BANCROFT, Hubert Howe (1832-1918)




Author Tags: 1850-1900, Early B.C., Essentials 2010, Forts and Fur, Publishing

QUICK REFERENCE ENTRY:

Hubert Howe Bancroft of California can be viewed as the grandfather of B.C.’s historians, just as Oregonian fur trader John McLoughlin was the grandfather of B.C. politics by tutoring James Douglas. Bancroft stands tall as the most remarkable historian, publisher and book collector on the Pacific Coast.

Bancroft was a co-author of the first full-fledged history of British Columbia, which his biographer claims was written mainly by Bancroft. Various factbooks, guidebooks and travelogues about B.C. had appeared prior to Bancroft’s history but these were mainly attempts to take advantage of curiosity abroad. At 792 pages, The History of the Pacific States, Vol. XXVII British Columbia 1792–1887 [credited to Bancroft, Amos Bowman Nemos and Alfred Bates] (1887) was published in San Francisco by Bancroft’s History Company as part of a series intended to establish his intellectual domain over most of western North America. It was preceded by a two-volume History of the Northwest Coast that had examined events up to 1846.

Bancroft and his wife visited Victoria in 1878 to begin research for the project, gaining access to Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) accounts and government records, as well as the private papers of James Douglas, Simon Fraser, John Stuart and other fur traders. They also interviewed HBC stalwarts such as John Tod, Roderick Finlayson and A.C. Anderson, but took care to also incorporate the viewpoints of Amor De Cosmos, Gilbert Sproat, Edward Cridge and John Good.

Bancroft summarized the significance of North West Company and HBC forts west of the Rockies as “depots of compressed power.”

Having arrived from Ohio in 1852, Bancroft opened a book and stationery shop in San Francisco in 1856. It became the largest store of its kind west of Chicago. This bookstore served as the catalyst for a publishing program that would net Bancroft more than one million dollars in subscription-based sales of his historical works. By selling subscriptions to his readers, Bancroft compiled a comprehensive 39-volume history of Western America, writing four of the weighty tomes himself. Of the hundreds of men employed in Bancroft’s “history factory” only about a dozen did the actual writing. Bancroft organized the research, accumulating knowledge, not always scrupulously, but omnivorously.

As a bookseller, Bancroft specialized in books about the Pacific area from Alaska to Patagonia, gathering a library of 60,000 volumes that was moved to the University of California in 1905. This California-centred library became the main resource for research into western American history. As Bancroft’s biographer wrote in 1946, “In the historiography of western America, no name is writ larger than Hubert Howe Bancroft’s.” He was also one of the first intellectuals to characterize the West Coast of North America as its own psychological and sociological region, a zone where, he prophesied, one could witness a “worn-out world re-animated.” Of the approximately 30 efforts to follow in Bancroft’s large footsteps, currently the most-used is Jean Barman’s The West Beyond the West: A History of British Columbia (1991).


FULL ENTRY:

Hubert Howe Bancroft stands tall as the most remarkable historian, publisher, historian and book collector on the Pacific Coast. In 1856, having arrived from Ohio four years earlier, Hubert Howe Bancroft opened a book and stationery shop in San Francisco that soon became the largest store of its kind west of Chicago. This bookstore served as the catalyst for a publishing program that would net Bancroft more than $1 million in subscription-based sales of his historical works.

Between 1874 and 1890, by selling subscriptions to his readers, Bancroft compiled a comprehensive, 39-volume history of Western America, writing four of the weighty tomes himself. The first five volumes in the spectrum concern the Native Races, the next 28 cover the Pacific states and British Columbia, and the last six are essays. Bancroft's final volume, Literary Industries, provides autobiographical material and a relatively candid account of his historical approach. “It is an immense territory,” he wrote, “this western half of North America, it was a weighty responsibility, at least I felt it to be such, to lay the foundations of history, for all time, for this one-twelfth part of the world.”

Before his could establish his intellectual kingdom over one-twelfth of the world, Bancroft first had to produce the 797-page Native Races of the Pacific States of North America (1874). Bancroft later wrote, “I became satisfied that something must be done with the aborigines. Wherever I touched the continent with my Spaniards they were there, a dusky, disgusting subject. I did not fancy them. I would gladly have avoided them. I was no archaeologist, ethnologist, or antiquary, and had no desire to become such. My tastes in the matter, however, did not dispose of the subject. The savages were there, and there was no help for me; I must write them up to get rid of them."

Out of the hundreds of men employed in Bancroft’s “history factory”, only about a dozen did the actual writing. Bancroft mainly handled the business side and organized the research, accumulating knowledge, not always scrupulously, but omnivorously. As a bookseller, Bancroft specialized in books about the Pacific area from Alaska to Patagonia, gathering a library of 60,000 volumes that was moved to the University of California in 1905. This California-centred library became the main resource for research into western American history, hence Bancroft and his 600 hired assistants were able to amalgamate a wide range of sources when writing about British Columbia and First Nations.

Among the dozens of books he published, Bancroft is credited as the co-author of the first full-fledged history of British Columbia, a 792-page volume which his biographer claims was written mainly by Bancroft himself. Certainly Bancroft and his wife did visit Victoria in 1878 to begin research for the project, thereby gaining access to HBC accounts and government records, as well as the private papers of James Douglas, Simon Fraser, John Stuart and other fur traders. He and his wife also interviewed HBC stalwarts such as John Tod, Roderick Finlayson and A.C. Anderson, but they did not unduly fall prey to edification of the Hudson's Bay Company, taking care to also incorporate the viewpoints of Amor de Cosmos, Gilbert Sproat, Edward Cridge and John Good.

