Woke up at the Saga Motor Hotel in Pasadena, California. I grabbed one last complimentary breakfast of coffee, orange juice, and an English muffin with jam, and then my friend came by the Saga to pick me up in his truck.
It was a beautiful, hot (third day of near-100° heat), sunny Southern California morning. We got on I-5 and began our two-hour journey to San Diego. To think that I had started my journey in Berkeley, traveled nearly as far into the Sierra mountains as Reno, Nevada, made my way down to L.A., and now here I was, for the first time in my life, traveling south of L.A. towards the Mexican border.
On the way down I primed myself for San Diego's difference. It is the eighth largest city in the United States, but otherwise has little in common with New York. It is a city with a large U.S. Navy presence, and a long U.S. naval history. The political climate here tends to be, let's say, a bit more conservative than Berkeley. It is also a hotbed of Protestant evangelicalism, strangely located atop this city's unique status as site of the original Spanish Catholic mission in California, way back in the 18th century.
I had thought L.A. and San Diego were one and the same, blending together, but they do not really blend. After a stretch of rural So Cal nature, we approached San Diego's ultra-modern skyline. It looks like the cities I have seen in the People's Republic of China, where every skyscraper is no more than ten years old. It is — I'll just say it — an ugly skyline for a generally ugly — or at least dull — city.
But I'm staying in the coolest quarter of the uncool city, the Gaslamp District. My accommodations for the next three days is the HI-San Diego hostel on Market Street. Located in an old building, my room is on the third floor, facing an inner courtyard. During the day the room fills with light. This, of course, reminds me of Spanish-style housing — much of which we recently saw in Peru — where the finest colonial homes are built like donuts, with a gaping hole in the middle — a courtyard — that bathes the surrounding rooms with natural light.
My lovely room at the HI-San Diego hostel in the Gaslamp Quarter, San Diego.
But I'm jumping ahead. Because we arrived in San Diego at 11AM, but my room would not be available for check-in until 3, so I had some hours to kill.
My plan — unsurprisingly — was to look for Hawaiian history. On this research adventure I have been so far pretty unsuccessful in locating remnants of 19th-century Hawaiian immigrant history in 21st-century California, but I have found some things. Little mentions of "Kanakas" here and there in museums and at historic sites, plus, of course, all the references to Hawaiian migrant labor I have discovered in the archives at the Bancroft Library and at the Huntington Library. Would I finally find Hawaiʻi's long shadow here in San Diego? I had to find out.
My first stop was the William Heath Davis house museum right around the corner from my hostel in the Gaslamp District.
The William Heath Davis house museum in the Gaslamp District, San Diego
Apparently people visit this house to learn about the Gaslamp Quarter, and not Davis, but I wanted to learn more about Davis. He's an interesting guy. Born in Hawaiʻi in the 1820s, his father was a ship captain (from New England, I think?) and his mother was the Hawaiian-born daughter of a haole dude involved in the Hawaiian government who had married a Native Hawaiian woman of royal lineage. So Davis was 1/4 Hawaiian.
His Hawaiian-ness has long intrigued me, because I figured it would mean something to him and he would discuss it in his writings. But perhaps identity politics were different back then in the 19th century than they are now. When Davis moved to Mexican Alta California in the 1840s and eventually stayed in California for the remainder of his life, friends (but perhaps not his real friends) got to calling him "Kanaka Bill" — "Kanaka" being a reference to his Hawaiian-ness. My feeling is that Davis didn't care very much for this nickname. It is interesting that in a copy of Davis' memoirs in the New York Public Library, someone has scribbled onto the title page the words "Kanaka Bill" right next to Davis' name.
What did it mean for people to call him "Kanaka Bill"? Was this a way of framing Davis as racially impure or inferior to "pure whites"? His memoir was published in the 1880s, at a time when white supremacy in California was at a fever pitch — think, for example, of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, and the role that white working-class anti-Chinese constituents played in bringing about that legislation. Davis' memoir basically claims that he was one of the important "pioneers" of Alta California — in a sense he is claiming an "Americanness" that was never really his (born in Hawaiʻi, he married a Mexican woman — did he become a Mexican citizen? — and only in 1848 was he somewhat forcibly integrated into the United States as a consequence of the Mexican-American War and the U.S. seizure of Alta California). He and his wife — not sure if she was criollo or mestizo — had, like, seven or more kids. I've stopped counting. And think of their identities: part-Spanish, perhaps part-Indio, part-Anglo (Yankee), 1/8 Native Hawaiian. These are complicated people, although it is not clear that they ever thought of themselves as complicated!
