Beyond the Golden Gate: A Maritime History of California
Timothy G. Lynch
When thinking of California, one tends to imagine the more glamorous or modern aspects of America’s most populous state. The iconic images of the Hollywood sign, the Chinese Theater, and the Santa Monica Pier often take first priority when depicting California. It is easy to forget that the glitz and glamour of Hollywood and the high-tech intellectualism of Silicon Valley are built on the back of a far more industrial history. Timothy Lynch tackles this subject by arguing that it was industrial maritime activity and culture that changed California from a sparsely populated backwater into a booming powerhouse of economic activity.
Human interaction with the sea has always been a part of California’s history. Indigenous Americans were building reed boats to ply the waters of San Francisco Bay while Chumash Indians built intricate planked canoes, called tomols, to explore and exploit the waters around the Channel Islands. The arrival of Europeans to the Americas in the fifteenth century had an everlasting, and in most cases devastating, impact on native populations. From Mexico, the Spanish established missions up the coast of Alta California from San Diego to San Francisco. Despite the establishment of almost two dozen missions, California remained sparsely populated by Europeans and white Americans until the United States annexed the territory in 1848, following the Mexican-American War. Although a brisk trade in tallow, leather, and sea otter pelts was already occurring along the California coast, it was the Gold Rush of 1848 that sparked the large scale settlement and development of California. As thousands of American prospectors rushed to strike it rich, San Francisco became a booming industrial port.
Lynch focuses on the rise of San Francisco as an economic and industrial center on the Pacific coast. Utilizing a large well of primary sources, Lynch is able to create a concise, yet in-depth, description of the development of California. In order to avoid being overly brief, the author sets aside space to illustrate some of the more colorful characters associated with California’s colonization. One example is a short biography of William Leidesdorff, a ship captain and the mixed race son of a Danish father and an Afro-Caribbean mother, who became one of the wealthiest land owners and politicians in early San Francisco. These short asides add to Lynch’s detailed and thorough documentation of California’s economic development that includes analysis of wide-ranging subjects such as sea otter harvesting and ship design.
The only issue with Lynch’s book is its relatively narrow scope and focus. Although the subtitle professes this volume to be a “Maritime History of California,” a more accurate title would be “a Maritime History of Nineteenth Century San Francisco Bay.” While he does touch on some of the early settlements at San Diego and Monterey, these seem to be mere asides to the actual subject of San Francisco.
Beyond the Golden Gate is an excellent book for anyone interested in industrial and maritime history. It is meticulously researched and provides an excellent starting point to learn about the American maritime endeavors that built and connected the United States.
- New York: Fort Schuyler Press, 2015
- 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xii + 318 pages
- Illustrations, notes, bibliography. $29.95
- ISBN: 9780989939423
Reviewed by Conner McBrian, East Carolina University