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Monday, January 28, 2019

Alfred Stiles: A Boy’s Adventurous Journey to California

Children’s Voices in the Archives is a series of posts brought to you by CHS’s North Baker Research Library. Stay tuned for more charming examples of history through a child’s eyes in the coming months.

Alfred Stiles’ diary reads like a mini adventure novel written from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy traveling from Boylston, Massachusetts on a ship headed to the Golden State. His sharp prose and keen observations may surprise you, not to mention his recording of details that veer into the journalistic then make a sharp turn towards the poetic. You might not think there would be much to do or observe on a ship’s long journey from Boston to San Francisco by way of Cape Horn (Dec. 1849 - June 1850), but even within the first few pages of Alfred’s diary, an avid debate club springs to life--the Cheshire Debating Club--to which his parents belonged. Alfred’s parents debated questions such as “Should the U.S. acquire the state of California?” Alfred diligently recorded the yeas and nays--his father in affirmative with 2 others and “Mother in Negative + 2 others.” They debated whether the acquisition of California would be of any benefit to the U.S.

Cover page, 1847; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1856; MS 4014; California Historical Society.

Passenger list, 1849-1850; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1856; MS 4014; California Historical Society.  
Christmas and New Years did not go by without incident. Alfred notes some rowdy behavior on Christmas Day when “2 thirds of the passengers drunk besides Capt + mate + 1 or 2 hands the mate pulled Choate from port hand of the forecastle and struck him several blows on the head, when some of the passengers cried out ‘throw him overboard’” he left for his cabin. Amidst the blows and drink, Alfred reports they had 2 pigs for dinner and apple duff.

On New Years, “About 2 clock a man had 4 bucket served at his head and a few other things which created a great excitement.” One diary entry records Tuesday, January 1st 1850 as evincing a light breeze and people wishing each other a happy New Year, with some passengers wishing to have a Heigh ride at home while it is as warm as July. Next Alfred describes fresh pork and apple pie for dinner, as well as doughnuts for supper with the addition of black fish.

We also find moments of quiet admiration and reflection where whale watching upon the ship Cheshire reminds the reader of Moby Dick. Alfred writes in another entry, “Thursday dec [?] very sick passengers most all sick saw some whales about 3 miles off” then on the opposite page of the diary, the lone word Whale crowns the page of text like a chapter title.

Whale title heading, 1849-1850; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1856; MS 4014; California Historical Society.  
On a separate entry, we find a lovely poem titled “A Life on the Ocean Wave,” where Alfred transforms into a caged eagle amidst scattered waters and a dull unchanging shore.  [See end of blog for poem transcription]

“A Life on the Ocean Wave” poem, 1850; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1856; MS 4014; California Historical Society.
Some pages turn to odes yearning to find wealth in California, followed by a nostalgic homecoming. In the first stanzas Alfred reminisces upon pleasant times spent with loved ones, then the promise of “gold dust” in the eyes. This follows another line in which the writer waxes poetic about soon reaching San Francisco and fulfilling the fantasy of seeing “gold lumps there” on the streets ready for picking “off the ground,” as if the streets were lined with gold nuggets to fill one’s pockets full of riches to return home in glory.

Odes “Oh! California,” 1850; Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1850; MS 4014; California Historical Society.
Reading Alfred’s diary, whether you are an adult, teen, or child, will take you on an adventure from East to West Coast during a time when the promise of safe harbor in a new land might be your heart’s desire.

Poem Transcription for “A Life on the Ocean Wave”

A Life on the Ocean wave !!!!

A life on the Ocean Wave
A home on the rolling deep
Where the scattered waters save
And the Winds their [revels] keep
Like an Eagle caged I pine
On this dull unchanging shore
Oh! Give me the flashing Brine
The spray and the tempests roar
Once more on the deckd hand
Of my own swift gliding craft
Set sails farewell to the land
[May] the gale follow far aloft
We shoot through the sparkling foam
Like an Ocean Bird set free
Like an Ocean Bird our home
We find far out on the sea
The land is no longer in view
The clouds have begun to frown
But with a stout Vessel and Crew
We’ll say let the Storm come down
And the song of our hearts shall be
While the sounds and the waters save
A life on the heaving Sea
A Home on the bounding Wave !!!!!!

