Thursday, June 25, 2020

A Couple of Diversions from the Chaos of the Last Few Weeks

I was taken aback by two things relating to the George Floyd murder.   First, there has to a recognition that the officers involved exceeded the bounds of appropriate police behavior.  But second, we seem to have lost our ability to have a civil discussion about a real issue.  I am pretty sure that Senator Tim Scott's bill on police reforms was not perfect.  I am equally sure the alternative which Senator Kamala Harris was not either - but in olden days the two sides would have had a substantive debate on the floor of the Senate about the alternative approaches.   But 45 members chose to throw the discussion into the fray in November ignoring the immense benefit that such a public discussion could have on having all of us think about the issues here.  It is not hard to wonder why Congress is held in low esteem.

Also, yesterday I spent part of my afternoon with a Zoom call for the Common Sense Party - its leader is Tom Campbell - who combines brains and ethics.  Tom was a superb member of the California Senate and then a member of Congress.  Most of his politics closely align with mine (he is socially liberal and fiscally conservative) but he also spends a lot of time trying to think out the right solution for a variety of issues.    Normally, in order to qualify for status a party needs about 65,000 signatures and the party was well on its way to getting those pre-Covid.  Tom told the group that they had filed against the Secretary of State to waive the requirements.  If the suit is successful the party could begin as soon as this fall.  WIth the way term limits work over the next couple of years it could offer a set of candidates in the 2022 elections and beyond.   I think Californians are not big fans of either the Dems nor the quickly declining GOP.  (Turns out that a fast growing party in the state is the American Independent Party - which is a remnant of an earlier conservative party but evidently a lot of Californians (a bit more than 550,000 voters) think by registering with them they are declaring their independence.   If you are a Californian you might want to check out their site. -

But enough of that discussion.  This week, I completed a chapter for the book I have discussed and am presenting it below.   It is now one of 28 chapters completed.  The book will be divided into three sections - one on family; one on ideas that drive me; and one on questions of interest to either me or our daughter.   So here is a sneak peak at one of the efforts I have been doing for the last few months:

So Just Who was Jonathan Archer and Why was he Important to Me? 
I was named after an ancestor who came to California in 1849 seeking gold, lived here about a year and died of a burst appendix.   Part of the story of Jonathan Archer is his journey and part is of the family that stayed behind.  There are all sorts of problems in trying to understand a namesake who came to California when conditions were primitive and who stayed in the state for only a short time.   But I do have some artifacts of his trip including a series of letters that he wrote home to his mother.  I first came in contact with those when my Aunt Mary transcribed them.  That was not an easy task.  In order to save money, letters of the time were written on onion skin paper on all sides and with more than 170 years, the ink has faded and bled.  At the same time writing styles of the 1850s were different than now, they look a lot like German Script.  So Mary spent several months trying to decipher the letters.  I truly appreciated the effort. Mary was never one for sentimentality but she knew the importance of the legacy for me.
The picture above is of the receipt that Jonathan got for booking with the Sloop South Carolina.  It cost $250, which was not an insubstantial sum.   A dollar in 1850 would be worth about $35 dollars in 2020, so his fare would be something more than $8700 in today’s terms.   But that estimate is misleading.  Many jobs were not compensated in  money at the time. So the amount was perhaps even more substantial. His commitment was even larger. Without any reliable communications  mechanism - getting messages back home was by no means assured.  So making the decision to move involved possibly never seeing your family again.
Jonathan was the oldest brother of Oliver Hazard Perry Archer (1825-1899).  His dad was also Jonathan.  His father figured in the purchase of a sloop called Harriet which is referenced in some of the family papers. OHPA was a good friend of the Commodore Vanderbilt according to his obituary. Jonathan's father may have know Perry or was simply caught up in the excitement of Perry's military record. Jonathan’s younger brother, known as OHP in the family, was an original investor in the Erie Railroad  with Jay Gould.  He was successful in many ways. Two of his daughters later owned a summer home in Vermont called Quiturcare.  At one point when we were on the East Coast we found the cottage in Southern Vermont.  
OHP married Mary Dean. Their wedding certificate is above  - their marriage lasted 45 years.   When he died he was reputed to have left “many millions of property” in his estate. (According to one obituary at the time).  That was divided between his wife and his three sons; he even offered a $500 bequest to his loyal coachman.  
OHP had an estate in Allendale New Jersey and and he and his wife built Archer Memorial Church which is now the Archer United Methodist Church
He was an important member of his community. One of his traditions that affected me directly was his habit of obtaining a type set of mint American coins at the beginning of each year.  In my coin collection I have a couple of those sets (which include all the coins from that year from one mint).  Another was his propensity to invest in diamonds and other jewelry.   Each of my siblings received stones or jewelry from his purchases when we were about to get married. My share was three one carat diamonds which was made into an engagement ring for Quinlan.

