Earliest California History

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by Faunce Rochester

COULD wild-cat speculators and bunk artists in general familiarize themselves with a snappy little volume published in Spain in 1510 under the name of “The Sergas of Esplandian, the Son of Amadis, of Gaul,” they would always refer to that era whenever regretfully lamenting the “good old days.” Think of turning a vendor of punk oil-stock loose on a people who swallowed the following and eagerly asked for more:

“Know that on the right hand of the Indies (for quaintness these nine words are hard to beat) there is an island called California, very near to the Terrestial Paradise, which was peopled by black women, without any men among them, because they were accustomed to live after the manner of the Amazons. They were of strong and hardened bodies, of ardent courage, and of great force. The island was the strongest in the world, from its steep rocks and great cliffs. Their arms were all of gold, and so were the caparisons of the wild beasts they rode.”

Some pickings among the admirers of that work for the modern young man with a neatly engraved certificate to sell! But the writer gets stronger as he proceeds, and among other things says:

“In the island called California (perhaps the name is first found in this little romance) are many griffins, on account of the great savageness of the country and the immense quantity of wild game to be found there.”

It has ever been man’s whim to dream of new lands where there are “Cities of Gold” and “Terrestial Paradises.” Romancers told and wrote tales of the fabulous long before the New World was discovered. The incredulous was accepted as a fact if it lay over the horizon. Red men living in tropical luxury and eighteen-carat surroundings was told of the aborigines where now stands the city of Bangor, Maine. The Spanish believed in the Fountain of Youth, and the French capitalized mountains of gold in the Mississippi valley under that genial promoter, John Law.

But to return to our griffins, which, by the way, were half eagle, half lion—rather a stout combination. The griffins weren’t all bad. All intended to be “bad” according to man’s point of view, yet unwittingly they must have saved many lives, as the following excerpt from the writer’s description of sea perils will convince:

“The crew and passengers consume their provisions and then die miserably. Many vessels have been lost in this way; but the people have learned to save themselves from this fate by the following contrivance: they take bullocks’ hides along with them, and whenever this storm arises they sew themselves up in the hides, taking care to have a knife in their hand; and, being secure against sea-water, they throw themselves into the ocean. Here they are soon perceived by a large eagle (really half-lion) called a griffin, which takes them for cattle, darts down and seizes them in his gripe, and carries them upon dry land, where he deposits his burden upon a hill or in a dale, there to consume his prey. The man, however, now makes use of his knife to kill the bird, and creeps forth from the hide. Many people have been saved by this stratagem.”

Sir John Maundeville described California giants having one eye (old stuff). He improves when he speaks of others “of cursed stature,” and having eyes “in their shoulders.” Another tribe, says Honest John, has “horses’ feet.”. Another is “all skinned and feathered.” One of his best bits is his frank confession, “Of Paradise I can not speak properly, for I was not there.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1925.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.