Henderson and Frances Kaplan, California Historical Society

Monday, July 22, 2019

Peoples Temple Publications Department photographs now available online

The California Historical Society is pleased to announce that 4,467 slides and negatives from the Peoples Temple Publications Department Records have been digitized and are available for public viewing and research online. The photographs provide new visual documentation of Peoples Temple’s political, religious, and cultural activities, as well as daily life in Redwood Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Jonestown. This work was made possible by a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). The collection was processed by project archivists Isaac Fellman and Lynda Letona and digitized by Two Cat Digital of San Anselmo. 

The Peoples Temple Publications Department Records contain a wealth of imagery depicting the demonstrations, rallies, and events organized by Peoples Temple. Before the mass migration to Jonestown in 1977, the Temple pursued an ambitious program of political action: defending leftist activists, getting out the vote for candidates for local office, working with mainstream media, maintaining relationships with other faith organizations, organizing cross-country recruitment trips, participating in rallies and demonstrations, and building alliances with celebrities and politicians. Photographs in the collection were taken by the Publications Department to support these activities.

Newly digitized photographs reveal the connections between Peoples Temple and local, regional, national, and international political and activist networks, situating the Peoples Temple movement within the 1970s context of urban politics, radical activism, communalism, internationalism, and Black Power. We hope that the online publication of these images will support a new generation of scholarship on Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

Teacher in school, circa 1976-1978; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; California Historical Society.
Peoples Temple choir, 1974-1975; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; California Historical Society.
Spiritual Jubilee, 1976 May 23; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 21; California Historical Society
Dennis Banks benefit, circa 1976; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; California Historical Society.
Demonstration at International Hotel, 1977; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 24; California Historical Society
1976 summer trip: Peoples Temple members in Chicago, 1976; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; California Historical Society.

Written by Marie Silva & Isaac Fellman, California Historical Society
Funding to process the Peoples Temple collection provided by the National Historical Publications & Records Commission.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Uncovering remarkable documents through Teaching California

The California Historical Society often relies on scholars in the field to illuminate new areas of collection and research. When exploring primary sources for our new Teaching California project, we came across two remarkable documents from our manuscripts collection that will soon be incorporated into our growing set of K-12 instructional materials. The first, a Spanish diary entry from California’s Mission period, and the second, a Chinese newspaper published in San Francisco shortly after the Gold Rush, both offer an insight into the daily lives of those living and working in two significant periods of California’s history. Below, we hear briefly from the two scholars who helped us translate these documents, including why these particular sources are important to them.
Diary entry of Captain Fernando Rivera y Moncada at Monterey on October 3, 1774; Fernando Rivera y Moncada diary, 1774-1777, MS Vault 48; California Historical Society.
The first document, highlighted for fourth graders studying the Mission period, is one of many brief, daily entries by Rivera y Moncada, the Spanish military commandant of Alta California, 1774-1777. Written a few years after the second Franciscan mission and presidio in the Californias was established in present-day Monterey county, the diary includes a list of soldiers, craftsmen, and other non-native people living in California at the time.

Rose Marie Beebe, Professor of Spanish based at Santa Clara University, California, undertook the translation of the 18th century Spanish-language document. She wrote about the entry’s significance:

“On October 3, 1774, Fernando de Rivera y Moncada, commander of the Monterey Presidio,
reported that the native peoples had started a large fire to the west of the fort. He knew what they
were doing: “They set fire to the field so that new growth will sprout up from the ashes.” Yet a
number of soldiers went out to extinguish the fire. They did so, Rivera wrote “to preserve the

Rivera’s remarks dramatically highlighted the different forms of food production that were present in colonial Alta California. The Spanish introduced European-style agriculture and were concerned that the crops that they had introduced into the region would not be able to grow in a charred landscape. The indigenous people, however, had lived for centuries from the food provided by the natural environment. They understood that fire was an important means of rejuvenating the soil that produced the fruits, berries, acorns, and other sustenance on which both they and the other living creatures with which they shared the California environment depended. Europeans were quickly exposed to this indigenous method of resource management. For example, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed into San Pedro Bay in 1542 and was greeted by thick fires onshore, causing him to name the place La BahIa de los Humos-- the Bay of Smoke. He may well have been witnessing a series of controlled burns. As contemporary scholar M. Kat Anderson has written, “Fire was the most significant, effective, efficient, and widely employed vegetation management tool of California Indian tribes.” (M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 136). Rivera’s diary demonstrated that over 200 years later, Europeans in California still did not fully understand the ecological wisdom that was an essential part of the indigenous Californians’ way of life.”