One of OHP’s sons, Harry M. Archer (1868-1954), was a physician, who after a short career as a medical examiner for a New York Life insurance company, became the chief medical officer for the Fire Department of New York.  Harry, was my grandmother’s dad.  When I first became interested in finding out about my family, I wrote to the then mayor of New York, Ed Koch, who I had known slightly in Congress, and he sent me back a magazine about Harry Archer, which detailed his career with the NYFD 2 years after his death. My grandmother’s mother (Helen Louise) died relatively young suffering an embolism in a department store. Harry went on to marry a woman named Emily June who most of the family did not like.  She had been a secretary to Harry.   She evidently treated Nana, my grandmother poorly.   Emily June was horrid.  She was reported to have had the habit of donning her fur coat, jumping into her red sports car to collect rents from the tenants in the tenements that they owned.  She evidently reveled in evicting people who could not pay.

Grace (Nana), my grandmother, grew up in luxury.   When Harry died he donated his home in Manhattan to the NYFD.  It is still used as a fire station today.  When we were in NY for cousin Claude’s wedding we went by and visited the site.  Technically, that house would revert to our family if the NYFD ever decided to decommission the fire station. 

As I began to figure out who Jonathan Archer was, I found plenty of information about his father and at least something about successive generations.  Unfortunately, the specific information about my namesake is limited to the remaining letters he sent back to his home on Broome Street in New York City and some scattered ships records and books on the Argonauts of California.  Many of the civic records of the time were destroyed either by floods in Sacramento or by the earthquake and fire in San Francisco. His letters seem to have been sent back to New York after he arrived in California.
Jonathan’s trip to California started when his ship left New York harbor on January 24, 1849 about a year after President Polk acknowledged the gold find in Coloma.  The ship had a first cabin of 60 and a total passenger list of 163.   A trip around the horn took between six and seven months, depending on how favorable the winds were.  So it is likely that Jonathan arrived in San Francisco in spring of 1849.  The best dating comes from a letter he drafted in San Francisco in May of that year.  There is one other convention which makes the comments in the letters confusing.  They look like most all of them were composed over a period of time, this is sort of like a diary entry but with the cost of mail I am sure it was thought prudent to accumulate material before sending it off.   Unfortunately, they do not have separate dates for each entry.
Jonathan had extended entries for his time in Rio de Janiero.  They spent several days there ultimately leaving on March 10 (thus, it took from about a month to get from New York to Rio). His letters were good at what we would call “color commentary” today. He told a story of a Navy Midshipman who took up an offer from the Brazilian government to plant a flag on the top of Sugarloaf (4237’) which he described as “dominating” the harbor as you enter.   An earlier attempt had failed when a French sailor fell and broke his neck.  The American was successful but the Brazilian government reneged on the deal. Jonathan described the Brazilian officials as not having”souls above buttons”, which was to pay the successful person $2000. The government now promised again to offer the reward.  So the Midshipman climbed again and the second time the government paid off.
Rio at the time, he estimated, was about half the size of New York with about 200,000 people but had a much longer history.   He also made some telling comments about the state of the slave trade in the city at the time.  He described the treatment of the slaves as brutal.  Many were naked and showed signs of extreme lacerations on their backs.   They lived on the streets and when they died were transported to a common grave to “await the requisition of our Divine Master.”   Although at least one of my ancestors fought for the confederate army - Jonathan would not have joined him.
Jonathan visited a Catholic Church and was amazed at the statuary - which he said was mostly from Italy. He also visited the theater.  He and his friends (Captain Chandler, Doc Rogers, a navy Captain named Bartlett and four others) attended a theater performance of something by Ravel and then got a tour of the house including the Emperor’s box.   As they were leaving they were surrounded by a military party that was heavily armed.  He thought the performance was “full of gibberish.”   At the end of the evening they got some slaves to row them three miles back to the ship, although they were stopped by a military group.   The incident ended well because one of the party could speak Spanish (?) so they convinced the group they were not leading a slave rebellion. 