Anyway, I was hoping a bit of the Hawaiian would come through at the house museum, but it did not. In fact, Davis never even lived in this house; rather, it was a house he ordered built, but that he himself never lived in. What is important about the house is that it dates from the founding of "New" San Diego circa 1850, and Davis should rightfully be considered one of the "founding fathers" of this important settlement. As I will discuss shortly, the town of San Diego — that is, apart from the 18th-century Spanish mission — was established in the 1820s many miles north of where the current downtown is. The "Old Town" was situated alongside the San Diego River. "New Town," however, and this must have been Davis' genius, was situated right by the harbor. Since Davis spent much of the 1840s with his hands in trans-Pacific trade, specifically the hide and tallow trade, he knew the importance of harbor access to the commercial city. Davis' "New Town," including this old wooden house from c1850, eventually became the San Diego.
That's an interesting enough story, but it tells us little about Davis and his Hawaiian identity (or lack thereof). You can look around the house, and you see it furnished largely according to the style of the late 19th century, not circa 1850 when the house was built.
A room in the William Heath Davis house museum, San Diego
After this disappointment, I resolved to walk way across town to the harbor, and to then mosey up to the San Diego Maritime Museum.
Approaching the San Diego Maritime Museum. View of the ship Star of India (built 1863?).
I love maritime museums. But I was disappointed when I found that there was no "museum" here per se, but rather just a collection of historic boats that visitors can board and explore on their own. The admission fee was $15 which I decided wasn't worth it, so I just walked around the exterior of the boats and let my mind do the wandering. The Star of India was definitely my favorite of all the boats. It is apparently the oldest iron-hulled merchant ship that still exists (from circa 1863?). (Civil War buffs know that many iron-hulled ships were game-changers in naval warfare, but this was a merchant ship, and that is apparently its distinction.) It was built in Britain, and later, for many decades, served the Alaska canneries, I guess making sure that mainland U.S. consumers had ready access to canned salmon?
The museum also had a submarine, and even a reproduction 18th-century sailing ship. But Star of India is definitely the gem of their collection. I walked onto the only ship they would let me on without paying admission — the "gift shop" ship — and I was impressed with their maritime book selection. I picked up a cheap copy of Tales of the Pacific, a collection of short stories by Jack London about Hawaiʻi and other Pacific Islands he visited in the early 20th century before his death in 1916.
I had visited two historic sites, and yet still had over two hours to kill before I could check into the hostel! So I decided to board a trolley out of the center of the city to see the "Old Town," the one that Davis et al had put to ruin in the second half of the 19th century.
As I arrived by helicopter, this was my incredible view:
Aerial view of the San Diego "Old Town"
No, just kidding! The above photograph shows a diorama of what Old Town probably looked like back in the 19th century.
This was my real view, as I approached on foot:
The historic Plaza de Armas in San Diego Old Town, plotted in the 1820s.
It was really great to see a Plaza de Armas, especially since we had spent three weeks in Peru in July and every city we visited was centered on a Plaza de Armas. If the Spanish got anything right in their imperial project, it was urban design. Plazas attract people to come together, recreate, and socialize, and at best, they foster a sense of civic engagement and democracy. That's surely how I characterize the plazas we witnessed in Peru. Now, Spanish and Mexican California probably had lots of plazas once, but how many Californian cities and towns have maintained their center of gravity upon these historic plazas? San Diego's story, at least, is of their Plaza de Armas becoming a marginal, peripheral place, only fifty years after it was first mapped on the ground.
Old Town's plaza is surrounded with historic buildings.
Historic buildings line every side of the Plaza de Armas. San Diego Old Town.
