Califia--Historical Notes

M.D. Coverley

AKA Marjorie Coverley Luesebrink

Several readers have asked for some critical background - historical perspective, source material, and technical construction data - for Califia. The following is the Historical Background section - perhaps you will find it useful.


History and Historicity in Califia

The Califia stories occur in specific historic periods and in actual locations. Yet, while Califia thereby seems to fall easily into a category we might call historical fiction, my intention was to use factual time and place in a somewhat different manner. The historical material in Califia is primarily neither background nor decoration nor local color (although I hope these functions obtain); rather, history itself is a major thematic element of the novel. As such, I used different techniques of matching history to the shape of the narrative, depending on which aspect of our understanding of history I was attempting to foreground.

Overall, it was necessary to employ historical time in order to portray the ways in which characters (and real people) might differ in their perception of events and yet remain within a larger truth. I hoped to use history to validate alternative histories and include marginalized voices. Only if I used a widely acknowledged historical framework and verifiable details, I felt, could I represent multiple, layered versions of experience, each of them fundamentally "true."

For example, the "mythic" time frame (which is explored on Kaye's path) begins with the earliest legends of islands and extends to a limited knowledge of the future, since Kaye has contact with the "spirits." Even though Kaye is unquestionably a California visionary, she is not an unreliable narrator. Her perception is oriented to the long view of history, a certain selection of cosmic aspects, and a sense of the rhythms of the natural elements - all confirmed by facts. My research, while not nearly so methodical as for an academic treatise, was extensive. The island legend material came from a number of texts, including Marvelous Possessions: the Wonder of the New World by Stephen Greenblatt, The Island of California by Dora Beale Polk, and Cabeza de Vaca's Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America translated and edited by Cyclone Covey. [A partial bibliography is included at the end of these notes.]

The interface between real history and fiction was negotiable, but I attempted to locate it as close to the bare bones of the "invented" plot as possible. The earthquakes (listed in Kaye's "Geological Certainties" in The Journey South) of 1857 and 1883 in the Tejon and the Tehachapi (1) actually happened. Also of historical record is the Tehachapi train wreck of January 20, 1883 (The History of Los Angeles, City and County). Although the eyewitness accounts do not mention an earthquake, the reports conflict about the cause of the accident. It seemed reasonable to me to suppose that, since the ground was particularly unstable that year, a quake could have been a factor. When constructing the tale of the lost Califia mine, I started with the real earthquakes that surely could have collapsed a mine and obscured the entrance, and then built the story around those dates. Kaye tells the story of "The Probability of Earthquake," which includes portions of the history of the mine.

Many readers have supposed that the Califia mine was a complete fiction, since gold is usually associated with the Sierra Nevada. However, the mountains north of Los Angeles were the site of the first gold discovery in California in 1842 (The Oak of the Golden Dream link in The Journey East, Augusta's Path). And, fringe folks (like my characters) continued to hope for strikes in the Tehachapi Mountains as recently as yesterday. The known mines in the Tehachapi do not correspond exactly with the fictional, Dipper arrangement of mines that Kaye discovers (they are very close to the map that Ernie Genuine supplies - The Journey East, Augusta's Path). When I began plotting the real mines, I was struck with the coincidental likeness to a mirror image of the summer Big Dipper. That resemblance suggested both the location of major fictional events and the navigational trope for Kaye's Path. The names of the mines (other than the Califia), their locations, and even parts of their evolution are taken from recorded, contemporary accounts - unreliable as those might be! My research into the history of gold mining in Southern California included a class in Southern California gold mines, several fact-finding/photo trips into the local mountains, and relevant texts including: Buried Treasures of California by W.C. Jameson, The Long Road to Tehachapi by Judy Barras, Mines of Julian by Helen Ellsberg, Dry Washing for Gold by James Klein, and Lost Mines and Buried Treasure by John D. Mitchell. Often the best source of information was a small, local museum, like the one in Tehachapi - a place rich in forgotten histories.

To illustrate the interface between history and fiction, you could consider the issue of China Diggings, one of the Dipper mines in Califia. The China Diggings was a real mine, located just where I have placed it in Califia, and having a record of an elaborate water-supply apparatus and regular collapses in the tunnels due to earth movement. I invented the notion that Christian Beveridge might have been killed there, but at least one murder was reported at the site. Also invented: the suspicion that Kim Su might have had an interest in the Diggings. The Chinese were unwelcome in many places in California during that era and often moved about until they could find a hospitable home (Chinese Gold by Sandy Lydon).

