I ENJOY READING HISTORY because the world as I know it today is so completely different than the world of a hundred years ago, that it's almost like reading fiction. And yet the story of the human condition—our hopes, our struggles, and our inevitable death—is timeless. By reading the accounts of those who tread the Earth before me, I learn things about myself, our society and the natural environment.
The principal focus of my historical research has been the study of early California, especially the period before the American conquest of 1846. My other general reading interests fit under the category of "Voyages, exploration and discovery," mostly as it relates to the Americas from the fifteen century onward.
There is a rich collection of primary source material to draw from for these topics. Although some of it is written in English, most is written in Spanish, and since my Spanish language skills are only mediocre, I rely heavily on the published translations of the historians that precede me. Some source material is written in other languages as well; most notably Russian, as it pertains to the commerce of the North Pacific coast and California. Again, I am fortunate that diligent researchers have translated many important documents into English.
What these sources reveal is of enduring importance to me as a geographer. It is clear that dramatic changes have occurred on the land, and that the direction of these changes portends a future landscape functioning under a new type of balance. Whereas the old ecological balance included the simple harvesting and gathering needs of human beings, the new ecological balance includes the large scale transfer and storage of many types of natural resources: water, minerals, forestry and agricultural products, etc.
The human coefficient in this new ecological balance is orders of magnitude larger than the days of simple harvesting and gathering, and to maintain this new balance may require continuous human intervention of the landscape. I believe that understanding the natural history of the past will guide us towards good solutions to some of the most pressing problems created by this new balance: water supply, fire suppression, climate change, flood protection, wildlife habitat loss, and earthquake and landslide preparedness.
To be useful, this interpretation needs to be weaved into the other disciplines of my work, and shared with decisions makers in the areas of planning, policy, and regulation.
Original source material for the history of California prior to 1846 comes from travel journals, ship logs, commercial transaction ledgers, Mission baptismal records, and correspondence between California's governing body and their superiors in Mexico and Spain.
Translation and publication of these documents into book form has provided easy access to their content. Books like this are readily available in library special collections, and are often available for purchase through the antiquarian book market. Recently, Google Books has made available many out of print books and magazines that were originally published in the 19th century: this has made access very convenient, and I expect great things to happen in the field of historical research as Google Books expands its reach.
Many manuscripts remain unpublished, stored in archives around the state and beyond. I have had the opportunity to inspect some of the resources from these archives:
- Bancroft Library. This is the state's most renown historical archive; it is located on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley.
- California State Archives. Located in Sacramento, at the state library, the archives contains a valuable collection of books and papers beginning with 1848 statehood. Sadly, important pre-statehood papers were burned in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, limiting the usefulness of the archives in pre-conquest studies.
- U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Branch. Located in San Bruno, it is one of the nation's regional storage facilities. This archive has limited utility for the study of pre-conquest California.
- Sonoma County Archives. Located in Los Guilicos, near Santa Rosa, this archive houses government documents dating to the county's formation in 1850.
There are other important archives that I would like to visit:
- Archivo General de la Nación. The National Archives of Mexico in Mexico City: it should contain copies of the correspondence of the provincial governors of California; documents related to exploration and colonization; and manuscript diaries of missionaries and soldiers stationed in Baja and Alta California.
- Archivo General de Indias. The Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain: repository for the Spanish empire from the 16th to 19th centuries.
- Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library. This archive contains nearly the entire collection of extant correspondence of the California missionaries.
- Huntington Library. A highly respected library with a small collection of original manuscripts from the period 1830-1852. The Early California Population Project has indexed the baptism, marriage, and burial record books for the California Missions: it is of principal importance to the study of California from 1769 to 1850.
- Society of California Pioneers. Contains manuscript diaries of early American settlers.
- Sutro Library. A branch of the California State Library; it contains the entire collection of Librería Abadiano, formerly Mexico City's oldest bookstore.
Finally, for local history, I frequently find useful material at Sonoma County's History and Genealogy Library in Santa Rosa.