History 450

California History • Spring 2017

Map depicting Island California, created in Amsterdam, 1666 (Glen McLaughlin Map Collection at Stanford University)

Course Description

Welcome to History 450.

For more than two centuries after the discovery of the New World, cartographers rendered California as an island. Well into the 18th century, and in spite of known land routes connecting California to the rest of North America, mapmakers depicted this place as a dagger-shaped strip of land surrounded by water.

Even after maps began to reflect known geography, California continued to be imagined, experienced, and studied as a region apart. As historian James Houston wrote, the old island maps may be “the most reliable” ones after all, “geographically wrong, but psychologically close to the truth.”

In this course, we will explore California as an “island.” That will mean examining what has made it unique and separate, in ways both real and imagined. We will see how it has beckoned generation after generation, like any island paradise. Californians have believed themselves insulated from outside forces, as if they inhabited an island sanctuary. As a “place apart,” California has been an incubator of eccentric people and groundbreaking ideas, allowing the rest of the world to catch glimpses of the future.

We will also discover how, like any modern island region, California has been very much linked to the world all around it, through the movement of people, through cultural and economic exchanges, and through political and environmental forces. So, even as “island California” has appeared to stand alone, it has been largely dependent upon the world beyond its borders. For this reason, we will work to place California within its national and global contexts.

Topics will include indigenous cultures; exploration and conquest; frontier societies; urban growth and decline; migration and immigration; gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and citizenship; political cultures and trends; resource management and the environment; the entertainment industries; and the contours of the so-called “California Dream.” Assignments will include reading quizzes, a midterm, and a final exam.

This course fulfills the following: 1) UD Social Sciences portion of the GE, and 2) CSLG component of the U.S. History and Government requirement.

This website is designed as an interactive syllabus. Here you will find everything you need, including weekly schedules, assignment descriptions and due dates, and writing resources. Bookmark it, and check back often as it is subject to change.


Class Time

MW 12:35 - 1:50p

Class Location

HSS 317

Required Texts

  • Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, The Shirley Letters
  • John Steinbeck, The Harvest Gypsies
  • Chester Himes, If He Hollers Let Him Go
  • Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem
  • The occasional document via iLearn

Optional Text

  • Walton Bean and James Rawls, California: An Interpretive History (any recent edition)

All texts (with the exception of the optional textbook) should be read as primary sources –– that is, documents created by witnesses to the past. You will interpret these readings with the help of lecture material, in-class discussions, and, if you choose, the textbook. All required books are available at the student bookstore, on reserve in the SFSU library, and via online book outlets including Amazon.com and Abebooks.com.

The optional textbook can be purchased new or used, or it can be rented via Amazon.com for a low price.

Student Learning Objectives

  • Underrstand and explain major social, cultural, economic, and political changes in California history, and demonstrate an ability to place this history into national and global contexts.
  • Analyze primary sources, including text sources (letters, newspaper articles, novels, etc.) and non-text sources (maps, photographs, music, etc.).
  • Demonstrate the ability to make and defend a clear argument in writing, honing skills that can be useful in a wide variety of disciplines.
  • Demonstrate historical empathy –– that is, the ability to view historical events and historical actors within the time and place and circumstances within which they occurred.

Navajos on horseback in early California, rendered by a German artist, ca. 1854 (Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)