It's all part of the San Diego Old Town State Historic Park. Some of the buildings are original 19th-century adobe and wooden edifices, but many are 20th-century reconstructions. Some of the buildings house museums about early San Diego history, while most house private businesses such as restaurants and gift shops. It is an interesting place; at night Old Town comes alive as the drinking classes live out their own dreams of Mexican-American history by scarfing down tacos and drinking margaritas in the shadows of the edifices where real Mexican pioneers once lived. (And it is important to be clear here that this place was Mexican before it was American. Old Town was founded in the 1820s right as Mexico claimed independence from imperial Spain. Only in 1848 did Old Town become an American city, and that's right when William Heath Davis started moving traffic to New Town anyway. So my experience of this place was more as Mexican history than as American history.)
Think about it. Everywhere I have been on this California Research Adventure was once, at least nominally, part of Mexico. This history, from the 1820s to 1848 — a crucial period of development — is Mexican history. And if this makes you imagine that everybody running around in San Diego Old Town during this era was "Mexican," think again. This was a cosmopolitan place, and what it meant to be "Mexican" in Alta California was probably a very complicated thing.
The Old Town State Historic Site Visitor Center does, I think, a great job explaining this: that Mexican Alta California was more cosmopolitan than we probably at first imagine. Most interesting of their "people profiles," for me, was the profile of Allen B. Light, an African-American pioneer in Mexican California.
Wall panel about Allen B. Light and his saloon/hotel in Mexican San Diego.
Light is an immensely fascinating character. He had come from the United States in the 1830s serving as the steward on a Pacific Ocean-bound ship. African-Americans quite frequently served as cooks and stewards on U.S. ships in the 18th and 19th centuries, so this was not uncommon. In Mexican Alta California in the 1830s he deserted ship and began to live on shore as a sea otter hunter. That might not sound like a promising way to make a living, but in the 1830s it was. Indeed, Light — who was often nicknamed "Black Steward" — was one of the most important sea otter hunters on the California coast, tracking the remaining otters to where they could be found along the coastlines of Southern California's Channel Islands. He sometimes hired Native Hawaiians to help with sea otter hunting. Pretty strange and fascinating stuff, right?
Anyway, turns out he settled in Mexican San Diego and opened up a saloon with another African-American expatriate. According to this exhibit, they became Mexican citizens. One wonders what happened in 1849 when "the world rushed in" (the Gold Rush) and Euro-Americans began to attempt to lay claim to California as the white man's "manifest destiny"? I can only guess that Light — the successful African-Mexican entrepreneur — faced serious prejudice and discrimination. Well, I hope not, but you know, the Anglo men who came to California after 1848 had some pretty crazy ideas about their "destiny"!
Anyway, my favorite house in all of San Diego Old Town was the alcalde's house, a colonial-style mansion built in the 1820s for the small city's alcalde, who was sort of like a mayor in the Spanish colonial system (which I guess was continued by the Mexican municipalities?).
Entrance to La Casa de Estudillo, San Diego Old Town
In a way, I wasn't really convinced that California was once part of Mexico, and before that part of imperial Spain, until I visited this casa. Sure, I had read about pre-1848 Alta California quite a bit, and I acknowledged when museums and historic sites mentioned pre-1848 people, places, and processes. But it only really came alive for me when I stepped into this casa, instantly reminding me of similar 18th and early 19th century homes we had visited in Peru, and making clear to me in no uncertain terms that in the 1820s when this adobe mansion was built, this was Mexico and in the 1840s the U.S. took it over. I think we as Americans prefer to ignore our own history of empire, how we took over so many different peoples' lands (just as the Spanish had done before us, I should note). So much of California is wiped clean of this history, and just like Hawaiʻi, it is this history of erasure — this erasure of any representations of colonial rule — that allows us to imagine California and Hawaiʻi as Pacific — and pacific (with a lower-case "p") — paradises.
Anyway, I'm probably making too much of it, but having just returned from South America, this casa in San Diego really spoke to me as an important relic in the nearly-forgotten history of California's many-layered colonial past.
