The principal figure is Minerva, with her spear and Gorgon shield, typical of the manner in which California was born, full grown…

– Bayard Taylor, describing the California state seal, in Eldorado: Or, Adventures in the Path of Empire (1860)

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Just as Minerva had no childhood, but sprang full-grown from the forehead of Jupiter, so California skipped the territorial stage of development and joined the Union immediately upon application, with a voter-approved state constitution already in hand.

The Jupiter from whose forehead California statehood sprang was General Bennet C. Riley, who in April 1849 became commander of the Military Department of Upper California (including today’s Nevada and Arizona). Riley had responsibility for law and order in the region but not nearly enough troops, as the Gold Rush boosted the California census from around 10,000 to a quarter-million in two years. Most of the new arrivals were adult males with pickaxes, guns, and a dream of quick riches. There was a corresponding rise in frustration, desperation, soured hopes, and lawlessness. California needed governments, courts, and sworn police officers in a hurry.

General Riley issued a proclamation for a constitutional convention, held in September 1849 in Monterey. In ordinary circumstances, it would be Congress that would invite a territory to draft a consitution. Seeing gridlock on Capitol Hill, where the priority was balancing the number of free states versus slave states, Riley acted on his own authority. In Roman mythology, Minerva is the armed goddess of wisdom.

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We had a leash of hares, which being skinned and cleaned were impaled on withers and placed at the fire to roast, where they looked like three martyrs flayed alive, and staked.

– Frank Marryat, Mountains and Molehills (1855)

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Marryat was an English gentleman who came to California for a year of hunting. He kept a journal and drew illustrations. A metaphor is a kind of illustration, using words to create a mental pictuere. In this case, the simile “like three martyrs” tells us how to see a picture in the picture – of three human beings burnt at the stake. For modern readers, who buy meat in packages at grocery stores, it is a shock to see the resemblance between a bunny and a man when hung up on a stick. It is a further shock to visualize, with a culinary eye, the cooking of Christians by other Christians (for the sake of differences interpreting biblical texts, written in languages that were native to no one on either side).

A hunter necessarily develops a sense of detachment from the animals he kills. Especially when the killing is for sport. And yet he may think imaginatively about his quarry, attributing courage or cunning to an animal fighting for its life. At one point, Marryat imagines four or five does awaiting the return of the buck he has killed. They go to the stream at dusk, as always, but the buck does not rejoin them. Marryat offers up a hunter’s truism, which seems to empathize but is likely just a hackneyed saying: that the real cruelty is to shoot at too long range and allow the fleeing animal to die slowly of a wound.

In hunting parlance, a leash is a set of three, especially three greyhounds, bucks, foxes, or hares. The withers of a horse or other animal is the area of the spine at the base of the neck. Impaling the hares at the withers forces them into an upright posture.

Most people call it razor wire.…The US military prefers a less menacing name: concertina wire.

– Molly Hennessy-Fiske, “Communities on Border Seek to Lose Barbed Wire,” LA Times (March 24, 2019)

In fairness, the military has been calling it concertina wire since World War I – not for euphony but because a flat coil of wire stretches to a great length, like unfolding bellows of an accordion. In those days, barbed wire was sometimes compared to a prickly vine, such as blackberry. One of the major manufacturers was the Thorn Wire Hedge Company.

H. G. Wells called it “an ugly and vicious plant that trailed insidiously among its fellows” (The Wonderful Visit, 1895). In another Wells novel, a Mr. Benshaw uses barbed wire to discourage country walkers from taking shortcuts across his property. “But it was not a very satisfactory sort of barbed wire. He wanted barbed wire with extra spurs, like a fighting cock; he wanted barbed wire that would start out after nightfall and attack passers-by” (Bealby: A Holiday, 1915). Sixty years later came razor wire, designed to lacerate like a knife rather than puncture like a thorn.

There is an unforgettable image of barbed wire in All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). A French soldier, killed by nonstop machine-gun fire, falls into a “cradle” of wire: “His body collapses, his hands remain suspended as though he were praying. Then his body drops clean away and only his hands with the stumps of his arms, shot off, now hang in the wire.”

This was not the first occasion on which I had encountered those outbreaks of stupidity, hatred and credulousness, which social groups secrete like pus when they begin to be short of space.

– Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955)

As an anthropologist, Levi-Strauss understood the underlying causes of friction between ethnic groups. As a Jew in France in 1941, he understood it was high time to get out of Europe. When a majority group feels deprived, minorities soon feel the pressure. Accusations, outrageous stories, and fear mongering spread like a rash across all zones of contact.

