5 Things You Should Know About California’s 19th Century Maritime History

California is my home state. (Ironic, that I study the history of Virginia for Civil War studies, eh?) California played a significant role in 19th Century American Maritime History. Part of California’s role had to do with its location.

West Coast of the United States, bordered by the Pacific Ocean.

When California was a Mexican province, its people started welcoming the American merchant ships. When California became a state in 1850, the gold rush brought thousands to the west coast. California’s location also made it a gateway state for immigrants and a last port before a ship set off across the Pacific Ocean.

Today we’ve rounded up five important aspects of California’s maritime history of the 19th Century. We’re keeping it simple for the sake of time, but feel free to add comments if you have more information to contribute. Continue reading

6 Historic Sites Near Los Angeles That You Need To Visit

You know, sometimes we forget about the history in our “backyards.” I’ve spent this month sharing some history and great historical sites from my state – California. But I am always surprised at the vast amount of history (even local or state history) that I have yet to discover!

Earlier this month, my family took a short jaunt to the Los Angeles area for a vacation and we toured some excellent museums. I wanted to share these sites with my readers – if you live in Southern California be sure to check them out…and if you live out of state consider visiting our area to explore our history. We don’t have Gettysburg or Williamsburg…but we have the Battleship Iowa and a few Civil War sites of our own!

The Drum Barracks Museum

The Drum Barracks Museum

The Drum Barracks Named after Richard Coulter Drum (not the musical instrument), the Drum Barracks Museum is what remains of a large Civil War era military camp established to protect the Port of Los Angeles. The U.S. troops headquartered there guarded the location, the local citizens, and extended Union control into Arizona and New Mexico.

The structure still standing today was originally junior officers’ quarters and has been developed into a fine museum. We had an excellent tour guide who explained California’s complex role during the Civil War and the history of the area! So there – we do have plenty of Civil War history in California, including a historic site or two…

The Banning House Museum (a young lady and her brother kept getting the photographs!)

The Banning House Museum (a young lady and her brother kept getting the photographs!)

Banning House Museum Originally built in 1864, this home was the residence of Phineas Banning and his family. Mr. Banning came to California in 1851 and his entrepreneurial spirit contributed to his success. He advocated strongly for the local port to become a major commerce center and was influential in laying the paths for railway lines in California.

The home is beautifully preserved and many of the furnishings are original. Our tour guide was informative and helped us imagine what it must have been like to live in the “big house” in the days when its front porch view was unobstructed all the way to the ocean. In the “basement” of the house, there is a very nice museum with interactive displays detailing transportation and commerce in early California.

Looking up at the tower of Point Fermin Lighthouse

Looking up at the tower of Point Fermin Lighthouse

Point Fermin Lighthouse Established by the U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1874, this lighthouse guided ships toward San Pedro Harbor. The lighthouse epitomizes an ideal of Victorian lighthouse life, but our tour guide pointed out that the life was much more challenging and rugged than we might imagine from our modern perspective. The structure is well preserved and contains many 19th century artifacts, demonstrating life in that time period. The original lighthouse lens (Fresnel lens) is on display.

The guided tour takes visitors through the dwelling rooms and all the way up the tower into the lantern. (“Lantern” is the term used to describe the room where the light and lens originally sat.) The Point Fermin Lighthouse Society has done a marvelous job preserving their treasure and helping visitors appreciate its historic significance.

Some of the fortifications of Fort MacArthur

Some of the fortifications of Fort MacArthur

Fort MacArthur The exterior fort is located on the heights just above Point Fermin Lighthouse, while the underground tunnels run…who knows how far! Fort MacArthur was an active military post from 1914 to 1974, guarding the California coast and the commerce harbor of San Pedro. Concrete structures and gun platforms remain and the major entrances to the underground tunnels are visible. There is a nice display of historical items, highlighting the fort’s importance in national defense. I was particularly interested in the collection of World War II era newspapers, highlighting West Coast concerns.

Standing on the concrete walls or on the bluffs looking toward the sea, I considered the importance of this fort – this landmark – and the role it played in defending continental United States during World War II.

Battleship Iowa

Battleship Iowa

The Battleship Iowa While we’re on the World War II topic, meet the Battleship Iowa. She’s an Iowa class battleship and her name is Iowa too; how cool (and easy to remember) is that? See the huge forward guns which consumed about 660 pounds of gunpowder per shell fired, tour the officers’ quarters, learn about the history of ship from WWII through the Cold War, and marvel at the width of the steel plating on this American-built beauty.

A family friend who’s a battleship enthusiast took us on a tour of this mighty vessel and we had a marvelous time. A big “thank-you” and “you’re awesome” to the volunteers who are preserving and restoring this important piece of American history.

This home is where Richard Nixon grew up; now it stands in the gardens of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library

This home is where Richard Nixon grew up; now it stands in the gardens of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library

The Nixon Presidential Library and Museum Did you know the 37th President of the United States actually grew up in Yorba Linda, California? That’s right, and that’s where his presidential library and museum is located. Wander back in time in the exhibit halls and explore the life, politics, and legacy of Richard M. Nixon and his family. He was a gifted leader and I learned so much! In the gardens – on its original location – stands the home where Richard Nixon was born and where he grew up; a little farther on in the gardens is his Marine One helicopter.

