History Pages: 35 - The first book on Santa Cruz history, from 1879

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For a table of contents, see History pages.

Elliott Title page.jpg

Before leaving the 1870s, it’s worthwhile to note the end-of-decade appearance of a remarkable book – the first published history of Santa Cruz County. Today, the casual local history researcher has a lot of excellent source material, thanks to a group of researchers who, beginning in the 1970s, dug thoroughly into available evidence to flesh out the narrative of our county's early history. Those writers, in turn, were aided by an earlier group of local historians writing during a twenty-year period centered on the year 1900.

Before 1892, there was only one. Wallace W. Elliott & Co. of San Francisco published a book called Santa Cruz County, Calif. Illustrations, with Historical Sketch, in 1879. As the title implies, the book is extensively illustrated with original drawings of people, buildings and landscapes, and also a few maps. We all like books with lots of pictures, so this one is a treasure.

Through the efforts of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History Publications Committee, a new indexed edition of Elliott’s book was published in 1997, and can be purchased at the MAH bookstore or checked out at SCPL. Elliott’s book (with the additional 1997 research) is one of the primary sources for the biographies compiled in Santa Cruz County History Journal Number 4: Pioneers, published the following year.


Photography was not yet widely used in books at that time, and these drawings are the best or only visual records we have of some of the subjects. For example, the sketch at left shows the Jackson Sylvar saloon on the upper plaza (now the corner of High and Sylvar streets). Pictorial representations of that building are rare and, like many of the illustrations, this one also shows other information about 1879 Santa Cruz. The sidewalks appear to be of bituminous rock, which was just beginning to replace boards in 1879. In the left background, the still-new steeple of the rebuilt Methodist church can be seen. The open zanja channel, built before 1800 to deliver water to Mission Santa Cruz, is no longer visible - it was under-grounded in 1870 where it crossed the plaza. Some of the remaining above-ground watercourse may be shown past the sidewalk, in the landscaped area to the left of Sylvar's building.

The second part of the title, “Historical Sketch”, must be taken with a grain of salt. There is indeed a historical “sketch”, covering the years from the Spanish explorers to about 1850. Although many inaccuracies and omissions have been revealed by later researchers, especially for the pre-American years, the brief history makes interesting reading. Following the brief section on pre-American history, longer passages deal with the Mexican-American War and the Gold Rush.

The most interesting and historically accurate parts of the book are its descriptions of the current (in 1879) economic, educational and civic situations in the various parts of the County. Short biographies of many residents follow, making up about a third of the book. Finally, the extensive indexing added at the end by the MAH editors is very well done and adds a lot to the book’s usefulness to a modern reader.

It should be noted, however, that some prominent county residents of 1879 are omitted, presumably because they failed to contribute toward the costs of publication. A good example is the Blackburn brothers, William and Jacob. A lengthy biography of William appears in Elliott, but brother Jacob is missing. On the other hand, Jacob is profiled in Santa Cruz County History Journal Number 4 as a member of the Society of Pioneers, but William got no mention because he did not join that organization.

Kirby tannery Elliott.jpg

The publication of Elliott's book was financed by subscription, making it a product of what we would now call the “vanity press”. Larger subscribers apparently got more prominent placement, as can be seen in the full-page portrait of the tanner R. C. Kirby, located near the front of the book. Kirby was, of course, a prominent Santa Cruz resident, and has appeared earlier in the History Pages.

The drawing of Kirby’s tannery at the top of the Laurel Street hill, while suffering from some failures of perspective technique, is interesting not just for its capture of the tannery complex, but also for its view south down the hill toward downtown Santa Cruz and the Bay. To the right of the flag pole, in the distance you can see the S. J. Lynch house - still standing today. To the right of the Lynch house is the Davis and Cowell Lime and Cement Co. warehouse (southwest corner of Bay Street and West Cliff Drive). The narrow road being used by the horse-drawn wagon is today's Laurel Street.


Next: History Pages: 35 - Gentrification: Downtown Santa Cruz in the 1870s