Jonathan was also taken by Rio Grande (Rio Grande de Sul) which is across the bay from Sugarloaf.  He described the beautiful beaches and the mansions which ran along about two miles of shoreline.   On their stroll they were invited by a Frenchman to visit his gardens and orange grove.   They were offered fine hospitality by the Frenchman and his two daughters.  It was such a pleasant experience that the group visited them once more before they left.
When they did leave Rio they made very good progress for the first couple of days arriving at the Falkland Islands on April 1. They were then were becalmed and alternatively caught in gales for two weeks,   Finally, the winds refreshed and they made a “good run” toward Cape Horn.  As they got to the Cape they were again beset by quirky winds for 34 days.  They reached Latitude 60 south and the storms again were intense - leaving the sails “looking like glass.”  When they finally transgressed the Cape they were blown back by about 100 miles.  They finally got clear of the Cape again and they headed for the Islands of Juan Fernandez, to refresh their water.   The island chain is about 300 miles off Chile’s coast.  They were famous because that was the location of the story of Robinson Crusoe.   One of the islands in the chain is named after the marooned sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who inspired the story.   He was shipwrecked there for four years in 1704.  The islands were also mentioned in Two Years Before the Mast, Dana’s account of life at sea.
As the crew set about toward the island to find a place to anchor, their launch came next to a whale which ultimately came up underneath the rowboat,  It breached but did not capsize the small craft. The watering island had fifteen inhabitants and their major commerce was suppling ships with water and dried fish.   When they got to the island they had a picnic and did some hunting of goats and ducks.
The island’s cook caused great amusement to Jonathan Archer.   She used an old stocking to clean out her frying pan to prepare their salted fish and fried goat.  As he described it when the meal was about half cooked she brought it to the table with a couple of forks and spoons.   Jonathan protested that the spoon was dirty, so she spat on it and wiped it off with the bottom of her dress.   Jonathan decided to not partake of the feast and he and his friend Palmer decided to go outside the hut and to “cogitate on the matter.”  When they asked about accommodations for the night - they were similarly sumptuous.   They consisted of a hut and a couple of goat skins.   The proprietor/cook finally agreed to throw an old sail over the two and Jonathan said he was fast asleep.  The proprietor and his wife the cook slept in the same room.   Jonathan and his buddy got up early to go back so they could have breakfast on the ship.
As they continued North they went through periods of calm and on those days would catch fish.  One day they caught seven sharks including one which was fourteen feet long.   The rigged a mast on its head and another at mid-body and then threw him back in and watched him struggle.   They also caught two barrels of black fish.
About 900 miles west of San Francisco they caught a westerly and were able to get into San Francisco Bay.  His description of the bay coincides with other contemporary ones I have read - it was filled with ships.  At the entrance to the harbor they sighted a Barque, called the Ocean Bird, that had sailed one month before the South Carolina left New York.  He described the total trip as about five months - thus I have him arriving in California in May of 1849.
He is clearly in awe of his new home.  The city had grown twenty-five fold in about a year and when he got there was now about 25,000 residents.  Before they disembarked the captain went to get provisions for the passengers.  Beef was $1 per pound and onions were $2 per pound.   That was all that was available.
Jonathan was amazed at the relative values in the city.  He passed several small gambling establishments and saw one miner loose several thousand dollars of gold dust, saying only that he had more where that came from.  He commented “ they think no more of $100 than you would of 50¢ in New York.”   Flour was the only commodity that was in reasonable range - at $6 per barrel. 
Jonathan went to Burgone and Co. which was a gold broker.  He was surprised to find that gold would net $16 per ounce for commodities or $15.25 for cash.   When a miner asked for cash he was paid $1,452 for his stash.   Miners could make between $16 and $100 per day but it was “very hard work.”
Jonathan met a man from Panama who wanted a house built and had to pay a carpenter $16 per day.  If you were living on a ship it cost $2 to go in during the day and $10 to return at night.  He described a corner lot house in the city that was worth $200,000.