A wish to include minority and female voices as a valid expression of our memory of history guided the account of Willing Stars, the Chumash Grandmother of Califia. Kaye tells this story, and she has to "intuit" much of it, since few records are available to the characters about Willing Stars' life. Yet, I did not want to suggest that Kaye was making up a fanciful tale, and so I anchored the story in historical fact. Several texts recount the 1824 flight of the remaining Chumash tribespeople toYokut territory in the San Joachin Valley (The California Indians: A Sourcebook, R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple). Further, records show that the Chumash were still living in Yokut territory in 1833, the year of the meteor shower recorded in Joseph Walker's journal (Westering Man: The Life of Joseph Walker by Bil Gilbert). The kidnapping of Willing Stars from the Yokut camp to the El Rancho de San Fernando is from The History of Los Angeles, City and County, recounting the rescue of an "Indian" captive by Jacoba Feliz y Lopez del Valle and her guest, Lucretia del Valle Lugo. (I found a somewhat different version of this incident in private papers in the Sherman Library, Corona Del Mar, CA.) Place and time are factual; I have merely inserted my character into a scene where the victim has gone unnamed. Moreover, several texts mention that the "mission Indians," who were somewhat Christianized and could speak Spanish, were valuable as slaves and were traded widely - a condition that was true of the remnant Chumash. I "moved" Willing Stars to Fort Tejon, therefore, so that she could meet up with my character, Samuel Walker, and participate in the events at that location.

The creation of Willing Stars' name does represent a fictional synthesis of sorts. We know very little about Chumash religious practices because this culture was the first to be destroyed by the mission system. However, A.L. Kroeber's Handbook of the Indians of California and other texts stress some important points. The California tribes were not homogenous in any sense. Some 135 different languages were spoken by these native groups. The languages belong to 21 different linguistic families. Kroeber believed that many of the tribes were the product of in-migration and that they brought cultural practices with them. Once in California, tribes seemed to occupy specific environmental niche areas that persisted over some time and were clearly understood by neighbors. From these areas, they traded both goods and ideas (and often words, though they spoke separate root languages). So, for example, we know a fair amount about the Penutian-speaking group, the Yokuts, of the San Joaquin Valley. We know they had both a "sweat house" tradition and also a not-too-clearly elaborated female initiation ceremony that seemed to have come from the Chumash (Hokan-speaking). Just to the south of the Chumash were two Shoshonean-speaking tribes: the Gabrielenos and the Luisenos. These groups had a very elaborate mystical tradition, complete with shaman and shamaness categories and jimson-weed rituals - rites they seemed to have shared with the Chumash. Also, we have the extensive pictographs of the Chumash and the evidence from E.C. Krupp (Echoes of the Ancient Skies) that the caves were associated with the solstices and star journeys. One of the ubiquitous graphics in the cave paintings is the spider web. I imagined a woman shaman who was associated with the web of the stars. In fact, the Gabrieleno, Fernandeno, Serrano, and Yokut each had a name for such a woman. Kroeber speculates that the Chumash must have had a similar figure. The name is some variation of Chukit or Ukat. I have taken the native language base, made an amalgamation, and given Willing Stars a name "not of the conqueror." Translated roughly, UKAT-CHOKUN-HOWISH-NOCUMA means "Spirit One Who Weaves the Skirt of the Web of Willing Stars." The etymology of the name is explained in The Journey South, Kaye's Path.

The escape of the native Chumash,Yokut, and other tribes from Fort Tejon to Owens Valley is also well documented, notably in The Destruction of California Indians by Robert F. Heizer. Calvin relates this section of the story as a Docudrama (2), using letters that closely parallel the actual correspondence between the Indian Agent and the State Commissioner in 1858 and 1859. The Docudramas represent a different approach to problematic history and memory. Calvin is the organizer in Califia, and, as such, he represents a kind of official voice; he arranges and interprets the material, making it into what appears to be a legitimate history. Nevertheless, the Docudramas exist simultaneously with other personal narratives about the same events (Kaye's, and those of Rosalind Summerland, La Reina Lugo, and Nellie Clare Beveridge). While the different versions do not contradict, they illustrate how point of view can determine the experience of reality. Calvin, working with hard copy, constructs a linear story that coincides with the facts - but is not always the entire truth within the novel.