Below is Beebe’s English translation of the Moncada’s diary entry:

October 1         Señor don Juan Soler: Have three fanegas1 of beans and eight of corn sent to
the escolta2 at San Antonio. Because they have run out of lard and meat, send
them the same amount of rations of ham given to the men here, that is, five
ounces per ration. With regard to the cost [of the food] and the sacks [for
transporting the food], you and the corporals can come to an agreement on that.
And, if you should deem it necessary to notify me about any issue, I shall not
hesitate to intervene in whatever manner is most appropriate. Monterey, October 1, 1774. Rivera

[October] 2
Sunday             Nothing to report.

[October] 3       A large fire was set west of us. It was burning the countryside and was drawing
closer to the presidio. Soldiers, young men, and even I, went out and managed
to extinguish the fire, not because the homes were at risk, but rather to preserve
the fields. The gentiles3 have a bad habit of creating this kind of work for us.
After their seeds have all been gathered and because they have no animals to
take care of, their main concern is their bellies. They set fire to the fields so
that new growth will sprout up from the ashes. It is also a way to catch rabbits
that are trying to escape from the dense smoke.

1 One fanega is equivalent to about 1.6 bushels.
2 The escort or squad of soldiers assigned to protect a missionary at a mission.
3 Non-baptized Indians.

The Golden Hills News. May 27, 1854. California Historical Society, Chinese in California Virtual Collection, Newspaper Collection, Box 2.
For seventh graders, Teaching California authors chose this Chinese newspaper from our collections for an inquiry set exploring San Francisco as a Site of Encounter. The front page of the May 27, 1854 edition of the Golden Hills News features both Cantonese language characters and one column of English text. The publisher's welcome note in English reads: "Merchants, Manufacturers, Miners, and Agriculturists, come forward as friends, not scorners of the Chinese, so that they may mingle in the march of the world, and help to open America an endless vista of future commerce."

Roland Hui, an independent historian based in San Francisco who helped with the English translation, had this to say about this special document:

“The Golden Hills' News is a very special newspaper. In the words of the famed historian Him Mark Lai, it was the first Chinese-language weekly in the world that embodied all the ingredients of a modern newspaper. And for me to play a part in sharing this treasure with a wider audience is extremely gratifying. In doing the translation, I had a fun time trying to figure out the original English names of places, people, and ships from which the Chinese versions were transliterated. The contemporary issues of the Daily Alta California helped me ascertain most of them. For those few that I could not find any reference, it will be hilarious to know how widely I missed the target.”

Below is an excerpt from Hui’s English translation of the Chinese portion of the newspaper:

[Front page, Purpose of the Newspaper] The purpose of publishing a newspaper is to promote commerce, provide knowledge, convey public sentiments, and communicate government regulations. Now, California is the meeting place of people from all over the world, and various countries have published their own newspapers except the Chinese. Therefore, although there are many Chinese merchants, they lack the skills to run their businesses, have limited general knowledge, and are powerless to make decisions. They do not fully understand business conditions, and are easily manipulated by tricksters; they are ignorant of government regulations, and are bullied by those with evil intensions. It is a pity that they, despite having years of experience, are struggling in their business and facing so many obstacles. This has prompted me to start this Golden Hills’ News, and use the Chinese language to describe daily happenings about Chinese and American business and government and legal affairs. It will be published every Saturday, so that people will know what is going on. If you have business news, we can advertise it here. That way, business will flourish, knowledge will expand, public sentiments will be felt, and government regulations will be understood; and to the Chinese this is by no means a small benefit. - Mr. Howard 
Food prices: 
Coffee: 18¢ per pound 
Fine salted pork: $27/per large barrel 
Medium salted pork: $22, $23 per barrel 
Fine salted beef: $18, $20 per large barrel 
Medium salted beef: $20 per barrel 
Fine ham: 20¢ per pound 
Fine bacon: 15¢, 16¢ per pound 
Manilla fine sugar: 7¢, 8¢ per pound 
Lard: 15¢, 16¢ per pound 
Fine Chinese sugar: 9¢ per pound 
Second-rate Chinese sugar: 8¢ per pound 
Fine black tea: 50¢, 55¢ per pound 
American fine sugar: 12.5¢ per pound 
Chinese rice: 5¢, 6¢, 6.25¢ per pound 
Carolina Rice: 6¢ per pound 
Manilla rice: 3¢, 3.5¢ per pound 
In this city, barbarians of different nationalities bully the Chinese too much. From now on, if a Chinese is harassed, beaten, or cheated, he can report it to Mr. Howard so an English notice can be translated and sent to all countries. Chinese do not have to suffer mistreatments in silence. Mr. Howard is located at 163 Clay Street, upstairs. 