He got to Sacramento in August of 1849.  He did a letter to his brother on August 12, who was contemplating joining him.  Jonathan cautions him about coming to “the new El Dorado”. He and some friends, after spending some time in San Francisco, chartered a schooner to get to Sacramento.  He thought the Sacramento River was the most “beautiful” he had ever seen.  He waxed sentimentally about going up the Sacramento with a “Washbowl on his knee”.   At one point on the trip the Captain halted the progress and got drunk.  A couple of the passengers embarked to hunt - they got chased back to the ship by a wild bullocks.   When they got to Sacramento the river was 25 feet below the top it had been during the rains.  The older parts of Sacramento were eventually raised after Jonathan died to compensate for the periodic flooding.  The trip to Sacramento took several days, including the unplanned stop.  He described the pleasure of sleeping on the ship for at least three nights.
Jonathan seems to have been an enterprising fellow.   He evidently brought provisions from New York for resale and added to his stash in San Francisco.  Jonathan sold pickles at $100 per barrel, mackerel at $36 per barrel and pork at $40.   His uncle Leonard had given him some pork which he sold to a New York merchant who declared it was the best pork he had ever seen.   One interesting comment was that there were no coopers - so evidently part of the price of a commodity was based on the barrel.  Coopers at the time made $30 per day.
He recognized that in the inflated economy of the gold fields that costs and prices were inflated.  So a bowl of mush with milk was two schillings; milk $1 per quart and board could be between $21-30 per week.  But through enterprise Jonathan was able to accumulate $300 in gold dust and a horse, saddle and bridle worth $200.  Doctor visits were $16.   He derided the lazy fellows and bragged that he had earned some money painting signs.
The descriptions about his life in Sacramento are a bit less thorough in many ways than the ones of his trip.  We know from one letter of his aunt that he found gold near Buzzard’s Bar on the North Fork of the American River.  But from the letters, while he was hunting for gold his real interest seems to have been in thinking entrepreneurially. 
Jonathan recognized the perils of mining.  “A rich man here is no more than a poor one if he cannot get work - he goes to the mines.”   Mining is hard work and and he recognized that not everyone is successful.  New people to California came with “broadcloths and patent leather boots” but were soon converted to “rawhide boots, coarse pants and an indigo blue shirt and straw hat.”  The way of making money in his new home was from “speculations.”   Rumors spread quickly in the gold fields - a man who dug out $3000 will soon find stories of him finding $40,000 - most of those stories emerged from men who kept stores in the region.   He has a long lament “Where gold is supposedly most plenty, it is very rocky.  You have to descend up a ravine of one to two thousand feet and then turn over stones of one pound to a ton weight and then dig into the surface five or six feet under the surface.   Do this for a week and make $10 or a thousand, or perhaps nothing.”   But he concludes the lament “I intend to remain and not be bluffed out.”
The last communications from Jonathan Archer in California comment about how he was the only passenger on his ship that had not gotten sick.  He did express some concern about the opening of the rainy season in California.   In those times cold and wet were double whammys.  He also discussed his budding lumber and charcoal business.  He had contracted with an acquaintance to sell 4-500 cords of charcoal which would bring in lots of funds.  Always with an attention to markets he thought that what would bring in $40-50 in October would soon bring in more.   He was willing to sell the wood for a bit below market because cartage and storage might cost $5 per cord.
The last communication about Jonathan came from California in February of 1850.   The letter goes into some detail about his last few days.  He had been about 100 miles from San Francisco engaged in cutting wood.   But his property had been flooded to a depth of a foot for about a month.  The letter goes into some details about his illness - which my brother Dan surmised was a burst appendix.   After he died his body was taken back to San Francisco and he was interred in the cemetery there after a funeral service presided by a Reverend Williams.   But cemeteries of the time were moved or abandoned as the city grew.   The Yerba Buena  cemetery, which was the largest in the city in 1850 became the site of the SF Public Library.  The people who witnessed his death and interment sent a summary of expenses (the funeral and casket cost $130).  They also sent personal effects including a ring, watch, bible, and some gold dust found at Buzzard’s Bar on the North Fork of the American River.   Those were forwarded to his mother Hannah on April 30.   After deducting his expenses they also sent back $111.35 in cash which amounted to the new proceeds of selling the effects (including clothing) which were not sent back to his mother.