Alfred L. Stiles Ship Cheshire April 24, 1850
From Boston Bound to California

Transcription of Odes of yearning to California

I thought of all the pleasant times
We’ve spent together here
I thought I ought to cry a bit
But couldn’t raise a tear
The pilot bread was in my mouth
The gold dust in my eyes
And though I’m going far away
Oh! Brother don’t you cry

Oh! California

I soon shall be in San Francisco
And then look all around
And when I see the gold lumps there
I’ll pick them off the ground
I’ll scrape the mountains clearing logs
I’ll drain the river dry
A pocket full of rocks bring home
Lo Brothers don’t you cry

Oh! California

Alfred L. Stiles Ship Cheshire
From Boston Bound to California Feb. 20, 1850 Lat 36 25 South

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

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

Alfred L. Stiles diary and letter, 1849-1850; MS 4014; California Historical Society.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Digital Curriculum Educator Survey Results from the Teaching California project

With a summer 2019 launch on the horizon, the California Historical Society (CHS) is continuing work on the Teaching California website initiative, which will provide California classroom teachers and students with curriculum and primary sources tied to the state’s recently adopted History – Social Science Framework.

Our team has the pleasure of working with the web development firm Navigation North on this project, who have been helping both CHS and our content development partners at The California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) think through how we might build an experience around the grade-level instructional materials we are creating, called “inquiry sets,” for teachers and students in a classroom setting. An initial piece of research that helped us explore this was a Digital Curriculum Needs Survey, which Navigation North created and CHSSP and CHS distributed to teachers late last year.

This survey sought to find out how teachers, and particularly History-Social Science teachers, are currently searching for curriculum materials online, what their level of proficiency with technology is both in and out of the classroom, and the variety of materials they are looking for online. Thanks to CHSSP’s extensive teacher network, we were able to collect responses from more than 300 educators! The chart below exhibits the categories of teachers who responded:

The results were a revealing look the current relationship that teachers have with online resources in the classroom.

Above, the results show that personal use of technology outpaces professional use, meaning that strong adoption of technology in teachers’ personal lives does not necessarily transfer over into their professional processes.
Here are some other high-level takeaways from the survey:

Mostly Veteran, Secondary Teachers
Over 50% of respondents are long-time instructors (+57% = +15 years experience), teaching in single-subject assignments at public middle / high schools (+78%).

Most Believe in the Instructional Value of Teacher Technology Use
Over 80% of respondents claim that technology as an instructional planning, delivery, and differentiation tool translates to High or Considerably High Instructional Value.
Over 95% claim technology can/does help them provide more diverse learning materials and, in turn, diversify their teaching for improved outcomes.

Little Professional Support and Coordination
Most teachers (+88%) work in schools where there is little/no planning and sharing on effective use of technology in the classroom. And most (+77%) say they are expected to learn new technologies on their own outside of school hours.

Student Use of the Internet Has Benefits, but Requires More Work for the Teacher
Overall, respondents cited higher levels of motivation, collaboration, and student work products when using the Internet.
These benefits are coupled with more teacher work to monitor for plagiarism and use of unreliable sources, yet, +73% feel that student access to the internet does NOT result in increased discipline issues.

Teachers Regularly Turn to the Internet for Curriculum
+79% search for online curricular resources several times a week or more for their classrooms.

Teachers Are Looking for A Variety of Curricular Resources and Like to Use Search Terms
From worksheets to assessments and lesson plans to primary sources and media, teachers are looking for everything but use open search terms far more than standards, frameworks, or topic lists. 

For a full summary of the results, please go here.

Stay tuned for more updates on the Teaching California project on our blog!