People from different countries who come to America and wish to become Americans can first go to court and take an oath. The court will issue a paper which can be renewed every two years. With that they can go to the hills to dig gold and do other things without having to pay for a license. If you wish to learn more, please visit Mr. Howard upstairs for a more detailed discussion.

Our Teaching California collections team has been busy researching and preparing documents like these over the past year, including working with our partners at the California History-Social Science Project to carefully incorporate over 60 primary sources from our collections into the project’s instructional materials.

Excitingly, we are creating newly-digitized copies of these primary sources for inclusion in Teaching California, and teachers will find these documents and more when we launch the project website later this year (more details to come). In the meantime, visit for more details about the project, and follow along here on our blog for more updates.

We look forward to uncovering more stories as we dig deeper into the primary sources in our collections!

The California Historical Society is working in partnership with the California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) at UC Davis to establish and implement Teaching California: a free and expansive online set of instructional materials to support the State’s new K-12 History-Social Science Framework. This post comes from Kerri Young, Teaching California Project Manager. You can reach out to her at

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Teaching the Important, Honest, and Troubling History of Native California

This blog is reposted from the California History-Social Scient Project's blog. The original post can be found here. 

Editor's Note: As we travel around California, one of the most frequent concerns we hear from teachers is that they don’t feel prepared to teach students about the history of California Indians. Elementary teachers have explained that they don’t know enough about pre-contact California, especially the history of indigenous people in their local area. Eighth-grade teachers reflect that their current resources are incomplete and don’t fully document the perspective of native peoples during the 19th Century. And high school teachers often remark they don’t have anything on native history after 1900. We’ve heard these concerns and in response, we’ve brought together a new team of scholars and members of native communities to design a workshop specifically focused on teaching the history of California Indians. Historians Shelley Brooks and Michelle Lorimer will lead the workshop, aided by the important scholarly contributions of Benjamin Madley, Steven Hackel, Clifford Trafzer, Khal Schneider, and Gregg Castro. This workshop will debut at our new Framework Conference series, which starts on September 10 at UC Irvine. Read below for a special blog post about the workshop, and learn more about the Framework Conference series here.

Native Americans on Alcatraz Island during the 1969-1971 occupation to reclaim native land. 
In West Sacramento last month, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to apologize for California’s treatment of its Native population. As the governor explained, “That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.” In our new workshop, “Highlighting Native Californian History through the Framework,” we hope to guide teachers through this important, honest, and troubling investigation of California’s history.

California’s History-Social Science Framework calls for more complex examinations of California Indian history across grade levels and time periods. Our workshop will focus on ways to incorporate the history and culture of Native Californian peoples into lessons at both primary and secondary levels. Lessons that explore California Indian history provide teachers with unique opportunities to connect students with local history and contemporary Native communities that, historically, have been frequently misrepresented and not consulted in public representations of their groups.

Teaching about the history of California Indians also allows students to explore interdisciplinary themes that span the various fields of social and behavioral sciences, including history, geography, economics, civics (political science), anthropology, religious studies, and psychology. Investigations that focus on the lives of Native Californians both before and after foreign contact highlight important historical thinking strategies. Students learn to understand diverse perspectives, evaluate historical evidence, recognize continuity and change, assess cause and consequence, and unpack ethical considerations of the past.