For me the story of my namesake was important, even as I was growing up.   I do not remember when I first heard about him but I was very young.  I heard stories about him from many sources.   When I first read his letters, I was in my late twenties, I was struck with two things.  From his father’s estate records, Jonathan came from an upper middle class family in New York.  So he could have easily stayed in the city of his birth and done quite well, but something drove him to take a different path.   But he soon recognized the old adage that the ones who got rich in gold discoveries were the people who sold the miners equipment.   He clearly did some mining on the N. Fork of the American River - above Auburn.  But his real interest in California rested on a timbering business and in arbitraging commodities between one market and another.

At the same time, even when I was little, I fantasized what it would have been like to travel from the relatively sophisticated New York to California on a ship through pretty horrible conditions.  The 17,000 mile trip involved a series of risks which no modern traveller would have to endure.  Would the winds remain for the most part favorable?  Would the trip around the Cape force the ship deeply into the Southern Crossing?   While the answers to most of the questions were answered mostly positively - there were still ships lost.   If a traveller decided to go across the Isthmus instead of rounding the Cape they risked a series of alternative terrors including tons of opportunities for diseases.  So if you decided to go find your fortune - it was not a simple decision.   And yet Jonathan Archer took the leap.   His younger brother did not and ended up a very prosperous man.

But because of the time, there are many things that cannot be answered.   I would have loved to have an image of my namesake - but that was before such things were common. There is a record of a daguerreotype that was taken before he left New York but I have no idea where it could be located.  There are plenty of images of OHP - so to the extent that siblings had similar characteristic one could get an idea of his image.

I suspect that part of my contrarian nature comes from the same gene pool that drove my namesake to relocate.  Clearly his younger brother did quite well with a less risk oriented set of strategies.

There is a second characteristic that I think I got from Jonathan Archer’s quest.   Kevin Starr was the California State Librarian and a professor at USC, and a good friend.   He wrote a series of books about California called Californians and the American Dream where he described the special attraction that the state had for the rest of the nation.  He commented “From the beginning, California promised much. While yet barely a name on the map, it entered American awareness as a symbol of renewal. It was a final frontier: of geography and of expectation.”

California in recent decades has lost that quality.  It is unclear why that is.  There are at least three explanations.   First, the perception could have been overstated.   I doubt that.  In the time that I was growing up California was clearly seen as a destination.   It had growth opportunities in industries that were very visible in technology and aerospace.  Venues like Disneyland also gave the state some panache.   

A second explanation could be that other states have taken its place.  If you understand the history of the US, California was the end of the Frederick Jackson Turner thesis - we always had a chance to move forward by going west.   When California became established other indicators replaced Jackson’s explanation.   In “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” Jackson argued that westward expansion was a major motivator for the country.   When I first read Jackson in college I was conflicted.   His thesis was a simple explanation for a number of trends - but in the end I concluded it was too simple.   Whether Jackson’s thesis has any relevance today clearly other states, in various ways, have taken the place of California as the land of promise or expectation.  No other state has the history that California does - Starr’s books help to explain that intellectual history in a convincing manner.  At the time his first book was an eye opener.   Places like Texas and Florida and even Arizona and Nevada have taken a bit of California’s luster.  But none of those have the complexity of history which Starr’s books explained.

The third explanation is the most troubling and while there are elements of truth I think it does not offer the full story.  Much of what was accepted as California history was simply a caricature.   California was a place of opportunity - witness the immigrant waves starting with the Gold Rush and the large influxes of population in the thirties and the fifties.   It had a mix of conservatives and liberals - so California could boast about Upton Sinclair coming close to getting elected in the middle of the depression as Governor.  For a relatively young state it produced some prominent figures and stories.  But it also had a series of exclusionary laws including racially restrictive land covenants and even something called the Asian Exclusion Act(s).  Until the early 1960s it was a right to work state and yet had large factions of Wobblies. Even into the 1970s California had a series of rules that denied equal opportunity.  At one point the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Wilson Riles, was forced to enter a private club for a dinner with University trustees through the service entrance.  Even with all those flaws, the state had an expectation of promise.  Friends from Texas will dispute the distinction.   But I grew up in California and during that time California was clearly in the lead of the expectations game.