I’m ashamed to say I had a very narrow minded view of former President Nixon. I’d always associated him with the Watergate Scandal and hadn’t taken a lot of time to learn more about him. It was such an unexpected pleasure to tour the museum and learn more about this man who did so much for America, especially in international diplomacy. In summary, I left with a new found respect and admiration for President Nixon.

So go exploring – there’s history all around you!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What are your favorite historic sites in California or your own home state?



My 5 Favorite Places To Learn About California’s Gold Rush

Last week I wrote about my favorite California Missions. Today, I’ll share some of my favorite places to explore in Gold Country. I’m not talking about the Golden State – I’m talking about Gold Country: where the miners searched for treasure during 1849 and the following years.

Just the thought of the beautiful mountains and clear streams makes me want to go back. There are many beautiful places in America, but California Gold Country and the Sierras are some of my favorites.

But just what got northern California the title “Gold Country”? Great question. Here’s the answer…

California’s Gold Rush (In A Nutshell)

In 1848 a man named John Marshall was overseeing the building of a saw mill on the Columbia River for his boss, John Sutter – owner of Sutter’s Fort in modern day Sacramento. There was something glittery down in the water and Marshall fished it out. It looked like gold…it was gold. Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the discovery a secret, but that’s a pretty big secret to get all the laborers to keep. Word leaked out.

Residents of California raced for the location and across America newspapers heralded the discoveries. Gold, Gold, Gold – In California! That started the “gold fever” and thousands of people across the nation dropped their work, found transportation across the Great Plains, across the Isthmus of Panama, or around Cape Horn and arrived in California.

Sutter's Mill - where John Marshall discovered gold!

Sutter’s Mill – where John Marshall discovered gold!

With pick ax and shovel, cradle, sifter, and miner’s pan, these forty-niners toiled in search of grains and nuggets of gold. Some struck it rich. Most did not. The legends, discoveries, and tragedies of the California gold fields are fabulous!

So where do you go to discover more? Read on…

  1. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

Located at the actual location of the saw mill, this historic site preserves and explains the moment when John Marshall discovered gold. There is a small museum and living history programs are scheduled throughout the year. You can walk along the river too – who knows what you’ll find!

Stagecoach in Columbia

Stagecoach in Columbia

2. Columbia State Historic Park

A fabulous location, Columbia is your chance to step back in time…well almost! Entire streets of the town are preserved and authentic shops line the shaded streets. There are a variety of living history experiences throughout the year. This town was established in 1850 when gold was discovered near by and its still steeped in Gold Rush history and folklore.

Miner's Statue in Auburn, California (Some family kept getting in the photos...)

Miner’s Statue in Auburn, California (Some family kept getting in the photos…)

3. Historic Old Town Auburn

Originally a gold-rush town, Auburn has grown and changed through the years, yet still retains an old-fashion charm in its historic district. There is a large statue of a miner and a display of mining equipment located at one of the main entrances to the town. There are museums in the beautiful county courthouse (but be prepared to go through basic security – no knives, gentlemen!), the Gold Rush Museum has great displays and is schedule to re-open in autumn 2015, and there are several other museums and historic homes in the area.

Empire Mine

Empire Mine

4. Empire Mine State Historic Park

Reflecting a later period in California gold mining – when mining was semi-industrialized – the Empire Mine Park features an impressive display of old mining equipment and the historic home of one of the mine’s owners and family. The location is beautiful and the tour guides were informative. This site helps us to visualize what California mining became after the prospector with his pick ax and pan became obsolete.

5. My Own Backyard

No, no, don’t gold rush to my house – I don’t have a gold mine – seriously. But I did learn a lot about gold mining through the living history days my mom organized for us kids. First, we hiked “a long ways” up and down the hill we live on to symbolize the journey to the gold fields. Then we made sifters by nail punching holes in the bottom of aluminum loaf pans and got to work in the sandbox, shaking and sifting for tiny golden colored BBs. Homeschool "Gold Rush Day"(Extras from my dad’s BB gun.) Even better was “panning for gold” – mud, water, a few BBs, and an old pie plate equals hours of fun and a realization that most miners didn’t get rich quick!

In Conclusion…

If you live in northern California, go see the history in your backyard and enjoy the charming small towns in your area. If you live farther away, maybe this post will inspire to explore Gold Country.

And…if you’re like me and just can’t make the trip right now…grab a good book! (“Tales and Treasures of the California Gold Rush” by Randall A. Reinstedt is one of my favorites and you can find others on the new booklist.)

But if you go to Gold Country, don’t forget to stroll along the river bank, remember the miners, and look…you never know what may be in the sparkling waters. (I haven’t found anything yet…but maybe someday!)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Traveled to Gold Country? What’s your favorite location?