We will investigate the experiences of Native peoples during transitional times in California’s history—guided by the major instructional shifts in the Framework. We will use inquiry to investigate primary source content from pre-contact, the California mission era, the Gold Rush, and the modern civil rights era. Teachers will receive classroom-ready materials for grades 3 (local history), 4 (California history), 8 (19th-century U.S. history), 10 (modern world history), 11 (modern U.S. history), and 12 (government). Many of these resources will come from our partnership with the California Historical Society and our shared Teaching California project, which will debut later this year.

Written by Michelle Lorimer, Ph.D., an historian and lecturer at California State University, San Bernardino, Shelley Brooks, Ph.D., and Beth Slutsky, Ph.D., who are both  Program Coordinators at the California History-Social Science Project.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Our Time Has Come

We’ve just added two new collections to CHS’s digital library: the Gay and Lesbian rights movement ephemera collection, and the Joe Altman Photographs of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade - the event that is known today as the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Pride Celebration.

Preparing float at Spear St. before parade, 1979 June 24; Joe Altman photographs of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parades, PC-040; Box 01, Folder 11; California Historical Society.
"Creative Award" winning women's float, Market St., 1979 June 24; Joe Altman photographs of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parades, PC-040; Box 01, Folder 11; California Historical Society. 
Joe Altman’s photographs of the 1979 Gay Freedom Day parade depict marchers and celebrants taking to the streets a little more than a month after the voluntary manslaughter verdict for Dan White in the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk sparked the uprising against the San Francisco Police Department and City Hall known as the White Night riots. Fittingly, the theme of the 1979 Gay Freedom Day was “Our Time Has Come.”

Gays Against Nuclear Power contingent, Market St. at California and Drumm Sts., Ferry Bldg. in background, 1979 June 24; Joe Altman photographs of the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parades, PC-040; Box 01, Folder 07; California Historical Society. 

The gay and lesbian rights movement ephemera collection consists of flyers, brochures, announcements and newsletters from lesbian and gay rights activist groups working in Northern California in the 1970s.
Dan White Gets Special Treatment!, 1979; California social, protest, and counterculture movement ephemera collection, SOC MOV EPH; Box 1, Folder 13; California Historical Society. 
Stay tuned for stories from these two unique collections in the coming weeks.

Written by Al Bersch, Metadata and Systems Librarian at California Historical Society

Monday, June 17, 2019

The Transcontinental Railroad, African Americans and the California Dream

A pivotal moment for the era and a monumental industrial infrastructure achievement in the history of the United States, the transcontinental railroad completion in 1869 had a profound effect on American life which changed the nation forever. It was a revolution which reduced travel time from the east to west coasts from months to about a week, and at less cost than previous overland and by sea options, that open economic and cultural opportunities for the possibilities of the movement of people and goods. It opened California, other parts of the U.S., and the Pacific World to more travelers, tourists, emigrants, and settlers.

A settler colonialist and imperialist project, corporate and military organization hosted imported (mostly from China) laborers who were paid low wages to plow across and lay the tracks through indigenous people’s sovereign nation lands to connect the distant colony of California to become a vital part of the U.S. continental empire. The railroad companies produced pamphlets and magazines to recruit whites from the U.S. and Europe to settle in California and the West, and those who wanted to explore the Western landscape from the comfort of the modern railway car. Although not thought of as part of the audience for this promotion, African Americans would also learn and benefit from what the transcontinental railroad could offer.

Before, during and after the transcontinental line’s construction, in southern states, thousands of enslaved and then freedmen worked on the railroads grading lines, building bridges, and blasting tunnels. They working as firemen shoveling coal into the boiler riding alongside the engineer, and as brakemen and yard switchmen. They loaded baggage and freight, and sometimes drove the train. Even with racist resistance to blacks as they migrated to northern states that rose after the Civil War, the new freedmen joined their northern brothers in the few jobs like these mentioned which were open to them.

The post-Civil War years into the early decades of the twentieth century, black men gained employment on the transcontinental railroad, most often as Pullman Company’s Palace Car porters and waiters, helping to define American travel during the railroad transportation era. These Pullman porters, as they were called, made “porter” synonymous with “Negro,” and provided glorified servant work as valet, bellhop, maid, and janitor for luxury sleeper cars used for overnight travel. Pullman cars were like or better than the best of America’s hostelries of the era, only on wheels.