Migrants fleeing Europe – respectable citizens, who yesterday would have been welcomed as tourists – were treated as quasi-prisoners by border police, coming and going, at every port along the way. (Recall the opening of Casablanca, tracing complicated routes from Europe to Africa.) Even Levi-Strauss, a professor invited to teach at Columbia University, was detained at a camp in Puerto Rico for weeks and questioned by the FBI. They thought he might be a German spy. Stupidity, hatred, credulousness.

…hunger swallows all other feelings.

– William Lewis Manly, Death Valley in ’49 (1894)

A too-clever writer might have said “devours.” But Manly was educated on a frontier farm and had few literary pretensions.

On his way to the Gold Rush, he hired on as a wagon driver with a group that tried a southern route around the Sierra Nevada. When the wagons broke down and food ran short, the group sent Manly ahead to find help. He walked across Death Valley, over the Panamint Mountains, and across the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, where he loaded up supplies and returned to the stranded wagon train. They were still alive.

Manly noticed that “something” disappears in people who are desperate for food. They have a frightened, distant, menacing way of looking at one another – as rivals, potential threats, or weaklings. The look was “devoid of affection, reason, or thought of justice.” Humanity is gone in a gulp.

Behold the dread Mount Shasta, where it stands, / Imperial amidst the lesser heights, and like / Some mighty, unimpassioned mind, companionless / And cold.

– John Rollin Ridge, “Mt. Shasta, Seen from a Distance” (1850)

“Unimpassioned mind” is an unusual way to describe a mountain. Mountains are often lofty, pure, mighty, noble, or regal, but it’s rare to find one with awareness.

It’s not a kindly awareness. It is solitary, cold, and far-removed from human concerns.

No human breath has dimmed the icy mirror which
It holds unto the moon and stars and sov’reign sun.

Mt. Shasta sees and is seen. Wearing a crown of snow upon its brow, it gazes down upon the valleys and streams of the Golden State, down upon the sea and the lesser mountains. Parents and children sense its divinity. Even the cattle driver:

Oft will rein his charger in the plain, and drink
Into his inmost soul the calm sublimity…

Toward the close of this 76-line poem, Mt. Shasta becomes a symbol for the rule of law, sorely needed in Gold Rush California, where vigilantes did much of the policing. The legal system Ridge has in mind is, like Shasta, devoid of human passion – so much so that:

e’en pity’s tears shall on
Its summit freeze; to warm it, e’en the sunlight
Of deep sympathy shall fail…

Ridge’s belief in a clear, pure, cold legal system – one that would by its impartiality right the wrongs of the past and elevate humankind to a more principled way of life – seems heroic, and quixotic, when you learn he was a Cherokee who accepted American culture and was committed to racial assimilation. It may be that “Mt. Shasta” gives us a glimpse into the mind of a modern counterpart, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Biographical note: At age 12, Ridge witnessed the murder of his father, a signer of the Trail of Tears treaty. His mother, who was white, a schoolteacher’s daughter who married for love, saw to it that Ridge received a good education. Despite his belief in assimilation as the way forward, Ridge knew very well that American society was not blind to race.

Coming to California in 1850, Ridge tried mining but soon turned to journalism, and he wrote California’s first novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, about a young Mexican who tries the American Way but is turned to crime by American prejudice. The story is notable for the hero’s ability to walk unrecognized among the townspeople who feared the very mention of his name, and for the cold cruelties inflicted by his followers, especially Three Fingered Jack. Ridge lived in Grass Valley, 200 miles from Mt. Shasta, and died there of brain fever at age 40.

Find the full text of the poem at https://ualrexhibits.org/tribalwriters/artifacts/Poems-of-John-Rollin-Ridge.html#MountShasta

At every point in the loom, sovereigns were thrusting in their shuttles, carrying the strand of a son or a daughter, and these, whizzing back and forth, were the artificial fabric that created as many conflicting claims and hostilities as it did bonds.

–  Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

The fabric of society was once a fairly common expression, conveying the idea that the whole is something different from (and greater than) the sum of its parts – as with a soup or a Jaguar XKE or a well-told story. As pictured by the metaphor, a society gets its unity from an interlocking of crisscross strands, individuals each pursuing their own course of life.

Revisiting the metaphor, Tuchman reminds us that weaving has to be done at regular angles, in a pattern that makes sense, or the result is a tangle. The royal families of medieval England and France were marrying off their children to Danes, Germans, Spaniards, Italians, and Hungarians in catch-as-catch-can strategies to gain territory, alliances, or claims to thrones. The result was the Hundred Years War.

In the 20th century, a morass of alliances, secret agreements, and royal interconnections turned the Serbian independence movement into the hairball known as World War I.

Photo: Adapted by Karl Stull