Yet, sometime in the last three decades of the twentieth century, the state began to change.  There are several lines of demarcation that might have been tipping points.  The Summer of Love in the late 1960s might be one place to start - many conventions were thrown out - some of those were well justified, some were not. That period produced the beginning of the tech revolution and the Manson Family,  Patty Hearst and at least two genres of rock music.  

Another demarcation could have been the 1958 election, where the dominant GOP tried a switch between the Governor and a Senator and where organized labor got a successful right to work abolition on the ballot.  That election saw the first term of Pat Brown, whose influence on the state was profound.  The state’s almost consistently conservative politics was moved in that election.  That could have reflected new population in the state or other forces.

The agonizingly close election of Jerry Brown in 1974, caused in good part because of another Californian’s fate (Richard Nixon) also tilted the state.   Brown preached an “era of limits” guided by the ramblings of a British economist named E.F. Schumacher.   One could even discuss the range of human potential movements (EST, and a raft of real and imagined psychological movements which had a profound influence on many in the 1970s) could be yet another. 

Any of those time periods could mark the change in the state.   More likely the changes came about over a longer period and not as a result of one precipitous event.  For those or any number of other explanations the state began to change.  It became at once more fearful and yet more accepting of ideas outside the norms of conventional society.  An acceptance of eccentricities, which Starr points out in his first book, was well accepted in the history of the state.   But at some point California began to be derided as the “granola” state - “take away the fruits and you are left with flakes and nuts. ” 

The state of the California’s role in expectations is not as simple as many would like to present it. Beginning in the 1980s California became a magnet for immigration.  In the last two decades of the twentieth century California took one quarter of all immigrants to the US.  And in spite of tensions among the state’s residents some interesting things began to happen.   According to the Public Policy Institute of California  almost 70% of our immigrants speak English fluently.   They acquired English faster than any prior generation.  And California began to achieve some interesting results on things like marriage; intermarriage rates between among Hispanics and Asians and Whites and Blacks continue to increase.  27% of the state’s population was foreign born.   Immigrants own about a third of the small businesses in the state.   Mexican born immigrants make up 40% of the immigrant population; Asians about 34%.  At one point as you came into LAX in the Bradley Terminal there was a graphic which listed the number of nationalities in the LA Region which were the second largest outside of the home country.  It was an impressive list. Those demographic changes are huge.  So excuse us if we have taken a bit of time to get to know each other.

So what are the consequences of all this change?   For me the best explanation of where the state’s prior sense of optimism has gone is probably divided among a myriad of causes.  We have been enriched by all our new people but that has created difficulties in creating a common set of cultural assumptions.   In the age of political correctness many would like us to continue to be divided into groups or as Joel Kotkin called them Tribes.  Our political system is not helping us advance to common goals and yet I remain an optimist about the potential for the state.

Near the end of his letters Jonathan commented about his feeling on the benefits of his adventure  “The trip is a good lesson to many a man. I would not have missed it for five thousand dollars.  I am well repaid.  I have sailed two thirds of a way around the world and visited many countries, the ways of different people.   If I was in New York at this present moment, and knew that I had to endure the same difficulties; I would twirl around and take the same trip over.”

1 comment:

  1. A friend commented -I would take the position (contrary to your stated position) that you can’t be a financial conservative and socially liberal. These two things are always in conflict in my opinion. It is a great sound bite. The tension between profit and people is as unresolvable as the tension between states rights vs federal power. I struggle with these tensions all the time. My position will shift from onside to the other depending on the issue.

    I would respond that I think it is very possible to do both. I don’t give a hoot about personal behavior so long as it does not injure someone - a good deal of the left’s political correctness is based on depriving citizens they don’t agree with of their right to speech. On the fiscal conservative option that does not mean that the state cannot do as Hayek argued in Why I am Not a Conservative - that his position was not to have a minimalist state. The problem is what people like Paul Samuelson called "Merit Goods" those things which someone thinks we don't provide enough of and so force them into the public sector. The number of Merit Goods is small.