Paid low wages, Pullman porters had to make money in tips from the public to survive and thrive, which they unquestionably accomplished. These men worked long hours and faced routine racial discrimination, abuse and indignities. The exploitative working conditions were imposed by management supposedly to incentivize black employees to provide the best service, compliancy in following orders and resistance to unionization, and to intimidate them to be grateful for their jobs. Scholarly studies showed in the 1920s, the Pullman company hired the most African Americans in the U.S. and the porters were one of the worst exploited workers in the country. But even under these conditions the job did have life changing benefits.

Pullman porter jobs offered stable blue collar employment, the adventure, glamour and education of travel to many places, and escape from hard physical labor on the farm or in the factory. Interaction with more intelligent classes in the travelers who Pullman porters meet and served, and the information gained from these people and the publications they left behind on the trains, informed them about what was going on in the broader world. Porters passed this knowledge and publications on to their families and the black communities they passed through in their travels around the country.

Between 1867 and 1969, thousands of African American men changed history as they rode the nation’s railroads as Pullman porters. They were an example of upward mobility for black males during the nation’s railroad transportation era. They spread the word of higher wages and improved circumstances which helped energize the Great Migration of nearly 500,000 southern African Americans who moved to the North between 1915 and 1919, and those who followed in later decades during the twentieth century to western, as well as northern cities. They created the first labor union for African Americans, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (which also included the maids) in 1927, and helped build the 1950s–1960s phase of the civil rights movement.

California had its share of African American men who worked as Pullman porters and in other railroad jobs who migrated from southern states to its railroad hub cities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They, like many African Americans, would have been attracted by California’s admittance to the Union as a free state in 1850, and the freedoms and opportunities this extended over the years. A history of less racially motivated violence and harassment directed towards African Americans was also an encouragement for migration to Los Angeles and other western cities. The opportunity for their children to attend public schools and the state’s 1893 anti-discrimination law were other factors which made California an enticing destination for new life opportunities.

John Wesley Coleman (1865–1930) worked as a Pullman porter for 12 years, after migrating with his family from Austin, Texas to Los Angeles at the time of an economic boom in 1887. An entrepreneurial clan, he and his relatives bought land and settled in Boyle Heights, a newly subdivided area just east of Los Angeles’ downtown and the river. They were some of the earliest African American settlers in Boyle Heights.

John Wesley Coleman and his family arrived in Los Angeles in 1887 from Austin, Texas and settled in the Boyle Heights District east of downtown. One of his early jobs in Los Angeles was working as a Pullman Porter, before he became a successful real estate investor, employment agent, and important civic leader. Photograph from The Negro Trail Blazers of California by Delilah Beasley, 1918.
Before and sometimes while Coleman worked as a railroad porter, he used his skill set and resources to take advantage of several employment and business development opportunities in his years of becoming an established Los Angeles citizen. By 1907, after ending his traveling around the country serving and meeting all types and classes of people as a Pullman porter, Coleman began one of his most enduring business endeavors. He opened an employment agency in downtown Los Angeles where he helped many African American newcomers find jobs.

Enormously successful in getting people employment up and down the Pacific coast, some observers in the African American media called Coleman the ”Employment King of Los Angeles.” Over the years, he also would accumulate and sell valuable regional real estate on his own and with relatives, and be a part of other business ventures such as the Hotel Coleman DeLuxe which provided services to primarily an African American clientele at Lake Elsinore, a resort town in Riverside County.

Among Coleman’s many significant civic leadership undertakings was in helping establish and support the Forum, founded in 1903. This organization encouraged collective action to advance and strengthen African Americans socially, intellectually, financially, and in Christian ethics. With a membership of all African American classes, the Forum fought against racial discrimination and engaged in philanthropic efforts. They supported black business development and patronage. They urged white-owned businesses and the government to employ African Americans in non-menial positions. Lasting until the 1940s, the Forum was one of the most important organizations in the history of African Americans in Los Angeles as it helped them develop a sense of community through providing a space for public discourse, civic organizing, political dialogue, and aided newcomers to network and assimilate into Los Angeles society.

