The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft

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The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft spans thirty-nine volumes and details four hundred years of history in the western hemisphere, from Alaska to Panama. The volumes in the Rancho’s collection range in date from 1883 to 1890. These nineteenth century books are bound in sheepskin and imprinted with the name J. Bixby at the bottom of the spine, who is believed to be Jotham Bixby, the “father of Long Beach.” While being a significant item to the Rancho because of its direct connection to the Bixby family, the Works themselves have an interesting and controversial history.

Hubert Howe Bancroft was the main focus of criticism regarding the subscription history series that bears his name. Born in Ohio, Bancroft traveled to California as a young man to sell books. He opened a bookstore in San Francisco in 1856 which was successful enough to enable him to expand. Bancroft’s began to collect books and manuscripts around 1860. Between his book collection and several interviews of living sources he had conducted, Bancroft soon possessed an assortment of valuable historical source material. By the 1870s he began his Works, an expansive multi-volume history of North America.

Bancroft released the first volume, “The Native Races, v1: Wild Tribes” in 1874 and sold it by subscription service. Initially, his work was met with excitement and interest, especially once production of new volumes hit its stride in the 1880s, committing to publishing four volumes a year.  A significant feature of Bancroft’s history is its more positive outlook on some non-white Americans than most of its contemporaries. For example, Native Americans, the subject of the first five volumes, are shown in a relatively good light, the contributions of African Americans to the region are credited, and Californios are depicted as chivalrous. However, the series as a whole could not be characterized as an especially progressive one. A common theme throughout the Works is the portrayal of white Americans in the west as heroic figures, civilizing the wilderness and championing manifest destiny.

In addition to its success, from the beginning Bancroft’s series courted controversy. Such an encyclopedic undertaking required hundreds of people to produce the history, and several dozen to research, write, and edit. Yet, Bancroft’s name alone is credited within the text. It is estimated that of the thirty-nine volumes, Bancroft’s writing only accounts for a total of around five books.

Another challenge the series faced was the dissatisfaction of its subscribers. The Works cost between $175 to $400, depending on how they were bound, making them more costly than comparable works of the time. Most contemporary craftsmen made less than $1000 per year and regretted committing to such an expensive series. Many sued to get out of their subscriptions.

Crediting controversies aside, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft represent an impressive historical undertaking on the part of Bancroft and all of his assistants. Bancroft’s high opinion of history-writing is reflected in the depth of discussion and breadth of topics covered over the course of the volumes. The work is detailed and expansive and exemplifies Gilded Age perspectives on history.

— Nevada Evers

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