Written by Kerri Young, Teaching California Project Manager at California Historical Society.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Disappearing Photos of Peoples Temple

Among our collection of Peoples Temple Publicity Department materials is a group of ruined photographs – some faded completely to white, others thickly scattered with flaking pigment, a few recognizable but chemically streaked and melted. These photos are relics of the Temple’s practice of faith healing. It’s well known that Jim Jones’ flamboyant “healings” were at the center of Temple culture, drawing crowds to services and converting many curious visitors into serious believers. Less well understood, however, is the fact that Peoples Temple offered the service through the mail.
A few of the "disappearing photos" that sent to the Peoples Temple mailing list
This is hard to imagine in today’s connected world, but the Temple was many things to many people, depending on whether you attended services, when you joined, and whether your primary interaction was through the Peoples Temple mailing list. Without much opportunity for members to compare stories, Jones could present his organization to different people as a leftist utopian movement, a mainstream Christian church, an anti-Christian church whose pastor mocked the Scriptures and claimed to be the only God his followers needed, an ecstatic Pentecostal-style revival, or a low-key prosperity gospel ministry.

It was the latter that dominated the mailing list, which sent out a beautifully designed monthly newsletter. This mailer would usually include a donation request, and often also a small relic – a piece of Jones’ robe, a flask of holy oil, an anointed penny – which was said to give the recipient luck, or send material rewards their way. CHS’s “disappearing photos” of Jones were included with the mailer in August 1974. Believers would place the images on affected parts of their body and watch the images vanish as a sensation of healing washed over them. In reality, the photos had been intentionally developed so that they would fade on exposure to light – but the effect, to a sick and desperate person, must have held great emotional power.

The mailer itself stops just short of claiming that the photos could heal, or even of telling the recipient how to use them (in this way, the Temple avoided outright mail fraud). It does, however, include a number of testimonies which explicitly explain that when the image was touched to a sick or injured body, the image disappeared and the body was healed. The testimonies provided both verisimilitude and deniability for the Temple.
Peoples Temple monthly newsletter, August 1974
We have no way of knowing how many photos were kept as personal mementoes, how many were discarded after they appeared to work (or not work), and how many were ignored, but we do know that many of the used photos were sent back to the Temple. Some were accompanied by brief testimonial letters, others only by notes scribbled on the envelopes, and others arrived with no writing at all, just a blank and silent image.

Today, the photos convey a strange sort of emptiness. Unlike most photos, they were never important for the images they carried, but for their power as objects. Ephemeral things are always emotionally powerful; think of the autumn leaf, or cherry blossom, that makes us feel both melancholy and buoyant. In the case of the photos, their creators designed them to self-destruct in order to give them a feeling of holiness. Now, however, that emotional power is spent. These empty sheets of photographic paper have no meaning left at all.

This leaves an archivist with a question. Do we hold on to these items? If objects from the past don’t speak, do they have a place in the library? Most people assume that an archivist’s job is to hold on to everything from the past, to take care of the past so that other people don’t have to think about it. (Witness the way the word “archive” is used in email and project management software – essentially, to mean “send this to a place that I’ll never see, but don’t delete it.”) In reality, archivists let things go all the time – and usually because they don’t bear information. Why would a librarian maintain a blank book?

The question isn’t quite as simple here, of course. These photos are more comparable to a large collection of empty, mass-produced blank books, like unused diaries. They’re poignant, but in ways that we may think we understand better than we do (we don’t know why the people in my example bought diaries, or why they never used them). There’s always a danger, in reading history, of filling in your own emotional context when there is none to be had.

In the end, we discarded many of the photos. We kept a substantial number of them, both to testify to their emotional resonance with Temple members and to preserve the information that some of them had written on their backs. But when it comes to conveying the vanishing of meaning, we’ve found that twenty blank pieces of paper are as powerful as a hundred.

Written by Isaac R. Fellman, CHS's NHPRC Project Processing Archivist

The processing of this collection was made possible by funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Legacy of Carleton Watkins

Carleton Watkins is something of an enigma. Very few letters written in his own hand survive, leaving historians and early photography enthusiasts to fill in the gaps of his life and career. This makes some of the concrete details of his life surprisingly hard to pin down. According to various sources, he is either the oldest of eight children or the youngest of five. He arrived in San Francisco in 1851…or was it 1849? Accounts of his life are filled with hedges (“1855-61: Photographed New Idrea and New Almaden mines and Mission Santa Clara (according to Turill)’’ says one chronology) and guesses. Information presented as fact may not actually be, which can make writing an account of his life (my task as Project Archivist at California Historical Society) somewhat difficult.

