Five Fires: Race, Catastrophe and the Shaping of California by David Wyatt–Chapter One: The Wild Oat

five firesFive Fires by Davie Wyatt is not what I expected.  I was expecting a straightforward history with a focus on the five events named on the back cover: the arrival of the wild oat, the Gold Rush, the San Francisco earthquake, World War II and the Watts Riots.

David Wyatt delivers as promised, but instead of the expected look at the historical record, Mr. Wyatt’s history of California is focused on the literature each period produced making his book as much a history of perception as it is a history of what happened.  I’m enjoying it so far.

And learning quite a bit, too.

Chapter one looks at the arrival of the wild oat, the grass you see covering the hills just about everywhere you go, at least in Northern California.  I’ve long assumed we were the Golden State as much for the color of the countryside as for the minerals found here.  Except for a green month or two during the spring, the countryside of coastal California is beautiful rolling hills covered in yellow grass.

Turns out this is a non-native species brought over by the Spanish.  The Wild Oat spread so quickly, and at the expense of native plants, that by the time the first settlers from the United States arrived the landscape was already covered in yellow grass.

Honestly, I could have used more about the grass in chapter one.  Instead, Mr. Wyatt uses this chapter to discuss the arrival of the Spanish and the days before statehood.  By focusing on the literature each event produced, Mr. Wyatt presented me with new information about people I’ve already heard about and a couple of people who were altogether new to me.

Two examples:

First, Generall Mariano Vallejo who was one of the most powerful men in Mexican California at one point owned 175,000 acres of ranchland in the Sonoma and Napa valleys only to lose it all after the Bear Flag revolt and statehood.  Late in his life, Hubert Howe Bancroft, the first state librarian, convinced Vallejo to interview as many of the surviving Californios as he could.  Vallejo, who had already written a 900 page memoir later lost in a house fire, spent much of 1870 travelling the state, interviewing some 62 people about their time in Spanish and later Mexican California.  These accounts sit in the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley, still unstranslated and unpublished.

The second person, one who is completely new to me, is a man named Pablo Tac.  Pablo Tac was a native American born in 1822.  Two of the early Padres stationed at Mission San Luis Rey took Pablo Tac back to Rome with them where he was trained as a missionary.  Tac died after ten years in Rome before he could return to California, but he left behind a 22 page account of life before the arrival of the Spanish, the only such written account in any language.

Pablo Tac’s account of native life portrays a society full of struggle, often violent struggle, brought on by culturaly differences and an inability to speak the same language.  There were 113 distinct languages spoken in California before the Spanish arrived.  Tac believed the Spanish would bring about changes for the better through a single belief system and a single language.

Wyatt uses Tac’s account and the accounts in Vallejo’s interviews as a means to get at what life was really like for the native population by reading between the lines, or reading through the lines, or under them.  It’s a difficult strategy to look for what the authors were really portraying when it does not match what they were saying, but it can be useful.

For example, one of the Spanish women interviewed by General Vallejo describes how violent and untrustworthy the local natives were.  She praises her father and uncles who chased down one set of theives captured and killed them, taking their ears and scalps to present to the governor as evidence of their success.  She ends up betraying much more about how the Spanish really treated the native population than she probably meant to.

In his account Tac describes a ball game played betwen two tribes which broke out in violence because of a disagreement over the rules.  One tribe belived the ball could be carried short distances, the other did not.  Tac deplores the violence but we can read this as an account of two tribes cooperative enough to engage in sport and two tribes developed enough to have highly regimented team sports.  In both cases, the modern reader can use each accounts, though they are each highly biased, as a means to glimpse what life may have been like.

The written record can be a very tricky thing.