Hungarian Naturalist in California and the West
One of the Earliest East European Views of California
With Excellent Tinted Lithographs and a Folding Map
János Xántus, the author of this beautifully illustrated account of 19th century California, was a pioneering Hungarian naturalist and ornithologist who traveled extensively in the American West. Presented in a series of letters, the present volume focuses on Alta and Baja California, incorporating interesting descriptions of California's natural history, geology and Native American tribes. Places described include Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, San Fernando Valley, the Sierra Nevada mountains, Mojave, and Fort Tejon. The author also describes several places in Baja California, including La Paz and Loreto. Pages 58-60 contain a Tejon Indian language vocabulary. The excellent lithograph plates depict a range of scenes: Mission San Fernando, Indians working in a blacksmith shop at the mission, an Indian woman working a loom, Indians at Tejon, a vista of the Sierra Nevada, a view of a large terraced native building at La Joya, and others. The numerous in text wood engravings also deserve mention:
- A Silla. Traveling a silla in California, showing Californios being carried in specially modified chairs on the backs of Native Americans.
- Santa Clara waterfall.
- Los Angeles native on a burro (repeated on the front cover).
- Los Angeles native man and woman.
- Cave art petroglyphs at Tejon
- a pearl-laden shell from La Paz
The nice folding lithograph map shows California and Baja California, from San Francisco south to Cabo San Lucas. Wheat points out some curious aspects of this map: it shows Santa Cruz where San Jose should be, with San Jose a few miles to the north. Napa is located at the site of Berkeley, with Sonoma due east of Stockton, and Mariposa due east from there, near the Kern River.
An earlier publication by Xántus appeared in 1858, but that work was apparently not authorized by the author. The earlier volume, titled Levelei Ejszakamerikabol... described Xántus's overland travels in the western United States. Howes called the earlier 1858 publication, which was edited by a purportedly "incompetent" Istvan Prepost, an unauthorized edition of Xantus' letters.
Xántus was a participant in the unsuccessful Hungarian Revolution of 1848, after which he came to America as a refugee in 1851. In the mid-1850s he traveled across the U.S. to California. As a member of the U.S. Army's Topographical Corps railroad survey in Southern California, at Los Angeles and Fort Téjon from 1857 to 1859, he was able to collect specimens of flora and fauna. Xántus's collection of plant and animal life was to make him a distinguished figure among the world's natural scientists. Part of this collection went to the Smithsonian Institution and other sections to Hungary's Museum of Natural Science. From 1859 to 1861, he was sent on an extended biological expedition to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California by the U.S. government. He voyaged down the west coast of Mexico to Manzanillo in Colima to collect plants and animals in 1863 and 1864. He returned to his native land in 1864" - Hill.
While well represented in institutional collections, this book is increasingly hard to find in the market, especially so with the original pictorial boards intact.