View from the inner courtyard of La Casa de Estudillo, San Diego Old Town
I had a wonderful time exploring San Diego Old Town, but, alas, I found no sign of Hawaiians here. Richard Henry Dana, Jr., in his travelogue Two Years Before the Mast (written in the 1830s), does write of how Hawaiians living on the beach at San Diego harbor "went into town" now and then to purchase foodstuffs. So, at least now I can imagine what that town looked like, with its Plaza de Armas ringed by small adobe houses and stores. There were Hawaiians here in Mexican San Diego, but they didn't leave anything tangible behind that we can look at. Too bad.
I returned downtown to check into my hostel, cleaned myself up, and then headed back out via trolley and bus to the University of San Diego to attend the opening reception of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association's (PCB-AHA) annual conference. This is the whole reason, of course, that I had come to California in the first place.
The reception was lovely, as was the opportunity to call it a night at 8 PM and get into bed at the hostel.
The hostel offers free breakfast from 8 to 10 AM, but I had to be up by 6:30 and out the door by 7 to get to the University by 8 for the first panels at 8:30AM. I had been hopeful that there might be morning munchies at the conference, but when I got there I only found coffee, tea, and water. I grabbed a cup of coffee on my empty stomach and began attending panels.
This is what academic conferences are all about: you attend numerous panels every day. On each panel are three or four people who read 15-20 minute papers each on their respective topics. So all in all you end up listening to 10-15 papers each day. It is funny how you just sit and listen like this all day, and yet feel utterly exhausted by the end of it. Our panel, at 3:30 PM, was at the very end of the day, and my paper was, in fact, the last paper of the last panel. So I was pretty tired by the time I had to present my paper on "Native Hawaiian Labor and the California Gold Rush," but I rallied my energy and did a good job. I was able to show photos from this research adventure (!), to show my audience how the past connected with the present, and how the art of historical research involves not just digging through archives but digging through museums and historic sites, as well as camping, swimming, and wandering around towns and cities. (In fact, I wasn't able to say as much in my fifteen minute presentation, but hopefully interested folks will check out this blog to get that side of the story here.)
After a successful day, a number of colleagues invited me to go out with them and grab Mexican food and drinks in the Old Town. It was nice to be there at night, in Old Town as a tourist and consumer, and to contrast that with my experience the day before as historical investigator.
I only had one margarita, but it was enough to enhance the romance of my walk back through the Plaza de Armas at 10 PM. I could have imagined I was back in Mexican San Diego: the rowdiness, the cosmopolitanism. It is so easy for a historian to make worlds come alive in his or her head. A stiff drink helps, too.
My last day in California. I slept in. I should have jumped out of bed at 6:30 AM to get to the University to attend more panels, but I just didn't feel like I could make it. So I got up at 8 AM and enjoyed the hostel's free continental breakfast. I had raisin bread with peanut butter and jelly, fresh fruit, and pretty darn good coffee. These were pleasantries I needed. I got to the University around 10 AM and began attending panels again. This continued until 5 PM.
All in all it was an extremely successful conference. I got to meet many, many wonderful, kind and intelligent people working on the most interesting topics in U.S., Pacific, and Asian history. I learned a lot from presenting my own work and hearing colleagues' comments, criticisms, and questions regarding what I had said. And I learned a lot by listening to others' presentations, as well.
But, much like in my California archival research, I can't really tell you what I know now that I didn't know before. All this history is just brewing in my brain, but I have yet to have any "Eureka" moment or see the entire world in a brand new light. But what I think will happen is that over the ensuing months, pieces of this trip will fall into place in my writing. I intend to write two full dissertation chapters this fall, plus begin research on a third chapter. I am a bit nervous about accomplishing this much, but with all that I have seen and learned here in California in two weeks, how could I not fill up two chapters with my experiences. It will simply be a matter of finding the right way to drain this brew out of my brain onto the page so that it is coherent, not just to myself, but to the average reader.
Anyway, at some point you just have to hoist the sails and let the wind take you where you need to go.
If the Star of India was a history dissertation, its sails would be the research notes. At port, you can work on the sails as long as you want, but at some point you have to start writing ("sailing"). And the only way to do that is to stop mending those damn sails, hoist them up, and let the wind take you.
Thanks for following my research adventure! I am now safely back in New York City, having returned from my Pacific dreams to my New York life! :)