His name, when placed next to that of his contemporary, Eadweard Muybridge, recedes. Muybridge, an Englishman whose motion studies of Leland Stanford’s horse Occident and moving zoopraxiscope are often credited as the beginning of motion pictures, seems to get all of the glory. Muybridge was a more colorful character. He changed his name several times, from Edward James Muggeridge to Edward Muygridge to Eadward Muybridge, in what seems to be the slow and iterative perfecting of how he would prefer to be known – as if he at all times had one eye fixed on his own greatness. At one point, he signed his photographs “Helios” (“Titan of the Sun”). He murdered his wife’s lover but was acquitted for what, at the time, was considered “justifiable homicide.”

Interestingly, the differences between the two artist’s statures seem to be archival matter. Watkins famously lost the contents of his San Francisco photography studio during the 1906 earthquake, just before he was to transfer the archive to Stanford University. Tyler Green writes, “In fact, just a week before the earthquake, a curator from the university had visited Watkins…in preparation for the university’s apparent acquisition of Watkins’s archives, the first time an American university or museum would recognize a photographer’s importance in such a way.” An amazing photograph exists showing Watkins as a bearded elderly man with a cane, suit, and top hat on the streets of San Francisco shortly after the earthquake, a massive cloud of smoke visible in the background.

River View, Cathedral Rock, Yosemite [CEW 31], 1861; Carleton E. Watkins photograph collection, PC-RM-Watkins; Box 1, Folder 5; California Historical Society
  Much of Watkins’ studio was lost, including the massive mammoth glass plates used to create his famous photographs of the Yosemite Valley and other parts of the West as it was being settled. Complicating the issue is the fact that, due to poor financial decisions earlier in his career, Watkins had lost many of his original negatives to a group of creditors which required him to reshoot many of his original photographs (his “New Series” is the result of this). Watkins’ photographs are dispersed widely and held by numerous archives and private collectors around the country. Chief among these are the Bancroft Library, the Society of California Pioneers, and the California Historical Society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Muybridge did manage to eventually transfer his archive to Stanford. In fact, Leland Stanford – a railroad baron – was Muybridge’s greatest champion and supporter, much as Collis Huntington was Watkins’. Some have suggested that this matter of the photographers’ archives is the reason that Muybridge is better known today.

Rebecca Solnit, in her book River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, also compares the two men. she writes, “In the 1860s and 1870s, landscape was a western business, but Watkins came first, and he stood alone.” Over the years, his subjects varied from mining camps to railroads and Spanish missions up and down the California coast. Watkins photographed famous artists, writers, and professors, native plants of California and the Southwest, and the newly built Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City – a great dome that looks like it recently descended from space.

Watkins’s gorgeous nature photographs still stun viewers and his style is almost instantly recognizable from his beautifully composed photographs with a certain discernable focus and clarity. This is even more amazing given the incredibly labor intensive process that created them and involved a team of mules, giant glass plates, and a travelling “dark room” in a covered wagon. Still, Solnit writes: “They are radiant with a mysterious serenity.”

Nevada Fall, Yosemite [CEW 90], 1861; Carleton E. Watkins photograph collection, PC-RM-Watkins; Box 3, Folder 6; California Historical Society.  
The California Historical Society is making the entirety of its Watkins collection available for the first time, and its contents are revealed in a detailed finding aid. More selections will also soon be available on the CHS digital library. This work was made possible by Teaching California – a statewide initiative developed to bring primary sources into California’s classrooms. There are also a number of Watkins photographs (including a panorama of San Francisco) currently on view in our galleries as a part of the Boomtowns exhibition.


Green, Tyler. Carleton Watkins: Making the West American. Oakland: University of California Press, 2018.

Solnit, Rebecca. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Viking, 2003.


Written by Erin Hurley, Teaching California Project Archivist at California Historical Society