Friday, April 01, 2005

The Past is the Future

I was in the Bancroft Library yesterday doing some research on early California. In a book first published in 1863, I found a remarkable description of the state. John Hittell, a 19th century historian, characterized California as a land of openness and tolerance where social distinctions didn’t matter. It’s striking how many of those characteristics hold true today.

“In no place is society more free and cordial, and ready to give a friendly reception to a stranger, than California. The new-comer is looked on with favor, nobody cares whether he belongs to a distinguished family, has moved in fashionable circles or possesses wealthy or influential friends or relatives. The great question is, “Is he or she well educated, polished, and entertaining?”

Of course Californians are not entirely above such considerations as govern society elsewhere, but they are influenced by them far less than people in other states. …. Those who were rich in older States, and received a thorough education and a polished training, may here be poor, while those who come hither poor and ignorant may now be rich. Besides, the changes are so rapid that our neighbor who is poor today may be poor tomorrow….

The millionaire in Europe may treat his tenant as an inferior; in California the wealthiest landowner is expected to treat his tenant as an equal.”

Hittell’s book, The Resources of California Comprising the Society, Climate, Salubrity, Scenery, Commerce and Industry is available on-line. Another great place to find early state documents is the Library of Congress.

The mindset of the early settlers of California intrigues me because of the book I am writing about my ancestor, Isaias Hellman, a Jewish German immigrant who came to Los Angeles in 1859. Two years after he settled in the dusty pueblo, record rains hit the state, causing widespread flooding and destruction. (kind of like what is happening this year) Another German Jewish traveler, Benjamin II, described the period in his book Three Years in America:

“The rain poured down without stopping; the streets were flooded and a number of stores and dwellings ruined – these were built of stucco in the Mexican fashion. The storm was so fierce the bells fell from the Church tower.”

I write about how Hellman was caught in the deluge in today’s Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.

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