Although Bancroft had conventional views on the necessary triumph of civilization over savagery, he was unusually clear-sighted about what he called an "epoch of aboriginal exterminiation" which represented, for him, "the foulest blot in the annals of the nation." Like others who visited British Columbia before and after him--such as Rudyard Kipling--Bancroft was impressed by the apparent lawfulness he encountered north of the 49th parallel. Bancroft or one of his ghostwriters proclaims, "…never in the pacification and settlement of any section of America have there been so few disturbances, so few crimes against life or property. And when we consider the clashing elements that came together as [Judge Matthew] Begbie reached the country, the nature and antecedents of the wild, rough and cunning men, it is wonderful."

Bancroft’s History of British Columbia (1887) was published in San Francisco by The History Company as Volume 27 in his series, having been preceded by a two-volume History of the Northwest Coast three years earlier that had examined events from the sixteenth century to 1846. Various factbooks, guidebooks and travelogues about British Columbia had appeared prior to Bancroft’s history but these were mainly opportunistic attempts to take advantage of curiosity abroad. Bancroft’s history of B.C. set the standards from which all others would take their lead. In it Bancroft summarizes the significance of North West Company and Hudson’s Bay Company forts west of the Rockies as “depots of compressed power.” Although his antiquated and overwrought style requires some concentration to decipher, it’s well worth the thirty seconds of effort:

“These little picketed enclosures appearing at intervals of two or three hundred miles, like secluded foxholes in boundless prairies—what are they? To the unenlightened vision of the thoughtless red man they are magazines of celestial comforts, arms which give the possessor superhuman power in war and in the chase; containing implements of iron and steel whose cunning causes even nature to blush; woven wool which wards off cold, disease and death; glittering trinkets whose wealth raises wrinkled imbecility above the attractions of youth and talents; and above all, tobacco and that blessed drink of heaven which, indeed, can minister to a mind deceased, which places the body for a time beyond the reach of pain. To their builders, and to the white race everywhere, these solitary and contracted pens have a far different signification. They are depots of compressed power, dominating the land and all that is therein; they are germs of the highest human type; which shall shortly spring up and overspread the wilderness, causing it to whither beneath its fatal shade.”

Materials from the Bancroft Library are still being processed, including some recently donated materials to the Royal British Columbia Museum on the Spanish presence on the West Coast. Other significant Bancroft-related titles are History of the Northwest Coast (1884) and the Native Races of the Pacific States of North America (1886). The main biographical source is Hubert Howe Bancroft: Historian of the West (1946) by John Walton Caughey. Born in Granville, Ohio on May 5, 1832, Bancroft went to California in 1852. He married married Emily Ketchum in 1859 and Matilda B. Griffin in 1875. He died in Walnut Creek, California on March 2, 1918, two days after being struck by a streetcar.

In much the same way the Oregonian fur trader John McLoughlin was the indirect grandfather of B.C. politics, the Californian Bancroft was the indirect grandfather of B.C. writing and publishing. As his biographer Caughey wrote in 1946, “In the histriography of western America, no name is writ larger than Hubert Howe Bancroft’s.” A contrarian with non-conformist instincts, Bancroft was also one of the first intellectuals to characterize the West Coast of North America as its own psychological and sociological region, a zone on the planet where one could witness a "worn-out world re-animated." That world has been re-animated as he predicted, from Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, to Microsoft in Seattle, to the birth of Greenpeace in Vancouver, to the re-emergence of proud and self-sufficient First Nations communities in Haida Gwaii.

[For other authors *as of 2010* who have written histories of B.C, see abcbookworld entries for Akrigg, George Philip Vernon; Anderson, Alexander Caulfield; Angus, H.F.; Anstey, Arthur; Begg, Alexander; Bennett, William; Boam, Henry J.; Bowering, George; Brown, Ashley; DeGroot, Henry; Denton, V.L.; Fladmark, Knut; Goodchild, Fred H.; Gosnell, R.E.; Gough, John; Griffin, Harold; Hibben, T.N.; Hocking, Anthony; Howay, F.W.; Johnston, Hugh; Lane, Myrtle E.; Lawson, Maria; Macfie, Matthew; McKelvie, B.A.; Molyneux, Geoffrey; Morice, Adrien Gabriel; Nuffield, Edward; Odlum, Edward Faraday; Ormsby, Margaret Anchoretta; Robin, Martin; Roy, Patricia; Sage, W.N.; Scholefield, E.O.S.; Stephen, Pamela; Tod, John; Woodcock, George.]


BOOKS (Selected):

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America, Volume 1, Wild Tribes (1874).

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of the Northwest Coast. 2 volumes, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft 27, 28 (San Francisco: The History Company. 1884). [By Henry L. Oak and Frances F. Victor].

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The History of the Pacific States, Vol. XXVII British Columbia 1792-1887 [credited to Bancroft, Amos Bowman Nemos and Alfred Bates] (The History Company, 1887; 1890).

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America. 5 vols. (New York: D. Appleton. 1886). [Wild Tribes, Civilized Nations, Myths and Languages, Primitive History, Antiquities.]

ABOUT BANCROFT:

Caughey, John Walton. Hubert Howe Bancroft: Historian of the West (University of California Press, 1946; New York, Russell & Russell, 1970).

[BCBW 2010]