Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book Review: What I Saw in California by Edwin Bryant 1848

I am near the end of  reading  What I Saw in California   by Edwin Bryant, pub.1848.  

His journey begins  when he leaves his home in Louisville Kentucky on the 18th of April, 1846  and his journal begins when he reaches the town of Independence, Missouri where he will buy a yoke of oxen and  yoke himself up with other travelers set to leave for the west on May 1st, 1846. 

It is a real log, as he says, "My design is to give a truthful  and not an exaggerated and fanciful account of the occurrences of the journey, and of the scenery, capabilities and general features of the  countries through which we shall pass, with incidental sketches of the leading characteristics of their populations."(p. 18) 

 I have enjoyed his documentation greatly.  Without my having to more than imagine the incredible toil,  he took me, with his words, across plains and over mountains, through wet nights on cold ground. He shared the taste of limpid waters, cold springs joyfully found, the comfort of bird song in lonely corridors, the relief of finding grasses rich with nourishment for their animals, and the heft and potential of soils he described as argillaceous ( Yes, I had to look this word up!).   

    It is June 22nd, 2014 as I write my post.  By the third week of  June in 1846, Bryant's party had already changed out oxen for mules and horses and reached the Platte River in Nebraska where they camp, the night of  summer solstice,  on the river banks  about three miles from a 300 to 500 foot high and mile wide rock formation known as "Chimney Rock"  that has been in their sight all day.  Mr. Bryant thought it looked much like architectural ruins and although he describes it rather well, as he does all the environs, he writes this the following day.

"June 22- The rain poured down in torrents about one o'clock this morning. and the storm continued to rage with much violence for several hours...
If I could I would endeavor to describe to the reader by the use of language, a picture presented this morning at sunrise, just as we were leaving our encampment, among these colossal ruins of nature.  But the essay would be in vain.  No language, except that which is addressed directly to the eye, by the pencil and brush of the artist, can portray even a faint outline of its almost terrific sublimity.  A line of pale and wintry light behind the stupendous ruins, ( as they appeared to the eye,) served to define their innumerable shapes, their colossal grandeur, and their gloomy and mouldering magnificence. Over us and resting upon the summits of these, were the black masses of vapor, whose impending weight appeared ready to fall and crush every thing beneath them...." ( p.103)

I was encouraged by this book as to the value of simple daily writing.  I was reminded of the great efforts many made to come to a land that is so often taken for granted and despoiled rather than appreciated and stewarded as it should be.  And when Edwin Bryant ends his daily scribbling with an estimate of the miles traveled " Distance 10 miles." I  hardly know what to feel.  I am one who can traverse so many miles so quickly and not even feel the wind or weather in my air conditioned car...amazing...and yet...

Black Butte a 6334 ft lava dome in the Cascade Range of California  

I intend to next post photographs of a trip we recently made in that car to visit Grandma Beth  then some friends, on to my brother and his wife on their  ranch  near the Oregon border and then, by way of  Mount Lassen Park, east to Reno, Nevada to some aunties. Imagine how many words Edwin Bryant might have dispensed with if he had downloadable pixels at his disposable.  Maybe I will let the wordy Mr. Bryant influence me, and I'll web-log away as the slide show unfolds.  But this review, meant to entice you to a good read, is all for this morn. (Distance...oh, so many miles) 

with best wishes,

Page references to paper back ( ISBN 0-8032-6070-9) Complete work  also available for free on line at


Pom Pom said...

Thank you for an appealing book suggestion!

GretchenJoanna said...

I have a book you might like, too - written by an ancestor of my husband, as he went by wagon train not once but "Twice Across the Plains" to California.

Neal said...

Very interesting and I look forward to your next post and photos. Always enjoy history as it adds so much to our understanding of who we are today. Cheers. Neal

peacework projects said...

oooo. . .looks good. i need a CA reading list! have you read 'two years before the mast'? i just ordered that one and am anxious to read it. i'll take GJ's suggestion too!