While working as a Pullman porter, Arthur L. Reese (1883–1963) first traveled to Los Angeles and its environs. On a layover in 1902, he read in the newspaper about a new amusement pier and resort town construction by pioneering developer Abbot Kinney in an area to be called Venice of America on the Pacific Ocean’s Santa Monica Bay, just south of the city of the same name. Looking toward the future, Reese was interested to develop his own business and rode out on the streetcar to Venice to investigate what opportunities might be available for him with Abbot Kinney and his new venture. Soon after this, on his returned to Louisiana, Reese quit his railroad porter job and then moved to Los Angeles.

Arthur L. Reese discovered Los Angeles and Venice, California were he eventually moved, while on a layover from his Pullman Porter job in 1902. After moving to the region in 1904, Reese eventually became recognized as the “Wizard of Venice” due to the inventive decorations he designed for the Venice-of-America amusement center.(Photograph collage from the Arthur L. Lewis Family Archives)
Reese eventually established successful service oriented businesses which supported the needs of the Santa Monica and Venice business and residential community. Alongside his own business endeavors, he would become head of maintenance and decorations for the Kinney facilities and be very actively involved in Venice civic affairs with local business and other groups. Reese’s business operations would eventually extended into Los Angeles, and Lake Elsinore in Riverside County where he was part of a business partner in the Lake Shore Beach grounds, a resort site for African Americans. Over the years, Reese supervised a work force of a few dozen people which included several of his relatives who he inspired to migrate to California from Louisiana. Reese, his family members and other African Americans who worked with his and, or Abbot Kinney’s enterprises made up the early African American community which live in Los Angeles’ Venice beach community.

Like thousands of other African Americans in college, law and medical school, and other academic programs, Eugene Curry Nelson (1883–1962) spent summers working as a steamboat and railroad car waiter in the northeast U.S. In this temporary work, he earned a salary and tips which helped pay tuition and expenses for medical school and later the needed equipment for his professional office as a physician and surgeon. Born and reared in Charleston, South Carolina, he earned his undergraduate degree from Prairie View A&M University near Houston, Texas. He obtained his medical training degree from Meharry Medical School, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dr. Eugene Curry Nelson, like so many young African American men and a few women when in college, law and medical school, and other academic programs, spent summers working on steamboats and railroad cars as waiters, porters and maids in the northeast U.S. to earn money to pay for tuition and other education. expenses. He moved to Los Angeles in 1914. 
In 1911, Nelson commenced his medical practice in Virginia, before migrating to Los Angeles in 1914, where he settled and built a practice that included patients who were African American, white, and from other racial and ethnic groups. In Los Angeles, even before the end of the Jim Crow era in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for African American physicians to have patients from the varied ethnic communities of the city. This occurred even as these doctors and other African Americans were discriminated against in most other professional, employment and social settings.

By 1924, Nelson was called “one of California’s wealthiest Negroes” by Noah D. Thompson in an article which appeared in The Messenger, a nationally circulated African American monthly published by A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen in New York. In additional to practicing medicine, Nelson invested in several businesses in finance, real estate, manufacturing, oil, and amusement. He also held leadership roles in undertakings to promote and develop African American businesses and civic participation for individual and group benefit. In the 1920s, Nelson was part of a group of very ambitious African American businessmen who bought the white owned, Parkridge Country Club in Corona, a Riverside County community, to operate as an interracial space of recreation and for a new African American community development in Southern California’s Inland Empire.

Coleman, Reese, Nelson and others who worked as Pullman porters and waiters exemplified the “New Negro” determined to achieve fuller participation in American society in a hostile white world. Along the way, these men helped give birth to the African American professional classes. The transcontinental railroad line offered them new opportunities for employment, broader knowledge about the U.S. for their personal betterment and that of their community. It facilitated the ability of Coleman, Reese, Nelson and many other African American men and their relatives to migrate to Los Angeles to live their California Dream of new life opportunities in a mild climate and sublime landscape.

Jefferson, Alison Rose. Living the California Dream, African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, in press.