For the Docudramas I have relied upon actual documents, sometimes slightly altered or recreated. Here, of course, I needed to draw some fine lines that would conform to the intent of copyright law and protect my publisher. As it happens, I am a fifth-generation Californian; my predecessors lived at the margins of the historical events in Califia. They also saved a great deal of the paperwork from the past - everything from letters to worthless stock certificates to photos of the 1913 hot air balloon show. Where it was feasible, I "doctored" my own family documents and photographs to create the generations of the Summerlands, Beveridges, and Lugos. When I ran out of family photos, I adopted from my friends (readers may be interested to know that Ruben Lugo, for example, is really Kate Hayles' son, Jonathan). I also borrowed liberally from old family stories, my own and others', as sources for plot elements, character types.

The Docudramas may be "true" down to quite specific historic detail. Erk's Log (The Journey North, Calvin's Path), is largely copied from a series of letters that my uncle wrote when he was in the Air Corps and was, later, flying a mail route. (The Army Air Corps did fly the mail for a brief time in the early 1930's, see Airmail: How it All Began, Carroll V. Glines.) On one such flight, he crash-landed at Hearst Castle and was invited to dinner. His Castle dinner was not Hearst's birthday celebration, but the atmosphere at Hearst house-parties - the giraffes on the lawn, the costumed guests, the lavish style - described in the letter conforms to the published accounts (Citizen Hearst, W.A. Swanberg). In this case the letters are real, about real events, and it is only the flight of fiction that allowed me to introduce Philo Beveridge on the scene and have the two young men go off to find the Califia mine.

Similarly, the events in The City Builders (The Journey East) and The City Lost (The Journey North) Docudramas are built from real documents that merge almost seamlessly into real history. The scandals surrounding the Mission Valley Land Company, the LA Times, and the LA Aqueduct are the subject of many California texts - see Mark Reisner's Cadillac Desert, Remy Nadeu's The Water Seekers, William Fulton's The Reluctant Metropolis, or Robert M. Fogelson's The Fragmented Metropolis for descriptions of how the city developed. [Note here: The movie, "Chinatown," is a piece of historical fiction: historical events from 1907-13 are mingled with situations from 1926-28. I have kept strictly to the historical record, since my subject is not properly deception and intrigue, but how we remember history itself.]

A typical Docudrama episode in Califia, The Milton Oil Swindle, developed in this way: I was reading Jules Tygiel's The Great Los Angeles Swindle: Oil, Stocks, and Scandal During the Roaring Twenties when I noticed a familiar name, Edwin M. Daugherty, Commissioner of Corporations. I recalled the name from some of the worthless oil stock certificates that were in a suitcase I had in the closet. Sure enough, when I located the old stocks, they had been authorized by Daugherty. Tygiel's book is about Julian Petroleum, but a little bit of research revealed that the Milton Oil Company stock I had was from a similar boondoggle. In the way that the underside of truth reveals the pattern of the weave, Tygiel's carefully-researched history became the basis for the fictional, but real, Milton Oil Company adventure in Califia. Milton's photo is from the 1913 LA Air Balloon Exhibition - it is the face of one of the promoters. And the characters of Kramer Milton and Kramer Milton III (the Man from WindPower) are whole-cloth fiction, so you will meet them everywhere in life itself.

The Docudramas, then, represent a deep level of historical accuracy. Yet Calvin actually knows the least about what has happened - to himself, or to the other families. He has a middle-distance, organizational skill that allows him to synthesize data and schematize the relationships between events, but his versions are by no means definitive in terms of either the novel, or we must assume, the complexity of lived history.

If we were to weigh the trustworthiness of narratives we would be most likely to place faith in the eyewitness report. Augusta is the narrator of the here-and-now, our chronologer of the present. Alas, hers is the story that is most completely fictional. There is no historical basis for the journeys of Augusta, Kaye, and Calvin. They are characters created by the imagination, and their seemingly ordinary activities never did transpire. Two things are important, however, about the accuracy of Augusta's account. First, the places are real, as are the photos of the places. Whitley Heights, the Mojave Motor Court, Liebre Springs, the Old Tejon Rancho, and Beale's Cut all exist and can be visited (although the traffic is worse these days, and every trip seems to take two hours, now).

