Early California: Perceptions, History And Literature

California became America's thirty-first state in 1850. At the time of its admission into the union, California was separated from the rest of the continental US by a broad swath of territory -- Texas being its closest neighbor until Oregon's admission into the union in 1859. California therefore existed in the popular American imagination as a place of adventure. With a separate climate, early Spanish colonial history, and land deposits rich in gold, a romantic ideal of the state as a tabula rasa promulgated as part of the 19th century American dream. Resources included below highlight primary sources from the period, reference materials and particular themes and individuals contributing to our current understanding of this period in the history of America's Westward expansion. Links are provided to items available in full online. Full bibliographic information is provided for applicable items.

People And Organizations

The following individuals and organizations provide significant context for the history and perceptions of California. Some reference sources are provided below, but a further investigation into these people and related organizations should yield a rich overview of topics for further inquiry.

Robert Ernest Cowan (1862-1942) was a San Francisco bookseller (1895-1920) and author of bibliographies of history of California and the Pacific Coast. Finding Aid for the Robert Ernest Cowan Library and Bibliographical Lists, ca. 1935: Cowan's collection of books and manuscripts form the nucleus of the UCLA Department of Special Collections' holdings in Californiana. The collection consists of library and bibliographical lists of the Robert E. Cowan Library made by Mr. Cowan and members of the UCLA Library staff.(UCLA Library Special Collections)

Finding Aid for the Robert Ernest Cowan Papers, 1876-1942: Collection consists of correspondence, catalog, bibliographic materials, account books, an early diary, photographs, ephemera and memorabilia. (UCLA Library Special Collections)

Finding Aid for the Robert E. Cowan collection of early California manuscripts, 1551-1932: Collection consists of miscellaneous manuscripts pertaining to California history. (UCLA Library Special Collections)

Robert E. Cowan Collection of Zamorano Club Ephemera: Ephemera related to Zamorano Club events from 1929-1935, from the collection of bibliographer Robert E. Cowan.(UCLA Library Special Collections)

Robert Ernest Cowan Papers: Primarily materials relating to Cowan's Collection of rare Californiana, purchased for the University of California by Collis P. Huntigton in 1897. Includes correspondence; newspaper clippings; invitation for a reception for Phoebe A. Hearst's loan collection, 1916; and list of items in the Cowan Collection, 1897 (microfilm only) Includes letters from Lemuel Nichols Ide (1905), John L. Steiff (1894), George G. Spurr (1894), and Frank Koenig (1911)(UC Berkeley Bancroft Library)

Interview with Robert E. Cowan Cowan, Robert E. “Interview with Robert E. Cowan.” California Folklore Quarterly 3, no. 3 (1944): 241–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/1495885.

Henry Chapman Ford: An artist and illustrator, Henry Chapman Ford is most famous for his series of etchings featuring all of the 21 mission sites in California. In 1893, he presented these etchings at the Chicago World’s Fair. Ford, Henry Chapman. Etchings of the Franciscan Missions of California: With the Outlines of History, Description, Etc. New York: Studio Press, 1883.

Bret Harte: Bret Harte (1836–1902) was an American short story writer and poet, best remembered for his short fiction featuring miners, gamblers, and other romantic figures of the California Gold Rush.

Helen Hunt Jackson: Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885) was an American poet and writer who became an activist on behalf of improved treatment of Native Americans by the United States government. Her novel Ramona became a literary success within months of its publishing and created widespread interest in the history and native people of Southern California.

Zamorano Club: The Zamorano Club is Southern California’s oldest organization of bibliophiles and manuscript collectors. Founded in 1928, it sponsors lectures and publications on bookish topics. Most noteworthy among the latter is the Zamorano 80 (1945)—a member-selected and -written catalogue of the most significant books in California history—recently complemented by Zamorano Select. The Club was named in honor of Agustín V. Zamorano (1798-1842), a provisional governor of Alta California and the state’s first printer.


Many bibliographies have been compiled of books about California's early history, literature, and books produced in the state during its early years. The titles below provide a rich overview of the variety of materials available to explore.

A Bibliography of the Spanish Press of California: Bibliography of printed material produced in California under Spanish colonial rule.

Cowan, Robert Ernest. A Bibliography of the Spanish Press of California: 1833-1845. San Francisco, 1919.

Bibliography of the history of California and the Pacific West, 1510-1906; together with the text of John W. Dwinelle's Address on the acquisition of California by the United States of America: Bibliography of 1000 historically significant titles related to the history or California and the Western United States territories, up to 1906.

Cowan, Robert Ernest, John Henry Nash, Robert G. Cowan, Robert Ernest Cowan, and J. Gregg Layne. A Bibliography of the History of California, 1510-1930. San Francisco: Printed by John Henry Nash, 1933.

Coy, Owen Cochran. A Guide to California History. Dubuque: W. C. Brown Co, 1951.

Gaer, Joseph. Bibliography of California Literature: Pre-Gold Rush Period. California Literary Research Project. Monograph, 7 (G-a). [S.1: s.n,] 1935.

Hanna, Phil Townsend. Libros Californianos: Or Five Feet of California Books. Los Angeles: Jake Zeitlin, Primavera Press, 1931.

Parish, John Carl. California Books and Manuscripts in the Huntington Library. Cambridge, Mass: Printed at the Harvard University Press, 1935.

Weber, Francis J. The Books of the California Missions. [S.l: s.n,] 1982.

Wheat, Carl I. Books of the California Gold Rush: A Centennial Selection. San Francisco: Colt Press, 1949.

Zamorana 80: A list of books compiled by the Zamorana Club in 1943 intended to represent the most significant early volumes published on the history of California.


Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona was an immediate popular success, and sparked interest in California's history throughout the United States. The novel provides context for the popular imagination of the state in the 19th century, and subsequent literary criticism helps to define ongoing perceptions of California.

Ramona (Reference): Set in Southern California after the Mexican-American War, Ramona portrays the life of a mixed-race Scots–Native American orphan girl, who suffers racial discrimination and hardship. The novel's sentimental portrayal of Mexican colonial life contributed to establishing a unique cultural identity for the region.

Ramona Jackson, Helen Hunt. Ramona: A Story. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1912.

Conley, Caitlin Rose. “Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona: A Critical Edition.” University of Virginia, 2014. An exploration of the context, reception history, and scholarly conversation surrounding Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona.

González, John Morán. The Troubled Union: Expansionist Imperatives in Post-Reconstruction American Novels. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010.