When Robert Louis Stevenson Was One Of Us

Out of an agonizing American experience, the frail Scots author mined a treasure and carried it away with him



Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Scotland and spent the last years of his life in Samoa, but for a year he lived in California, and that year was a turning point in his life. It is not too much to say that he belongs at least as much to us as he does to Scotland or to Samoa. Read more »

Frémont Steals California

A junior Army officer, acting on secret orders from the president, bluffed a far stronger Mexican force into conceding North America's westernmost province to the United States

In June 1842, Army topographer Lt. John Charles Frémont and 22 men left Chouteau’s Trading Post near present-day Kansas City to survey a wagon trail that would lead through the northern Rockies to Oregon. By August a small splinter group led by Frémont and his most famous scout, Kit Carson, snaked their way through the Wind River Mountains, determined to plant a flag on what was believed to be the continent’s highest peak. Read more »

The Smart Ones Got Through

It was tough going, but the road over the Sierras could be used by men who understood how to travel

The difference between “an historical event” and “a dramatic event” is well illustrated by the stories of the Stevens Party and the Donner Party. The former is historically important, and the pioneers who composed it brought the first wagons to California and discovered the pass across the Sierra Nevada that serves still as the chief route for railroad, highway, telephone, and airlines.

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Brian Wilson’s Wave

For the brilliant songwriter behind the Beach Boys, the endless summer gave way to a very hard winter. Now he is back, with a work that wants to be no less than a musical history of the American dream.

The voices are clear and strong, their song crackling with energy. “Early in the morning we’ll be startin’ out, / Some honeys will be comin’ along / We’re loading up our woodie with our boards inside / And headin’ out singing our song.... Let’s go surfin’ now / Everybody’s learning how / Come on and safari with me....”

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Present At The Creation


It began, as legend has it—and in this case the legend is true—in a one-car garage at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto, California, in 1938. There William Hewlett, who died this winter at the age of 87, and David Packard flipped a coin to see whose name would come first and started the company that started Silicon Valley. They did it with a limited budget—$538—and limitless imagination. Packard was 26 years old; Hewlett was 25. Read more »

All That Glittered

Save for the Civil War, what occurred after a carpenter glimpsed a flash of yellow 150 years ago was the biggest story of the nineteenth century. RICHARD REINHARDT examines what we think we know (and don’t) about the people who made it happen.

It was 150 years ago this January that Jim Marshall, the boss carpenter of a crew of Maidu Indians and transient Mormon settlers who were building a sawmill in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, glimpsed a metallic twinkle in a freshly dug tailrace. Marshall took it to be the glint of gold, and he was right.Read more »

The Rise Of American Wine

AFTER TRYING TO PRODUCE DRINKABLE WINE for three hundred years, we finally got the hang of it—so effectively that in the last quarter-century our results have raised the quality of winemaking all over the world

A GENERATION AGO THE United States was little more than an afterthought in the world of wine. America certainly had a long history of grape growing and winemaking, but that history hardly mattered. Nor did the wine itself much matter. Large producers, led by E & J Gallo, made gallons of innocuous jug wine, but only a handful of small, largely unknown American wineries produced anything resembling fine wine from Europe. Then, seemingly overnight, American wine took a huge leap in both quality and prestige.Read more »

Violence In America

What Human nature and the California gold rush tell us about crime in the inner city

VIOLENCE is the primal problem of American history, the dark reverse of its coin of freedom and abundance. American society, or a conspicuous part of it, has been tumultuous since the beginnings of European colonization.

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The Ancient History Of The Internet

Though it appears to have sprung up overnight, the inspiration of free-spirited hackers, it in fact was born in Defense Department Cold War projects of the 1950s

The Internet seems so now, so happening, so information age, that its Gen-X devotees might find the uncool circumstances of its birth hard to grasp. More than anything the computer network connecting tens of millions of users stands as a modern—albeit unintended—monument to military plans for fighting three wars.Read more »


The Thirteenth Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865, but right on into this century sailors were routinely drugged, beaten, and kidnapped to man America’s mighty merchant marine

William Davis, a cabinet-maker, left his home near Great Salt Lake in the Utah Territory in the mid-1870s and headed for Northern California, a fast-growing region where he hoped to earn up to six dollars a day by adapting his expertise to ship carpentry. He made the eight-hundred-mile trek with his wife, Isabelle, and three small children, the youngest of whom was just six weeks old. Read more »