Tye, Larry. Rising from the Rails, Pullman Porters ad the Making of the Black Middle Class. New York: Owl Books/Henry Holt and Company, 2004.

Written by Alison Rose Jefferson, MHC, PhD.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Children's voices in the Archives : El Joaquin Newspaper

Children’s Voices in the Archives is a series of posts brought to you by CHS’s North Baker Research Library.

Reading through the historical newspaper issues of El Joaquin is a strange experience. El Joaquin was a newspaper published in the Stockton Assembly Center during Japanese incarceration. This was considered a ‘temporary detention center’--such centers or concentration camps as called by others were used from late March, 1942 until mid-October, 1942. The El Joaquin newspaper issues in CHS’s collections have a run from May 1942 to the Final Edition, September, 1942. It was published every Wednesday and Saturday by the El Joaquin Press, W.C.C.A. Assembly Center, Stockton, CA. Single copies were delivered to each ‘apartment’ free of charge.

The editors of the newspaper seem to take great pains to tread the line between boosting morale--in the face of a racist policy that used war as an excuse to force Japanese citizens and residents out of their households--and appeasing the people who were incarcerated, perhaps in the attempt to ensure their safety. In the first Volume (issue no. 1) one gets a sense of the appeasing tone the editors use to try to get everyone to cooperate: “However, our personal frustrations must be shelved temporarily for an undertaking which requires each individual to cooperate with his fullest and best effort” (p. 1). This appeal seems at once appeasing yet subversive. Why subversive? Let me explain.

The same Volume 1 (no. 4) introduces us to Pancho, the newspaper mascot. Pancho is a toothy El Joaquin staff character: “Little Pancho represents the spirit of the Center. He is Patient, Active and Neighborly, Courteous, slap-Happy and Orderly” (an acrostic for his name).

Pancho for President, June 10, 1942; El Joaquin, Vol. 1, No. 4; OV Vault 289, Stockton Assembly center; California Historical Society.
On closer study, little Pancho has an interesting backstory the reader may peruse in the El Joaquin Final Edition (page L3). When the newspaper staff discover little Pancho “perched pertly on the Art Editor’s desk” toting a huge sombrero with “patches of hair showing underneath” the staff writes that upon more close observation of this “mysterious object… we noticed that there was a face and even a body beneath the hat. ‘Hey,” we shouted, “What the ____.”

When they ask Pancho what he is doing there, Pancho replies, “Why… you know me. I helped develop the lands around here. I raised beets, celery, grapes, potatoes, and even carrots. I’ve been a doctor, lawyer, farmer, merchant, laborer and a scholar. You’ve seen me around -- everywhere. I came in when the evacuation order was issued, because I had to” (Final Edition, L3). The staff notes how their adopted mascot then leaps gracefully from the table to the right-hand corner of the front page with a cry of “Let it roll.” The story of Pancho within the pages of El Joaquin begins a subtle subversive thread of a character who is resilient and ready to take on the immense burden of captivity with an industrious spirit.

But the subversive hint doesn’t end here. Remember--the El Joaquin newspaper had to, by the nature of the people’s captivity, be tame since the captors and hired staff of administrators and center’s workers could read its contents. In the issues I reviewed, I didn’t find the significance of the name “El Joaquin.” I wondered if there was more to it than being emblematic of San Joaquin County, the center’s county location in Stockton. It turns out there may be more history there. Upon speaking with library staff at the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum, the special collections staff thought that at first glance the newspaper was just named after the county. However, when the staff spoke with the Education Director, he mentioned that according to local lore the name has historical significance for one of the following reasons:

The newspaper was named after Joaquin Murrieta, a symbol of resistance.
Cover page, September 28, 1942; El Joaquin Final Edition, 1942; OV Vault 289, Stockton Assembly center; California Historical Society.
Joaquin Murrieta was a “legendary bandit who became a hero of the Mexican-Americans in California” during a time when Yankee miners pressured the legislature in Sacramento in 1850 to pass the Greaser Act and the Foreign Miners Act with the intent to drive out Mexicans (Encyclopædia Britannica). According to lore, Murrieta or several “Murrietas” responded to the oppression by “leading bands of outlaws that raided up and down the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, robbing gold miners and holding up stages” (Encyclopædia Britannica). Murrieta reached a symbolic status as a freedom fighter that has “long resonated and provided a powerful symbol of resistance for Chicano activists” (Encyclopædia Britannica). Could this resonance be the motive for the re-branding of El Joaquin Newspaper by the editors? Remember there is power in naming. Is it a reach to say that the branding of El Joaquin Newspaper by the editors was a subtle act of resistance? A way of reminding us of the historical implications of racist laws meant to favor one group over another and undoing it by capturing the original spirit of a Mexican migrant who wanted to settle with his bride in California?