Embedding the modern story in real ground was important; the search for historical certainty is best done by "mapping" in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. As Philip J. Ethington writes, Los Angeles suffers from "unknowability": "Influential writers on postmodernity such as Fredric Jameson have named specific sites within Los Angeles as evidence of a new condition, in which history itself is effaced by the 'depthlessness' that characterizes a core condition of the 'world space of ultinational capital'–the ultimate source of ongoing exploitation and alienation. Recent scholarship has singled out Los Angeles as either unique among cities, or especially representative of new conditions of urban life and globalism." ("Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge.")

Califia, with its careful mapping of places, excavation of the sediments of forgotten layers and observation of remembered outcroppings, records of the topographical and topological features, is a defense against such erasure. The "depthlessness" that has been noted by some historians and cultural theorists is one aspect of Southern California. But the impression of shallowness is also the result of looking with a traditional orientation for hierarchies of meaning in a place that is constantly shifting, creating a new surface. There is something underneath, but the history of Los Angeles tends to reveal itself through a multiplicity of approaches. And, as Augusta observes (The Journey West), "the past is always with us."

The second "true" element of Augusta's narrative rests in the way that fiction embraces a truth that is somehow larger than, and different from, the sum of historic records or real-life accounts. Augusta's life situation, and those of Calvin and Kaye, I extrapolated from my own experience and observation. Augusta's personality is an example of a kind of veracity: she, like many other California women, is not defined by age, in general - not the way women elsewhere might be. California women tend to be nymphets up to the age of 18, and then they look about 25 years old for decades - and act that way, too. Neither does class bind her. Hardly anyone in California has any real claim to class, and what is taken as a classy veneer is easily acquired at the State College and the good stores at the good malls. Strength of character is rarely an issue. California women are encouraged to be surface-oriented; women with deep streaks of character: talent, intelligence, strong ethics, whatever, may be perceived as unattractive. Nevertheless, I gave Augusta a central role to illustrate that she is not a bad person and that her view of the world is entirely valid and reasonable.

I also tempered the personal with an immersion in the trajectory and flavor of Los Angeles throughout the last two centuries. I started with Kevin Starr's comprehensive volumes, and moved on to W.W. Robinson's Land in California, Abraham Hoffman's. Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy, Robert V. Hine's California's Utopian Colonies and other texts. I also have read much of the fiction by Californians or about California: Mary Hunter Austin, Helen Hunt Jackson, Irving Stone, Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Oakley Hall, Jack London, John Steinbeck.

My aim was not to create historical fiction, but to isolate a definitive piece of the compromised California paradise and make it a world. This world is populated by characters that reflect the peculiar disposition - an uneven blend of pragmatism, irrationality, and hope - of the California seekers, players, and keepers. Michael Seidel, in writing about the narrative-mythic form, suggests that the "heroic course of Western narrative" leads into "the modified domain of the bourgeois…." He proposes that "a man who wanders to the extremes of the world to experience what constitutes the daily texture of life" represents "The displacement of the epic wanderer into localized fictional domain [that] is the story of the novel's evolution." The "myth located in the bedrock of physical space and local artifact" is not "spun of marvelous invention," but it is a fabrication, painstakingly crafted to preserve authenticity. Califia, even though it is an experimental form in a new format, revisits the roots of the narrative-mythic novel.

Finally, because Califia is a hypertext, and I could not predict where and when, in the expanses of the novel, a reader might choose to travel, I wanted the places and events grounded in a spatial and temporal matrix that was familiar. I did not intend for the reader to need to distinguish between "real" history and contrived plot, between "real" locations and imaginary ones. In the last analysis, of course, history itself is an invention, and the analog of the map to the land is always an abstraction. But, if you place Califia just so on top of reality, the points will coincide, and you will have a mirror-image California Dipper.


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(1)  I have used the older spelling, Tehachepi, throughout Califia.  Modern maps and texts use Tehachapi.

(2) The term "Docudrama" (and its capitalization) does imply the compilation of a dramatized history that we might find on television documentaries.