Researchers must read between the lines and sometimes history is completely hidden from records and/or passed on as oral history. It’s hard to discover the “truth.” Remember the echoing lines, “Why… you know me. I helped develop the lands around here. I raised beets ... even carrots. I’ve been a doctor, lawyer, farmer, merchant, laborer and a scholar. You’ve seen me around -- everywhere. I came in when the evacuation order was issued, because I had to.” If the Japanese community saw themselves as Americans, they saw themselves as the traditional ideal of what Americans aspire to be: a helping hand, a laborer, a farmer, an intellectual. Whatever circumstance they are forced into, that ideal rises to meet the massive ‘challenge’ (an understatement in this context). Words are well but don’t always convey their true meaning. So we keep reading between the lines and between bodies’ gestures and actions.

What terribly complicates this captivity and the extent to which the captive can object, resist, or openly rebel are, of course, the children. Imagine if you were a parent under captivity. Imagine what you would do if you were forced out of your home and told that you and your children had to stay in an assembly center until further notice not knowing what will happen. What would you do?

The people at the Stockton Assembly Center and the newspaper staff got to work immediately-- organizing a nursery school; training Boy Scouts “the value of serving their communities” (A8, Final Issue); informing the “centerites” mothers that infant care would be provided as the dreams of the people were crushed when they were told they were being relocated to another new facility dubbed the “Arkansas project” (Final El Joaquin issue).

Pancho with travel bags, Aug. 8, 1942; El Joaquin, Vol. 2, no. 9. OV Vault 289, Stockton Assembly center; California Historical Society.
From church activities (Buddhist and Christian), to playing chess, performing Nisei symphonies, writing bittersweet poetry and humorous drawings, and setting up school lessons by dedicated volunteers serving as teachers in the center, the people of the Stockton Assembly Center arose to a difficult situation by uniting and organizing to make things work and to protect the children.

Kids playing chess, July 29, 1942; El Joaquin, Vol. 2, No. 6; OV Vault 289, Stockton Assembly center; California Historical Society. 

“Night and a Mood” poem, September 28, 1942; El Joaquin Final Edition, 1942; OV Vault 289, Stockton Assembly center; California Historical Society.

When I say that reading El Joaquin is a strange experience I mean to reflect upon the strength of the human spirit--how we meet captivity by doing what we've always learned to do--laughing at ourselves; caring for the children, and ensuring that their minds and bodies keep active (I'm thinking of the Girls' All-Star Teams noted in the Final Edition); dancing with "shimmering hues of brightly colored kimonos" (Vo. II, No. 2); informing our community of the latest developments through print and word of mouth. This is what a resilient and resisting people do. One may ask the bold question: What else can you do when you hope that the lives of the children will continue and maybe even thrive despite the trauma of captivity.

History repeats itself but it need not. We can learn from our costly mistakes and those of our ancestors. We can grow wiser and be better humans. We can resist. We can protect each other if we unite and raise a cry of protest against injustice.

El Joaquin takes kids to center store, August 5, 1942; El Joaquin, Vol. II, No. 8; OV Vault 289, Stockton Assembly center; California Historical Society.


El Joaquin, 1942; OV Vault 289, Stockton Assembly center; California Historical Society.

Joaquin Murrieta. (2019, May 1).  Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 29, 2019 from

Nisei. (2017, September 11). Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved May 29, 2019 from

Stockton (detention facility). (2015, July 14). Densho Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:31, May 29, 2019 from

Written by Lynda Letona, Assistant Archivist & Reference Librarian at California Historical Society (CHS).

Photos digitized by Marissa Friedman, Imaging Technician and Cataloger at CHS.